Monday, September 7, 2015

Ayn Rand, Pathology of Selfishness, and the Indian Middle Classes




1991 or 1992, one of those years, an impressionable time in my life, when I was being exposed to many different worldviews through introduction to new books.  Many of these books became windows into learning about the world, brought through new friendships in college.

One of these books, "Atlas Shrugged" made a big impact on me as it challenged many of my earlier held beliefs and values about commitment, service, and lending your voice in solidarity with the struggles of the poor.

I remember, the most exciting part of reading Ayn Rand was the exhilarating sense of freedom at the recognition that caring for others is a hypocrisy, that the best I could do was to pursue my own dreams and unleash my own capabilities.

The narrative worked well because it fit nicely with my aspirations for upward mobility.

Ayn Rand told me that caring for others or commitment to community are hypocrisies. The best way to contribute to society was to care for my own self and for my own interests. This message felt freeing.

Selfishness, I learned, is a virtue. It is the greatest realization of human character and potential.

This message of selfishness felt empowering at that time, after having been immersed in socialist ideals of caring for others, contributing to collective well being, and working toward building an equitable society.

The seduction of Ayn Rand for the Indian middle classes, as it was for me, is a narrative of individualism that held a youthful appeal in a cultural context that was rife with ideals of commitment, collective responsibility, and contribution to society, held in the images of Nehruvian socialism and a strong political Left presence.

For many in the Middle classes in India, the seduction of selfishness narrated in "Atlas Shrugged" is also the seduction of economic liberalization unleashed in the 1990s. The narrative of individual responsibility and fulfilling one's own potential congealed with India's macroeconomic policies of trade liberalization.

The 1990s, Ayn Rand and liberalization policies, worked well in cultivating in the middle classes of India a value system of individualism and selfishness that gradually worked toward displacing the values of community, social commitment, and lending one's shoulder to the struggles of the poor.

The pathology of  selfishness was no longer a pathology. It became the marker of aspirations, freedom, and liberty.

Freedom founds its new fashion icon in the language of the market, punctuated in the narratives of the malls, multiplexes, and information superhighways.

The poverty of the urban slums and of the rural areas was being re-scripted in a new narrative that would creatively erase the narratives of poverty and simultaneously co-opt it in a narrative of the market. The poor could become rich if only they aspired, worked hard, and looked out for themselves. From the slums to the life of a millionaire, the market enabled movement.

In this new and now ubiquitous narrative for the middle classes in India, the virtue of selfishness is the mechanics of the market's contribution to national development.

All I would need to do as a productive member of society is to participate in the market. The market, as the yardstick of my moral compass, would enable me to consume and at the same time, contribute to development!

The virtue of selfishness, taking its lead from the lessons offered by Rand, is what would keep India's economy growing and pave the pathway for its development.

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