HOW THE MARKET IS CONSUMING US WHILE WE KEEP CONSUMING OUR FUTURE
THE LEGACY OF CONSUMERISM
Are we consuming things or the other way round? What lies ahead for us: pleasant or not so?
Cultures do change over a span of time. The change in a particular context obviously depends on the overall dynamics of the economic and political transitions. The bouts of accelerated cultural change are associated with the events of wider political and economic implications. Otherwise, the cultures in the different parts of the world among different societies change with different paces. The cultural changes that are more subtle than the political and economic changes, in turn, reinforce the politico-economic developments making them more sustainable by helping people to adjust to the new circumstances.
The evolution of the culture that usually takes longer time than the politico-economic changes has special significance. The changes in the culture are more stable and less prominent to the ordinary viewer. Unlike the political changes, they never occur overnight. Unlike the economic policies, they cannot be dictated by a regime though the activities of the regime can play a part in the process of change. They are thus capable of more long term impacts in the lives of the people.
Analyzing the cultural evolution in the larger scale, though an arduous task, would have given a more coherent account of the issues with which we are concerned. That is however, left here for the better and we will focus on the cultural changes in Nepal, that too in the last two decades. Put it simply, the Nepali society has gone through major political transformations in these two decades. So have the many other parts of the world. The cultures are thus seeing the sweeping changes in every other part of the world. And the changes in the culture have been inevitably favorable to the changed political and economic realities.
The first proposition of this article will be that the major determinant of the cultural trend in Nepal, like every other country in the contemporary world, is the burgeoning consumerism, the outcome of the unhindered capitalism and market economy. We will explore how this trend is proving increasingly irresistible amid the feeble and even non-existent attempts to resist it. The boom in consumerism in impoverished and conflict-ridden Nepal is obviously to be contrasted with the 'usual' variant of consumerism in the west.
The second proposition will be that the developments inside Nepal that are apparently the outcomes of the intra-state political dynamics are not what they actually appear. We will explore how the global trends do affect the likes of Nepal in ways invisible to most of us. The essence of the activities and motives of a mob of a handful of men can often be linked with a trend that makes them possible and practically legitimizes them in the wider context. The apparently bizarre social trends can thus be analyzed coherently and in the larger context.
The third and the major part of the discussion will include the elaboration of how the collusion of the capitalism in the economy, authoritarianism in politics and consumerism in culture has produced a state incomprehensible to the masses, yet detrimental to their interest in the long run. This is obviously in contrast to the mainstream media hype that the democracy is being institutionalized throughout the world in the last two decades.
CONSUMERISM RULES THE DAY
Dictionary meaning of Consumerism is the buying and using of goods and services; the belief that it is good for a society or an individual person to buy and use a large quantity of goods and services.
Buying and using of goods and services is the first thing that the modern way of living demands. To become a consumer is thus not only our preference, but also the compulsion. At some point in the history, we have traversed the stage in which it was possible to sustain the life without 'buying and using goods and services'. The commodity is, as per the dictionary, the product or the raw material that can be bought and sold. The whole world is now about selling and buying the goods that are produced industrially. That is on what the economy and the politics rest. That is also why our cultures have been so deeply impacted by the consumption pattern that is promoted according to the interest of the market.
And now the market: a particular area, country or section of the population that might buy goods is the dictionary meaning of the market most relevant to us among many meanings. With the whole population dependant on the market for purchase of the goods for daily use, the role of market can not be overstated. The market has thus the enormous role in making us what we really are. Not like few generations back when we depended on the market for only few of our necessities, we now depend on market for almost everything of daily need. It thus impacts the every other aspect of life, one way or the other. The incessantly increasing role of the market in the lives of the people has been welcomed with rapture and euphemized as the greatest positive change to have occurred over centuries. The outcomes of all these are ominous and that is what we will explore now.
Here we will deal with the role the market has played in the modern society from an altogether different angle: What happens when the market begins consuming the people instead of people doing so? I will argue in this article that the market is indeed consuming the people and is emerging as the most powerful transnational entity capable of interfering in the lives of every human being in the world. The exploding consumerism has been the lifeline of the ever-expanding market. The conventional approaches to the issue invariably conclude that the boom in market economy and consumerism after the end of the cold war has come as the boon to the millions of people who have crossed the poverty-line with help of these. The wave of LPG has thus been complimented as the savior of the human being that was at the peril of never-ending poverty under the actual or potential governance by communism.
While accepting the reasonable role of the wave of LPG in betterment of the lives of specific groups of people, we will critically examine how this has worked to produce hidden consequences, mostly, far from favorable to the underprivileged people of the impoverished part of the world.
For sake of convenience of the description, we will divide the last two decades in Nepal's history into three parts. First, from the People's Movement of 1990 to the onset of intense Maoist insurgency around 2001. Second, the period of intense conflict till the April uprising of 2006. Third and the last, recent years of transition after April 2006.
FROM FRUGALITY TO PROFLIGACY
1.Democracy at work: How it suited the most to consumerism
It is often argued that the Maoist insurgency in Nepal was the result of the myopic deeds of the blatantly incompetent political leadership post-1990. Others argue that it was the failure to democratize the erstwhile authoritarian state institutions that prevented people from perceiving the 'democratic' change that led to the mass disenchantment, feeding the insurgency. Many others argue that 'democracy' was not simply compatible with the kind of people the Nepalis were: ready to utilize any privilege but reluctant to bear the responsibility. The other prominent argument states: it was the centuries long ethnic disparity and the exploitation that being left intact by the new-born democracy yielded to the armed insurgency.
