The year 2009 begins with the sombre thought that this may turn out to be one of the most consequential years for world history in many decades. It is difficult to think of a year in recent times which faced so many important crossroads. The turbulence in the global economy is by no means over. Its full implications for everything from the balance of power, to the character of our politics, to the possibilities for the poor and our lifestyle choices are yet to be fathomed. This is also a crucial year leading up to the Copenhagen process that will signal the degree to which we are committed to saving what Barack Obama called a “planet in peril.” A massive war rages in West Asia that will have enormous implications for the global security architecture. South Asia is once again confronted with the question: can it overcome the entrapments of history, or will it be perpetually dragged down by the burdens of identity? The economic crisis may impose the first serious test for the legitimacy of the government in China. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty negotiations will once again test the sincerity of our commitment to delegitimise weapons of mass destruction. The list could go on.
The accumulated weight of past entanglements will not make solving any of these problems easy. But neither is the outcome over-determined by forces beyond our control. This year, more than any other, will test our capacity for subtle judgment and creating new paradigms. But we will have to reorient ourselves to the world in a different way. Perhaps the lines from the Led Zeppelin song “the fate of nations and all of their deeds/ lies trapped inside these hearts of greed,” will be both a reminder of how we failed in 2008 and what we will have to overcome in 2009.
But we are at a crossroads in the sense that there is no template that will tell the world how to deal with these challenges. It is customary for New Year surveys to make predictions. But if 2008 taught us anything it was the need for a little epistemic humbling. On the one hand it was a year that, at one level, reinforced clarity over why democracy, with all its imperfections, is such a great thing. Tocqueville once argued that what made democracy great was that it allowed one to make “retrievable mistakes”, there was no dead-end finality to its determinations. In the United States, it showed how new beginnings are still possible. In India, it consistently provided a sobering antidote to the grandstanding of the presumptuous. While the Indian democratic experiment has struggled in Jammu and Kashmir, the end of 2008 provided the opportunity of yet another beginning. If there is one thing we can be confident of, it is this: democracy will not be subverted by the people; but the people will have to be constantly watchful of those who claim to represent them.
If 2008 reinforced faith in democracy, it seriously undermined the authority of expertise, at least about social phenomena. For all our claims about mastery over the world, our knowledge and capacity to predict the social world remains fragile and is often undercut by the vagaries of human nature. The authority claims of so many institutions that produce knowledge on which people base their decisions — investment banks, rating agencies, regulators, academic departments — came tumbling down, raising serious questions about how norms and assumptions get entrenched in powerful institutions. What was extraordinary was that even facts turned out not to be facts, and recreating reliable knowledge systems in the new year will not be easy. It was difficult not to be reminded of the fantastic comparison one of our greatest medievalists, Anthony Grafton, once made between the role of astrologers and economists. He wrote, “at the most abstract level, astrologers ancient and early modern carried out the tasks that twentieth-century society assigns to the economist. Like the economist, the astrologer tried to bring the chaotic phenomena of everyday life into order by fitting them to sharply defined quantitative models. Like the economist, the astrologer insisted, when teaching or writing for professional peers, that astrology had only a limited ability to predict the future. Like the economist, the astrologer generally found that the events did not match the prediction; and like the economist, the astrologer normally received as a reward for the confirmation of the powers of his art a better job and higher salary.” He also reminded us that medievalists saw astrology as empirical science: hundreds of thousands of horoscopes were collected to determine correlations, and these were revised in the light of new data. There was a huge gap between what the models constructed allowed on their own terms, and what got disseminated. After all, in astrology as in economics, it was the “other things being equal” clause that mattered most. 2008 reminded us, how other things are not always equal. It is a disquieting thought, but also one that opens up new possibilities for the new year.
2009 will be determined less by the authority of predictions, more by the quality of our thinking. But genuine thinking cannot be outsourced. Just this lesson was the central message of a text whose centenary falls this year: Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. This slim text, written in 1909, will probably not be understood in this new millennium. In many respects it is a flawed text. But the central aspirations it set out for humanity remain a permanent rebuke to our pretensions. It is still not difficult to marvel at, and be humbled by, the intellectual agenda this slim book set. Our failing was not rejecting his answers. It was avoiding his questions. What would a political system committed to the pacification of violence look like? What is the relation between material sophistication and self-knowledge? What would make democracy more than a talking shop? How do we reconcile individuality, an insistence on the authority of our own experience, with social intercourse? In what roles do owners of wealth see themselves: overlords or trustees? What is the meaning of Swaraj? Will India have the capacity to create forms of alternative universality, or will it remain mired in collective narcissism? These are old but unavoidable questions. Gandhi, more than anyone else, would have insisted that in these uncharted waters, we do our own thinking, mindful as he put it. “Our besetting sin is not our differences, it is our littleness.”
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi