By Aseem Shrivastava
Picture this. At an air-show in Los Angeles one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world, British Aerospace, invites Mr. Bill Gates of Microsoft to have a go at flying one of the latest models of their Hawk fighter aircraft. Would the American media respond by flashing front-page images of a beaming Bill Gates waving to supporters as he was entering the cockpit of the Hawk, following them up with adulatory reports describing the elevated feelings felt by the unexpected new pilot as he conquered the sound barrier? Or would the event not generate a national scandal that a private businessman accepted the invitation to fly a military aircraft, which ordinarily can only be tested by pilots on public duty?
More than likely the latter possibility would transpire. However, what happened in Bangalore last month was another story, as the Indian national media fell to new depths of celebrity "journalism".
Corporate Americans, having grown up in a world run by car salesmen, will go to any lengths to sell what they must. Thus it came as no surprise when Lockheed Martin – one of the biggest defense contractor firms in the world – invited Mr. Tata into the cockpit of the F-16 Falcon at the Bangalore Air Show in February: the Indian Air Force was, after all, expanding its multi-role combat aircraft fleet and the American company was competing in the Indian arms bazaar with the likes of Sukhoi of Russia. To let corporate India's leading icon of the season have a go at their merchandise must have seemed like an obvious sales ploy. (Would they have tried this gimmick in their own land?)
A private fantasy was gratified. Mr. Tata's dream of flying a fighter jet came true.
Not only India's national English language dailies, even the vernacular press, flashed front page pictures of India's oldest civilian pilot, waving like a rock-star to fans as he stepped into the cockpit of the fighter aircraft. The Times of India gushed that "Tata group chairman Ratan Tata soared to new heights". Delhi's Hindustan Times said that he "had a wonderful time." The Indian Express said that Mr. Tata had "a terrific, terrific ride." Even the ordinarily sober The Hindu said that Mr.Tata had an "exhilarating experience."
All this quoted without the dimmest trace of irony. When boys get their toys, it is indeed "wonderful" and "exhilarating". It is evident from the unanimity of the reports that Mr.Tata indeed had a jolly good time up in the high skies.
The most remarkable fact of all – the corporate boss of a leading private concern playing with military gadgetry, normally accessible only to men and women in public uniform – went unobserved by our free press. In the day of "Corporate Executive Officers", when businessmen are taking seats of pride in Parliaments and political leaders are more than happy to see described what they do as a "job", not to mention holding shares in companies, how does it matter if ancient public norms are blithely flouted and one of the most precious distinctions in the annals of democracy is quietly erased?
Public morality has gone corporate long back. The public has been colonized by the private ever since the era of manic privatization was thrust upon us. The joke is on us, the on-looking public, who don't seem to realize that the time-honored separation of the private and the public spheres is an inconvenient anachronism, an obstacle to mounting prosperity which should be kicked off the growth path.
The all-important distinction between the private and the public realms – dear in the past not only to democracies but to all self-respecting polities since the days of Greece and Rome – is being openly undermined in India, in vulgar mimicry of the successful pioneering trail blazed by corporate totalitarianism in that most famous of all democracies: the United States of America. If it works there, it must be good, and thus worthy of emulation.
Why reducing the public to the private is deadly
But why anyway is it a good thing to retain the distinction between the private and the public realms? Haven't we been delivered the technocratic wisdom often enough from the highest pulpits that running a government is essentially no different from managing a company? So what's wrong with it if men and women are corporate executives one day and ministers or bureaucrats the next, as long as they are honest (sic) and capable? What's wrong, for that matter, with the government making an open offer to the Tatas that it was willing to use public money to help it financially in its recent purchase of the British steel company Corus Inc (even as it complains about lack of resources when it comes to allocating more funds for development programs for women and children)? Or with the government declaring Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as public utility services under the Industrial Disputes Act and, with a happy conflation of the private with the public interest, making strikes and collective bargaining illegal, while enabling contract labor?
Well, if nothing is wrong with all this, why don't we campaign for an amendment of the Constitution, and make it the most urgent formal task of the government to enable corporations to maximize profits, enrich themselves (in the name of development via the long dysfunctional trickle-down effect) or, more simply, just legalize graft? Indeed, our government has been doing precisely that, offering sops to corporates via tax breaks, SEZs and the like, obsessed as it is with the maximization of the rate of national economic growth – to the effective exclusion of virtually all social goals, including development – for years now.