The list goes like that and there are, of course, many causes that can be attributed to the insurgency one way or the other. And it is also reasonable to seek the roots of the insurgency in the system that preceded it. The dynamics of the last decade of the last century is thus to be studied critically to understand the developments of the following decade. That is where we will examine the role of consumerism as one of the important factors shaping the eventual direction the country was going to take.
The politics during the Panchayat era had been one of the clashes between the ideologies. While the monarchists and status quoists were at loggerheads with the democratic forces, the conflict between the communists and the rightists was similarly prominent. Ideology mattered more than anything especially for those who were fighting the monarchy. That motivated the political leaders and cadres alike to sacrifice for the sake of people and they could obviously think little about the personal comfort. On the other hand, in the Panchayat System, the economy was controlled by the state and that made the availability of the commodities manufactured elsewhere more difficult.
Once there was democracy, however, the role of ideology in the lives of the people, especially the political leaders almost vanished with minor exceptions. The destiny was suddenly blurred as the supposedly 'best ever mode of governance ' possible in the material world had arrived with the compromise between the political parties and the King in 1990. In the open environment of democracy, there was no scarcity of the supranational prescriptions on the economic models to be followed. The sweeping euphoria in the capitalist camp after the collapse of the USSR similarly impacted Nepal at various levels.
Those who were in a position to earn in the new system, whether scrupulously or not, thus found themselves asking: Why not to devote all the efforts on the betterment of their personal lives? And that inevitably involved consuming the luxury items that were beyond imagination few years back but were becoming available fast in the newly opened up economy. Building extravagant houses in Kathmandu and other urban areas, decorating them with foreign items, enrolling the children in the expensive schools in the valley or abroad, all became ordinary for the leaders of the political parties, especially those elected and sent to the parliament. Instead of the hard-working cadres who were now left neglected in the villages, the opportunists and the sycophants of the leaders surrounded the leaders and savored whatever trickled down as a result of the generosity of the 'new reach'. Nobody was there to challenge the life style now. The obvious misuse of the government funds notwithstanding, there was now the flooding of the foreign money through the NGOs that further helped those to maintain the life style who happened to be deprived of the lucrative government post for one reason or the other.
That was one facet of boom of consumerism in the period 1990-2000. That development must have been the boon for the market-hungry capitalists who were exploiting the every other corner of the world. That was, however, far from doing any good for the masses that were expecting so much from the new system. Good fiscal accountability would have done good for the people by the proper utilization of the resources. That would also have restricted the extent to which the leaders could go consuming for their personal demands that were now multiplying. The new elite opted for discouraging, placating or dismantling the mechanism itself for accountability so that the plunder became invisible. Things had, however, changed over the time and the new system had a number of slits through which the people could peek into their activities, unlike the opaque system of Panchayat. This made the political leadership in Nepal morbidly unpopular and politics itself was despised by the bulk of masses soon after the movement of 1990.
The newly enriched elite were reluctant to reverse back to the old life style of frugality. Whatever the political or social cost for them and the country, they were addicted to consumerism, like to the expensive foreign liquors.
After the initial euphoria about the utopian democracy settled, the odd realities emerged. The frustration about the impotency of the new system to solve the problems of grave national consequences was overwhelming. The ideologies that mobilized the people in thousands or even lakhs during the movement lied now in ruins as the path-finders were now knee-deep in corruption and oblivious to the grievances of the people.
The absence of the expected changes, however, did not mean no change. Many things had changed in Nepal like everywhere in the world. Though Nepal had taken loan under the SAP (Structural Adjustment Program) as early as in 1980 for the first time and adapted the policies of the program fully in 1985, the political change of 1990 meant a qualitative change in this regard. The concept of Liberalization, as the essential component of the triad of LPG suited perfectly to the ambition of the new political leadership. And for the people too, this brought a lot of changes. A whole range of the foreign manufactured commodities was now available in the market with ease. There was the significant boom in the industries producing the liquor and cigarettes even domestically. The only limitation to the drive for consumption was the money as there was no proportionate betterment of the economy and the earnings of the people working inside the country stagnated. That compounded with the inflation put enormous pressure on the ordinary people to seek the alternative sources of income.
The other boom of the period was in the Advertisement industry. Combined with the corresponding boom in the Media industry that resulted from the vanished state barriers of the previous system, this played an important role in shaping the life style of the people by dictating the consumption pattern. The mutual support between the two industries helped both of them to grow in an unprecedented scale. While the daily newspapers sprouted and flourished well, the other magazines too did well and so did the electronic media in the later period. Reciprocally, there emerged an enormous market for the new kinds of commodities like the junk foods, liquors and cigarettes that flourished most during the period. The particularly spectacular was the growth in the market for the noodles that aggressively advertised to addict the young population across the country with the ingredient potentially harmful to the health: MSG. The teenagers were the primary targets for cosmetics and the fashion industry. The youth population was similarly the target of things ranging from liquors and cigarettes to porn industry in addition to innumerable others.
The television sets that were earlier the privileges of wealthy households in the cities rapidly penetrated the other households even in remote places. With them, the whole world was on the screen, a world where there was only the appeal to consume more. A two-hours movie was interrupted by the three hours long advertisements while a fifteen-minute news episode was interrupted by the twenty minutes long 'messages' and a flood of programs sponsored by the producers or Sales-agencies of the commodities kept the people glued to the screens. Use of new things, from kids with cute faces to the animals in producing sensational advertisement and many other such tricks were often able to capture the imagination of the naive populace oblivious to the burden of cost that was being added to the price that they paid to purchase the commodity. And most importantly, a host of commodities that were unheard of previously began to get priority in the purchase list of the young people, mostly because of the perception that the people in the TV sets had been smart by using them.
