Sunday, July 24, 2011

The measure of success...

I have increasingly thought about the number of times that I have heard Indian parents talk about the success of their kids, planning for a good career, and finding the right kind of enabler/ladder so that the child would adequately climb to the established measures of success. This quest for the child's success among parents on one hand is understandable. Every parent wants their child to do well, to have a secure future, and to have the resources they need to live a comfortable life. The desires, on the other hand, often singlehandedly play out in a linear narrative, and this is the part that needs to be deconstructed critically...the career path to success seems to be utterly narrow and well laid out: get an engineering degree, and after you get an engineering degree, get an MBA. This to most Indian parents seems like the easiest route for their child to be successful. Education, thus narrowly defined, is initially loaded up with the emphasis on the sciences, followed by the engineering coursework, and then culminating in management courses (that too, specific tracks of management that are the highest money earners).

Inherent in this dream then are a multitude of desires; desires such as your child would become utterly rich, that he would own many flats in many cities across India, and that he would make an extremely good living that would make you proud as a parent. These markers of success are far removed from other questions such as "What kind of values does your child embody? Does he care for others around him? How does he treat those that are less fortunate than him?" Your child has made it to the pinnacles of success when he has earned all the accolades of material ownership that are considered the markers of modern middle (upper middle) class India: owned a car, bought many flats in multiple Indian cities, put together a promising investment portfolio in the share market etc. This is the dream of Indian (I say middle class mostly, as education remains a commodity out of reach for a large percentage of India's poor) parents, a dream that is continually circulated in your Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan movies, the Indian ads on diaspora TV, the Bollywood music videos, and so on. The culture industry coming out of neoliberal India parades this dream like a poster, from your billboards to your TV screens to your Bollywood song-and-dance sequences. The glossy lure of success lies in pursuing the linear narrative of success, ending up in ownership of the things that are taken as the indicators of success.

And this is the part where cultural deconstruction becomes necessary in understanding this widespread cultural logic in neoliberal India. Indian parents, typically, don't equip their children to ask questions of ethics, with questions such as, "How am I going to earn the money?" "What is the ethics in how I earn the money?" "What are the consequences for others in how I earn the money?" "How is my earning of money tied to the approximately 80% Indians who struggle to make a living?" An amazingly well-crafted neoliberal narrative sets into the mindsets of the young and the successful, "I am special. I am pretty darn good, better than the rest. So I earn the money that I do." This is perhaps the very reason why when talking to friends in investment banking about the financial crisis, I have heard them blame the financial crisis on "people who got into houses that they should not be owning at the first hand (and this might be at least partially true, but my question is one of value and not one of accuracy)." The crisis of neoliberalism perhaps lies in this fundamental inability of the neoliberal subject to have empathy, to feel for those who are less fortunate, who have much lesser access to resources because of where they have been born and the resources they have had access to because of where they have been born. One of the basic lessons that we learn from the financial crisis is that it was/is a product of a pathology, a pathology of collective consciousness that had long stopped feeling for the other. It is this pathology that justified the selling of CDOs by those very organizations that had betted against them.

One of the things that resulted out of the financial crisis is the discussion of business ethics. However, as I listen to MBA programs both in India and in the US talk about business ethics, I wonder to what extent these will once again be co-opted as PR ploys in business programs much like the way in which much of CSR has turned into a public relations tool to promote the organizational image and minimize public resistance to organizational operations. To what extent are these calls for ethics mere window dressing in the face of the large-scale public opinion that has begun to call for stronger regulations on businesses? For discourses of ethics to truly be meaningful, the dialogue has to start not just with our business schools, but also with our schooling systems and parents, in reconsidering what we come to value as success and how we measure the markers of success. The shift has to come at a cultural level where we critically engage with our priorities and the values that underlie these priorities.

1 comment:

Nadine said...

I loved your reflection. It is the parents' desire for emancipation that creates further hegemony. We all work for a better future for our kids. It part of the ownership and extension of property that we focus on our inner circle rather than the larger humanity.