Listening to the chorus of applause from the mainstream media both in India and in the West, it would seem that this democracy has overcome its erstwhile socialist infantilism and finally matured into corporate adulthood – allowing, as is only in the fitness of things, men and women of eminence to occupy top corporate positions today and high offices in government tomorrow. In fact, in the age of (An)globalization, well-connected members of our ruling elites have long been in the habit of changing offices globally – having manned the upper echelons of imperial projects in the offices of the World Bank and the IMF in Washington virtually being a prior qualification to be at the national political helm in New Delhi, a custom which is finely attuned to the needs of our imperial masters.
What could be wrong with such an efficient arrangement? Free and fair elections are after all not fundamentally different from free and fair markets. We choose our leaders in one place, our cars and favorite magazines in another. And we expect our leaders to entertain us, just as we find amusement in driving fast cars (thanks to Vijay Mallya New Delhi's Rajpath, which once hosted political protests, might well see a F-1 race soon) and watching thrilling films. Such is the lure and charm of a Laloo Prasad Yadav. So what's wrong if Ratan Tata, the corporate Pope, is also seen as a rock-star with all the star quality that comes with the role? Only sour grapes and petty envy would bicker about such a thing.
Is it? If the government becomes a business, then profits and growth obviously become its overriding pursuits. What then? Who is allowed to criticize this noble project and all it inevitably involves, especially today? What happens to human rights, to labor standards, to environmental regulations, to tax laws, to social commitments and political promises for distributive justice? To the Constitution itself? In fact, one is entitled to ask, what happens to law and public morality? Shall we simply open up the market for justice too? Shall we experiment with private judicial systems in addition to privatizing the executive branch and the legislature (public offices are already auctioned in so many parts of the world)? In short, shall we just dispense with public liberty altogether and write into law a formal "corpocracy" which finally prises open all political markets, legitimizes private tyranny and inducts it into the visible mainstream of the affairs of state?
But somewhere, the line between public and private will have to be drawn, if only because in the absence of a robust public realm, private parties – driven by the will to power – will fight their way to war with each other, at our expense. (They already do, even in the presence of strong governments. So how much more so in their absence, unrestrained by any law or public morality whatsoever!) Society will not survive for long under such circumstances.
Among so many other things, isn't democratic government there precisely because the unrestrained pursuit of private commercial interest leaves no time or room for worrying about matters which concern everyone, not just a minority constituency of privilege? BAE and Lockheed Martin can't help themselves from selling arms across the world. It is their stock-in-trade, their line of business. And the imperatives of competitive capitalism will not brook any complacency, the reason that public restraint is necessary. To cut costs and grow their market shares corporations will scour the earth, loot indigenous peoples, pollute air and water and slog pliant female labor for 12 or 16 hours a day. Without public restraint what is there to prevent them from committing such crimes and hasten the end of civilized society itself?
Laws are there to protect public and individual liberty against oppression by those who hold power. This is why the rule of law is rightly regarded as one of the enduring achievements of civilized humanity. If it is threatened today – by imperial gluttony and other varieties of barbarism on the one hand and a relentless, unmitigated, corporately nurtured, state-sanctioned greed on the other – the answer is not to allow classes and social groups who hold power to further consolidate their influence. Both courage and wisdom actually lie on the side of challenging and restraining such power in the larger interest. Indeed, it may turn out – given the emerging facts on climate change and other looming environmental crises – that our very survival as a species might come to hinge on the evolution of a new public ethic which finds it within its imagination and character to do so.
In this task the media can be an accomplice or an obstacle. What we have seen so far makes the media resemble nothing so much as a disheveled theatre stage occupied by a bunch of image-toting lackeys of shadowy moneyed men in pin-striped suits, their shotguns held not too far from the heads of editors. They have monopolized the mike, carrying on their petty private squabbles within range of public audibility, putting the public to sleep with their tabloid perversions, while quietly conspiring to keep off-limits any authentic discussion of issues of genuine public significance.
It is time that the newspapers and the TV channels woke up from their somnolence and put an end to the charade of glamorizing the rapid encroachments on the best traditions of democracy. The Lockheed-Martins, BAEs and Tatas cannot be expected to behave with a sense of public responsibility. They would not be where they are had they had that. They have to be exposed and restrained. It is impossible without the media.
If freedom matters to us, we must heed Rousseau: "A free people obey laws and laws only, and it is by the force of the laws that it does not obey men."
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.