Even though the early practice of multiparty democracy in Nepal polarized a significant portion of the populace around the poles represented by the major political parties, the evolving polarization of the whole population around the camp of consumerism was creeping to prominence subtly but definitely. Rather the people frustrated with the politics of pretty self-interest of the parties and their leaders began to seek solace in the embrace of the market that discriminated no one to purchase and consume so long as they had the money. A large proportion of youth was always devoted to the ideology to change the country and the world for the better ever since the Rana Era in Nepal. Now suddenly the destiny had blurred for them and those leaders whom they admired most and were once ready to die for had indulged themselves in deeds that were once unimaginable. The future of the vast numbers of fighters for democracy was hardly a concern for the new elite. Meanwhile the generation that matured after the movement of '90 found itself deep inside the confusion with no specific ideology or principle to direct them. All this bought an extreme hatred to the politics and the politicians. The new kinds of people now emerged as the role model of the young people: the Celebrities from Cinema, Music or similar fields who could earn and spend profligately. The street plays and the makeshift theatres that were used as the effective protests against the establishment were now eventually replaced by the Hindi movies and their caricature Nepali movies that portrayed violence and soft porn as the sole means of entertainment. While relatively huge Cinema halls sprouted throughout the cities to show the 'legitimate' movies, the smaller and less equipped halls diverted to showing the plain pornographic movies that drew the crowd of frustrated young men.
The other important facet of the booming consumerism was the increasing scope and legitimacy of the 'sex' business. While few places like the border towns and the bus park areas of large cities became notorious for 'illegal' sex-business, the more moderate and legal versions like the Cabin restaurants and the Dance restaurants flourished with ease. Reporting the business with the nude photographs became the important 'spices' for the media industry. There emerged a section of pundits advocating the legitimization of the business on the ground that the government was unable to provide the sex-workers with alternative business. Others argued that the closure of the cabin restaurants would lead to the increase in sex-related violence, etc. Over all, the business of buying and selling sex ceased to be a thing of absolute taboo, adding one more commodity of borderline legitimacy to the market.
To summarize, what flourished the most in Nepal during the democratic window period was consumerism. And that was impressive not only by its spatial spread to the remote corners of the country, but also by the depth to which the populace was addicted to the host of new commodities. Not coincidentally the same trend was burgeoning in the neighborhood of Nepal: in India after the liberalization of Economy in the early nineties and in China after rise of Xia-o-Ping in the eighties. The institutionalization of the new culture was thus apparently natural, inevitable, irresistible and most importantly, irreversible.
2. Insurgency: How consumerism adapted to it
Once the armed conflict was intensified, the masses were preoccupied by only one thing: security. Securing the livelihood amidst the economic chaos resulting from the state's obsession to political affairs came second in the priority.
It hardly needs to be argued that the period of conflict brought a number of hurdles to the market that was expanding while introducing the new variety of commodities to the 'new' population. It was obvious for emotionally traumatized people to curtail the activities of buying and consuming 'accessory' commodities. Many market places that were vibrant prior to the conflict were converted to the ghost towns as the businessmen fled the places for lack of security. Many annual feasts either saw less turnover or were dropped altogether.
One striking example of the contraction in the market was the problem the newspapers began to have on getting the advertisements. Many papers were forced to reduce the number of the pages to make up for the decline in the revenue.
At worst, however, that was the dormant phase of consumerism that worked at a smaller scale for the moment waiting for the opportune moments. The people who had been addicted to liquors or the cigarettes were really unable to stop consuming them. Those who used to purchase sex in the under-ground brothels or the above-ground hotels and restaurants were in no position to stop visiting the auspicious places. The bulk of the girls displaced from the rural areas by the conflict now joined the queue of selling sex and the business flourished even better. The parents could no way pacify the kids without buying the noodles that they were addicted to. And the immeasurable market for the pornographic materials could no way shrink.
And of course, there was either no change or increase in the trend of consumption by the elites. The new houses sprouted in the cities with increased vigor as the landlords and the rural 'riches' were now displaced to the cities. Their demands for the luxury items could only increase.
To summarize, the trend of consumerist culture was scared enough by the armed conflict and its consequences but it was able to adapt eventually.
3. Post-insurgency: The Inevitable Comeback of Consumerism
The decade-long leftist insurgency thoroughly shook the foundation of the Nepali state eventually overthrowing the centuries long monarchy after the rebels collaborated with the other political parties. The outcome had, however, almost single dimension , i.e. the political dimension with little attributable to the economic and cultural fields. To take few examples, the economic policies are still dictated by the bilateral and multilateral donors as they used to be in the last decade. The political leadership has been impotently unable to examine how exactly the neo-liberal policies with borrowing of the Structural Adjustment Program has benefited or harmed the masses. With the kind of political instability that has been haunting Nepal for the last two decades, it is practically impossible for any leader to make any major overhaul in the existing trend.
Coming to the cultural evolution over last four or five years, the similarities in the way the consumerism is manifesting now and it was doing so a decade back are striking. In a nutshell, it is the continuity of the trend that had once decelerated by the insurgency but is now fast catching up. This generalization apart, there are nonetheless few specificities about the new surge in consumerism that require a special mention here. We will thus focus on the new trends within the fold of consumerism that are now unraveling.
The technological breakthroughs in the last decade have made a host of commodities available that were literally unimaginable two decades back. For example, watching television then meant watching a 14" B/W TV set with an antenna that caught the broadcast of one or so local TV channel. Now, however, the relatively well-to-do urban households have a large screen color TV with dozens of channels from across the world brought together by the cable line, often accompanied by a VCD or DVD player. Even those staying in the rented rooms with below-average income now own a color TV. Similarly, having a Personal Computer then was to have a desktop placed auspiciously in a room. Now however, it is the portable version i.e. the laptop and even the palmtop often with the wireless internet connection that is meant by a Personal Computer. Portable music player back then meant a walk-man in which you had to press the 'forward' button if you wanted to hear the next song and check for it repeatedly. Now you get the finger sized MP4 player and iPod accommodating as many songs as wished.
The Internet no longer remains the privilege of the Americans and Europeans. One may not be 'forward' by being able to use it but one who can not use it now becomes obviously 'backward and awkward'. And the access to the internet makes one the potential consumer of the host of commodities that were once unheard of. Especially the pornographic sites have been the lifeline of the teenage and young urban population. The sites of every other kind sprouted targeting the every other kind of people.
The introduction of the host of commodities in Nepal was, let's say fortunately, coupled with the surge in the number of young men traveling to the oil fields in the Gulf countries for employment. Ever since the years of insurgency, the young people had been seeking a place where they could earn a reasonable amount while at the same time escaping from the turbulence back home. The bulk of rural population that conventionally depended on India for employment found this new destination quite lucrative even though the higher costs involved in reaching there. The higher wages, though for far shorter periods of two years or so made the workers more receptive to the appeal of the market to purchase the 'high profile' commodities like the TV sets and VCD players.
To summarize, the setback to the consumerist trend posed by the insurgency proved to be temporary and eventually it made a thundering comeback engulfing even more population. Aided by the new innovations and inventions, commodities that were barely imagined came to the market and found the consumers ready to pay for them.
Till now, we have neither admired nor deplored the boom in the market and consumerism and their enormous role in the cultural life of the people, but simply acknowledged them. For one thing, I stated that the market is now consuming the people but even that may represent an ambivalence in this world so obsessed with the market. The corporate tycoons through the mainstream media houses have been able to make the market so omnipotent, sacred and omnipresent that questioning its role in the lives of people now almost matters to heresy. The argument of this article, however, transgresses the invisible cage created by the capitalists to tame the contemporary discourses on relevant issues. That is why I will now deplore the emerging trend while confronting the conventional arguments.
THE 'CURSED LAND' HYPOTHESIS
Those who flee the chaos of Nepal for better destinations often label Nepal as the cursed land where no progress of any kind is ever possible. The justifications to this argument are many.
Foremost, we can not, by virtue of particular social dynamics inherited from our predecessors, rear a competent political leadership. Whoever reaches the post with power inevitably abuses the privileges draining the state resources enriching the self and impoverishing the masses. Eventually, the whole process that would be unacceptable in the 'developed' countries gains the legitimacy, at least practically, in the under-developed countries like Nepal. The unwholesome trend of gross unaccountability of the leaders is thus institutionalized in the long run making the system resistant to any attempts to change. Thus ensues the vicious cycle of ignorant masses picking, fairly or otherwise, an incompetent leadership, followed by the mismanagement and plundering of the state resources, worsening of the political chaos and abyss of economic deterioration, and all of this giving way to another batch of incompetent leaders.
The second argument goes like, a proper work ethics is the last thing compatible with the kind of society we have. Ever since the infamous Rana regime, servility and sycophancy have been the essential virtues sought by the authorities from anybody serving the public through the government institutions. The last thing to be admired from the public servants is a proper performance. The inevitable competition to appease the higher authority leads to the discovery of a number of unhealthy practices. The exceptional individuals who try to resist the trend by sticking to the proper work ethics either fail to rise to the higher posts or are simply released from duty if they dare to challenge the usual order of things. This is why the beaurocracy and other state organs become inherently inept, corrupt and incompetent.
The partisan arguments in which a particular interest group alleges the other group to be responsible for making Nepal a miserable place to live are, of course, abundant. Especially the political parties, when outside the government criticize the ruling parties bitterly for anything evil that occurs in the country. A large proportion of the urban well-to-do population thinks the anachronistic attempts of the Maoists to impose the obsolete mode of governance in Nepal to be responsible for the misery through which Nepal is currently going. The communists repeatedly mention the decade long stint of NC in power after 1990 as the sole cause of misery including the emergence and spread of the insurgency.
Most significantly, none of the usual explanations preoccupying the minds of the masses and the privileged people for our never-ending misery reach beyond our inherent incompetence and the pitfalls. The factors that work beyond the geographical boundaries by shaping the world dynamics, of which we are a part, barely come to our scrutiny. We are used to loathing our neighbors and enemies, making ourselves look more rational, sane and competent in the process. The forces that drive both of us to draw flawed and skewed conclusions easily escape our attention.
It is in this background that I intend to forward my argument about the role the expanding market and institutionalizing consumerism is playing in our life, both national and personal. And here I will borrow the arguments from the proponents of the most acceptable approach to understand the modern world: the World System Approach. According to this proposition, the modern world is constituted by three types of nation states: the Core nations, the Peripheries and the Semi-peripheries, whose main characteristics can be summarized as:
• The most economically diversified, wealthy, and powerful (economically and militarily)
• Highly industrialized
• Tend to specialize in information, finance and service industries
• Produce manufactured goods rather than raw materials for export
• More often in the forefront of new technologies and new industries. Examples today include high-technology electronic and biotechnology industries. Another example would be assembly-line auto production in the early twentieth century.
• Have more complex and stronger state institutions that help manage economic affairs internally and externally
• Have a sufficient tax base so these state institutions can provide infrastructure for a strong economy
• Have more means of influence over noncore nations
• Relatively independent of outside control
• Least economically diversified
• Tend to depend on one type of economic activity, such as extracting and exporting raw materials to core nations
• Are often targets for investments from multinational (or transnational) corporations from core nations that come into the country to exploit cheap unskilled labor for export back to core nations
• Tend to have a high percentage of their people that are poor and uneducated.
• Inequality tends to be very high because of a small upper class that owns most of the land and has profitable ties to multinational corporations
• Have relatively weak institutions with little tax base to support infrastructure development
• Tend to be extensively influenced by core nations and their multinational corporations. Many times they are forced to follow economic policies that favor core nations and harm the long-term economic prospects of periphery nations.
Semiperiphery nations are those that are midway between the core and periphery. They tend to be countries moving towards industrialization and a more diversified economy. “While they are weaker than core societies, they are trying to overcome this weakness and are not as subject to outside manipulation as peripheral societies.” 
The simplest thing that can be derived from this discussion is that Nepal is not the lone 'cursed land' of the world. About a hundred of nation states in Asia, Africa and Latin America are the 'peripheries' in the above categorization and a number of them are faring far worse than Nepal. Ironically, however, the educated people who flee the chaos of those countries also compare their countries with the 'bright' part of the world or the core nations, their destination, instead of their counterparts in the fellow peripheral nation states. The impression is just same as we talked earlier in the context of Nepal. They also develop the stereotypes corresponding to their context that rationalize the backwardness, poverty, corruption and the chaos as the outcome of something inherent to their societies and the culture. And most prominently they fail to correlate what role the historical role of the empires that the current core nations were once, played back then leaving the lasting consequences. All these make the arguments like the above ones seem quite plausible.
Taking the example of our inability to produce competent political leadership, for instance, it is the most popular hypothesis about the misery of the people. Significantly, this hypothesis is equally prevalent in the other periphery nations and the incompetence of the elected civilian leaders has been the pretext for innumerable coup de tats throughout Asia and Latin America over the last half century. 'As corrupt and dishonest as a politician' has been a cliché among the ordinary folks. To put it straight, the endless queue of incompetent and myopic political leaders in the developing world is the most solid building block of the present world order that is founded on the disparity between the categories of nation states mentioned above. An exceptional leader eventually senses the malicious arrangements and refuses to come to terms with the existing order. (S)he is then defamed using the omnipresent media houses and then overpowered or even assassinated using the military clique that is often trained in the auspices of the core nations.
The masses are so thoroughly distracted from the serous issues of producing a truly competent political leadership with help of the giant media industry that they simply fail to see beyond the obvious. And it has been the job of the core nations to create the fake realities throughout the periphery nations that are so glisteningly obvious.
The outcome is that the process of developing a competent leadership from among the prospective candidates in a political party never gets established. The geo-political reality of most of the periphery nations is such that the meaningful legitimacy for the regime in those comes from high up, i.e. from the developed, democratic, donor and precisely the core nations. That is because those countries are literally susceptible to starvation in case the 'altruistic' donors stop donating. That is the ground reality created by the decades or even centuries of interaction among all the nation states that came to existence. This, in turn, makes the rulers eventually more apprehensive of the threats and scolding from up rather than the unpopularity among the masses. The sovereignty of the state thus rests theoretically on the people but practically somewhere else.
The moment the rulers feel their responsibility towards people secondary to the one towards the de facto high command, they can not meaningfully work for the interest of the masses. That is why the accountability suffers. To elucidate further, a minister embezzling few million rupees while purchasing an aircraft for the national flag carrier feels little remorse in doing so because he needs that money either to maintain his lifestyle or to win the next elections or both. If he feels even once that the money comes from keeping thousands of poor masses hungry, he will then hesitate. But the orientation of such politicians in our political set up is such that they will first ask one question to themselves when in doubt: does this lessen their chance of continuing in the power? For that to happen the deed should disappoint the de facto high command, that is not the case in this instance. In contrast to this, if a prime minister intends to make and implement the policies like nationalization of lucrative source of revenue like an oil company (though that is definitely not the case of Nepal, we are talking in terms of all the periphery nations) he will have to face the wrath of the high command that will eventually attempt to dislodge him from the power by any means possible.
Thus the process itself in which we choose the political leaders and let them to rule is deeply flawed given the geo-political arrangements in the world system. And to hide it all from the masses, the media (propaganda) industry is always there and there are the hypotheses of particular cultures with inherent flaws. The 'Cursed Land' hypothesis is one of the most impeccable ones among them.
To make this obfuscation more sustainable and impeccable, there is the market and advertisement industry that urges people to go on consuming whatever possible by earning money with whichever means possible. That is exactly the role played by consumerism in sustaining the current order of things.
COHERENCE OF THE BIZARRE EVENTS
The lawlessness witnessed by Nepal in the last couple of years is quite unprecedented. There are so many interest groups so powerful as to make the law enforcement agencies impotent that the days of highway blockages are about to outnumber the usual days. The mob supremacy and the rule of none has left the people so thoroughly demoralized and frustrated that many are beginning to admire the old peaceful days of royal autocracy. And interestingly, those very people who complain the disruption of their daily lives by the activities of the other groups hesitate little when they get the opportunity to do same to the others.
To name few of the prominent interest groups causing disruption of ordinary people for one interest or the other: the transport entrepreneurs, the transport workers, the petroleum dealers, the gas sealers, the tanker owners, the victims of an accident, the victims of medical malpractice, victims of a crime, the innumerable fraternal organizations of the political parties including the student and youth wing, those who fled from job due to insurgency, the trade unions and other organizations of professionals like the teachers, different ethnic outfits including the armed insurgents in Terai, and the list goes like that and never ends as every other moment a new group sprouts after a minor incident. A handful of vandals from any group or hired for the group can take the law in hand and obstruct a highway for as long as wished as the people are forced to suffer silently.
This trend is fed by the perception that nothing is to be attained without using force in the system combined with the thoroughly demoralized and ineffectual police force. And the patronage of the political parties to one or the other group furthering its demands through unruly means is behind the perennial inability of the police force to tame the groups.
Is there a possibility that all these apparently divergent interest groups serve a common end, or is there a common motivating factor working with all of them? Is the appalling disruption in the lives of the ordinary people simply a consequence of an unfortunate coincidence in which so many interest groups emerge and act in so small a time and space? Here I'll insinuate the issue by arguing that indeed there is a common unspoken factor behind the activities of all those groups.
Take, for example, the cartels of so-called entrepreneurs sprouted allegedly for the welfare of the individual entrepreneur but really acting to thwart any chance of competition and sustaining the monopoly. The most prominent among them, the bus owners, the truck owners, the tanker owners, the gas sealers, the petrol sellers, all have interrupted the ordinary activity one time or the other in the past forcing the government to sign the agreements that are blatantly opposed to the interests of the masses. If a strike involving the blockage of the highways using a handful of goons is all that is required to force the authorities to provide the long term incentives, that is the most efficient option for them. The blatant disregard of the government directive to dismantle the cartel of the public vehicles in western half of Nepal also stands on the same ability of the bus owners to disrupt the vehicular movements indefinitely.
The same principle of 'ensured achievements' lies behind the sprouting of the other more transient but equally treacherous interest groups like the 'struggle committee' formed to protest for a victim of a traffic mishap or a medical malpractice which engage in full-fledged vandalism so long as their grossly inappropriate demands are fulfilled. The incentives in terms of the disproportionate 'compensation' for the incident are at the center of all these protests.
The next crucial question: why now the sudden outburst of the strikes by the innumerable interest groups? The plain answer: the dismantling of the old socio-politico-cultural order with collapse of the monarchy and the failure of the new order to emerge to replace the old one. And such a fluid situation when stretched indefinitely as in today's Nepal, makes the nation extremely vulnerable to the regressions and the military coups. Here, however, we are examining the same issue in a slightly different perspective and will now proceed to explore the role of our good old companion, the consumerism, in the process.
We have already discussed how the consumerism has gone through the boom in Nepal after 1990. The number of people consuming the commodities from the market and their consumption habit have thus drastically changed. And that inevitably demands a substantial rise in the earnings of the people. Given the perennially stagnating economy of the country amid the life-support of the fragile foreign employment sector, earning high is not an easy task.
I now theorize that the rise in the whole spectrum of unscrupulous activities by the people with their loosely bound groups is mainly due to this urge to earn a handsome amount with a brief effort of vandalism and taking law in hand. The undeniable argument in favor of this is that every highway blockage or any other disruption in public services is essentially related to the hefty amount of money to be paid to the agitators, either by the government or the party responsible for a mishap. The cartels of different kind have the single point agenda of getting unscrupulously high output from minimal input in the business by cornering the people. And that is what keeps them agitating again and again crippling the daily lives of the people while the government observes impotently for days before striking a deal unjustifiably in favor of the agitators.
Nepal has thus been the miniature world where the powerful MNCs with their monopolistic competition are represented by a bunch of money-makers whose contribution to the productive fields is almost nil. An economy based on the unrestricted exploitation of the masses by whoever is able to do so is thus in place as the incessant urge of the people to earn and consume more promotes the tendency. And the characteristic impotency of the government to intervene is increasing as the number of the cartels and the interest groups multiplies with each passing day.
THE 'SACRED' COLLUSION
Two years back, to state that the US-led world economy was beyond sustainability and would soon come crashing down mattered to a blasphemy and possibly insanity. Similarly now, stating that the market and its auxiliary consumerism are promoting authoritarianism in the political establishments worldwide matters to the same. That is because the best ever mode of governance has supposedly prevailed throughout the world with minor exceptions after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 with the triumph over the worst ever mode of governance.
The ground reality, however, contradicts these pleasant arguments.
The supremacy of the market impinges on the welfare of the people by making it mandatory to privatize or dismantle the state enterprises that provide the services to the people at a lower cost. The issue is especially sensitive in countries where there are assets of international concern like the oil fields or the gold mines. The 'liberal democratic' assumption about the democratic practice in such countries is that a political party that has sold itself to the interest of the giant foreign oil companies is the one which deserves to be voted and elected by the people. The victory of the opponents who advocate nationalization of the lucrative sources of revenue amounts to rigging and manipulation and they deserve a disgraceful exit through a military coup or even the assassination of the leader.
Though in Nepal, we have nothing comparable to an oil field, the trend exists with a slightly different outlook. The track record of democracy, or democratization as more proper term, has been particularly pathetic ever since we adopted the neo-liberal policies in the early nineties. The affinity of the individual politicians to the power and privilege and thus the opportunity to earn money and thus consume has been so intense that major political parties have seen the most authoritarian and unaccountable leadership. The factionalism and eventual split of the political parties have inevitably resulted from the conflicts of interests among the leaders. Some of the political parties have openly supported the autocracy, in recent past, and joined the puppet royal government for the mere opportunity of earning for few of the leaders even while pushing the country to further confrontation and turmoil.
That is merely the one example in which the market-induced urge has led the responsible political parties to extreme myopia, clumsy political analysis and strategic blunders with far-fetched implications for the future of the country. Indeed, it seems, incompetence and wretched self-interest is the most important virtue of a successful leader in a periphery nation in the world with market economy. And democracy is supposed to maintain this category of politicians at the summit of power through periodic elections.
That is however, not the only dimension of the collusion that has been so prominent over the years. The preoccupation of the mind of the masses with the non-vital matters is the factor most conducive to the unfettered development of both the market economy and the authoritarian political system. A gang of teenagers who have typically succumbed to the appeal of the market to indulge in smoking and drinking and eventually to abusing the drugs can easily terrorize a neighborhood forcing the residents to worry about their security. A significant proportion of the youth population which has fallen prey of the aggressive marketing of those things amid the negligence of the state can similarly cripple the whole population.
In most of the third world countries, it is often necessary to keep the way in which the country is practically governed, secret. For that, the leaders need an ubiquitous tool for distracting the masses. In a case of a major scam involving embezzlement of a few millions, for example, he can easily circumvent the fragile and manipulable mechanisms for accountability even by purchasing the verdict from a judge in a court 'of law'. But it is quite difficult to avoid the public outrage in case everything comes out as it is. Along with the plot to keep everything beyond curtain, he also needs another layer for protection: the distraction of the masses. As we have already examined, the major preoccupation of the minds of the people, which was the security during the insurgency in Nepal, has now been the consumption of commodities. In many of the countries in Asia and Africa, the factor of 'security' is still used for the purpose as the military cliques find it most convenient to apply it. Nepal at this junction is susceptible to both of these as the scare of insecurity looms large amidst the political turmoil even while the lure of the consumerism exists to its optimal extent.
Significantly, when the political leadership was in no position to exploit the distraction of the people and the monarch was in the place to harvest the outcomes of fear-mongering through the intensified conflict, they opposed the very thing that they had earlier applied. People were induced to come to the streets keeping both the scare of the government forces and the urge to shop and consume back at home. That was when the people acted on the genuine urge in its undistorted form, i.e. the urge to make Nepal a peaceful and prosperous place to live by sacrificing as many lives as needed. Such moments, when the masses lead the leaders instead of the other way round, are dangerous for the majority of the leaders who prefer even a terrible status quo rather than a landslide change. The rage of the people was finally tamed somehow leading to a protracted transition period fraught with confusion and chaos. And that period turned out to be the most fertile for the resurgence of the same good old consumerism, the magic distracter of the people.
And this is the cycle that has been repeating itself again and again in most of the periphery nations for more than half a decade now after the dismantling of the formal or 'hard' imperialism.
Thus the formidable symbiosis among the three virtues of the triad, free market in the economy, consumerism in the culture and the authoritarianism in the politics is what have been working in the countries like Nepal. (Exploring the same thing in context of the core nations like the US is well beyond the scope of this article though preferable in the context.) Each sustains the other while depending on it for other kind of support.
Significantly, this association among the three virtues that we have referred here as the collusion is one of the most guarded things in the contemporary world. How can a free and thus the just economy devoted to welfare of everyone who can compete, for example, be associated with the authoritarian political system promoting the interest of a few? The proposition is simply dismissed as the propaganda of the leftist heretics. Democracy in politics is thus made equivalent to, if not synonymous with the market economy. Samir Amin, one of the major proponents of the world system theory, explores ingeniously the relation between the market and the democracy in his article 'Imperialism and Globalization' published in the website of the Monthly Review on June 2001. He vividly illustrates how the argument that the market and the democracy are converging to each other has been the farce all along. He writes: Convergence theory—the notion that the market and democracy converge—is today pure dogma; a theory of imaginary politics. This theory is, in its own domain, the counterpart of “pure economics,” which is the theory not of really existing capitalism but of an imaginary economy. Just as the dogma of market fundamentalism is everywhere wearing thin in the face of reality, we can no longer accept the popular notion propagated today that democracy converges with capitalism.
Indeed this convergence theory and its ramifications are the themes which, with few other equally fallacious dogmas, consume most of the time and space in the mainstream media throughout the world. And the common end served by all of these is to promote the free ride to the market economy that has profited the owners of the media houses enormously by making it possible to sell everything, from honor to sex through their outlets. To the utter dismay of everyone, the market-media cartel suffered a major setback after the onset of the financial turmoil in the US and Europe where both were bloated too much. The long term implications of the bust are, however, to be seen as the extent and the time frame for complete recovery of the economy is still the matter of speculation.
Now coming to the outcome of the collusion, has it promoted the production of commodities that the people can buy at the reasonable price? Or let's say, do the people have the option of paying minimum price for the commodities as a result of the competition among the producers? Competition has been at the centre of the concept itself of capitalism and it is said to be the virtue contributing to make a capitalist economy more efficient and resilient than its socialist rival. The dismantling of the barriers to trading the commodities internationally is being advocated voraciously through the WTO and similar organizations for many years now.
Genuine competition is, however, the last thing compatible with the present system characterized by the bullying of even nation states by few big monopolies named Multinational Corporations. A race among them to make profit by exploiting every other corner part of the world and to exploit the resources of the periphery nations is that all remains as 'competition'. No other kind of competition of major importance is possible as the juggernaut of market economy rolls.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
I am from the generation that missed the opportunity to witness the two important changes of the early nineties firsthand: the people's movement of 1990 in Nepal and the collapse of the USSR through 1989 to 1991. I was, however able to witness the two similarly crucial changes in the first decade of the new century: the April Uprising of 2006 in Nepal and the second great economic downturn in the past hundred years that began in 2008. I have assimilated a limited wisdom about the first two events by studying in retrospect while the later two were like an open book. All four of these events have left huge impression on me, like most of the other young people of my generation. Our assessment and analysis of these events will now form an important foundation standing on which we will explore, examine, assess and analyze the future events. Those of us who can reach a position either of making the policy or of influencing the policy makers, will use this wisdom to affect the process of making policies. Those of us who remain in the streets to lead or follow the future struggles, will obviously make use of the facts we have learned the hard way, to add the dynamicity to the struggles. Few of us who will be able to draw the attention at international level will advocate for the interests of the under-privileged people, again with our wisdom about the events like the above ones and others at our expense.
The collusion theory has been in discourse for as long as the 'cursed land hypothesis'. It was, however, suppressed so forcibly till now that, the masses and particularly, the middle classes all over were oblivious to any possibility of the utterly anti-people and pro-elite implications of the 'relation' among the three that I have referred as 'collusion'. So long as a section of people was able to move up towards 'middle-classhood' and thus a decent living, the status quo was acceptable even though that meant a disproportionate economic and political advantage to a privileged minority. Why resist a system that allows a proportion of people to get rich, unlike socialism which has so far made everyone poor practically? This perception has played a crucial role in providing legitimacy to the pervasive argument over the last two decades that the current version of capitalism is unquestionable.
It is said that one can be fooled many times, many people can be fooled once, but not everyone can be fooled for ever. The second great crash of the past century came slapping hard the neo-liberals who had grandiosely proposed that the capitalism had entered the 'smooth' phase when no more depressions or recessions would haunt. And the free ride of the market was supposed to lead us to the utopian world of prosperity and abundance. What was deliberately hidden was the fact that a massive transfer of wealth was undergoing from the poorer masses including the middle classes to the wealthier elites. That was the very fact that eventually invited the great crash as the financial bubble, caused by bloated investment by the wealthy elites, was bound to burst. Tax exemption to the super-riches, for example, (and that is only one aspect among many, of the wealth transfer) drained the money that could have been used for public welfare, flooding the investment banks that were desperate to lend it. Rather than letting the money sit idle, they circumvented the usual modes of risk assessment before lending so that the money went from where it would be impossible to get back. The realization of this fact was enough to cause panic everywhere as the economies of all 'big' states were connected and the same bug that had infested the US under Bush was sure to transmit itself to other countries in no time.
In a nutshell, the great crash was not an exceptional accident but the eventual outcome of what was happening over the decades. Strikingly, the attention of the whole world now, with the US under Obama in lead role, is at salvaging the system to avert the crisis momentarily, not the bold and radical cure to the malady in the system itself of capitalism.
And that is what should make us worry about the future of us all. The periodic recessions in the life cycle of capitalism is not the only factor jeopardizing the sustainability of the current order of things. The ecological decline with vanishing ecosystems and depleted natural resources amid the mounting pollution has been the other equally serious concern. The frenzy of profit and consumption has, till now, diverted the attention of the people from these pressing issues even as we count the years for which the planet will be able to bear the stress. Revival of the good old days of unfettered capitalism, if successful as attempted, will prove disastrous to the environment making the world warmer, noisier, cloudier place with more poor people cramped in worse living conditions. And before the other financial downturn can haunt the system, the environmental collapse will have brought the chaos and misery worse than any of such in the history.
Unlike the financial turmoil that has swept the world beginning from the core nations of the world, the ecological disaster will first engulf and probably decimate the darker and poorer parts of the world that can not avoid depleting their natural resources and selling the raw materials from their surroundings, their only non-imported assets and only exports. The world system that makes it mandatory to keep the myopic, clumsy and incompetent leadership in the periphery nations will ensure that the disaster comes to their attention only when it is already too late. The resulting chaos will prompt the core nations to bring sterner immigration laws and a more intense border patrolling, not the curtailment in the consumption and coercion pattern among their population that has led to the disaster. The civil strives and the deaths from hunger and violence will be then acknowledged as the results of the 'backwardness' or lack of 'westernization' of those societies, not the inevitable casualties of a system that ensures profligacy in one part of world at the cost of starvation in the other.
That is not to say that the core nations are immune from the ecological disasters. But, if the economy recovers eventually and they can keep the order of things in their modest control, they will be cushioned much better against any such calamities. At least the affluent section of the population at the core will be able to afford the new scientific tools that can help minimize the hazards. In case of depletion of the oil reserves in the traditional oil fields, for example, they will be able to afford the costly fuel produced from food grains starving the millions in the periphery nations. The most affluent among them will have the option of residing in the part of the world that is least affected by the disaster, that too with the lavish life style.
What eventually follows is that, by consuming the commodities produced to sustain the bloated economies of the core nations, we in the periphery are consuming the part of the future. The market is thus silently but definitely consuming our futures if not the present. The more we consume, the more the affluent people in the core benefit and better their cushion against the future calamity. Our economic foundations lie in the ruins at the same time as we are addicted to buying and consuming rather than producing. Our politics involves the eternal brawl for power and privilege among the handful of sycophants of the de facto high command at the core. We invite more civil strife, more violence and unrest so that no meaningful progress is possible. We are frustrated and depressed but not meaningfully anxious to search the way out of the mess.
This description speaks a lot about the prognosis of the states like Nepal and I have specifically correlated this with the flourishing consumerism and its attributes. What really happens in the future is still to be seen and there are other factors too that affect the dynamics. The question of 'how' may have many answers, but the destiny for the likes of Nepal seems more or less obvious and ominous as there are not even the feeble signs of any radical change. We may deny them for the moment but later it will be impossible to do so. Indeed the latest political events in Nepal reinforce the 'doom theory'. To avert the crisis would take a radical shift on the way we understand the world and act. In this hazy world where the myths, rumors, lies and half-truths have strangled the truth, a proper understanding is as tough as a meaningful action. And that forms the first step towards averting the looming disaster and salvaging what little remains with us. If we understand, we will be forced to act sooner or later. That is why the corporate mass media is hell-bent on preventing us from understanding the reality. And that is precisely what I want to denounce through this article.