Indian Culture and Economic Development

Which factors determine country’s economic development? Development scholars have looked into this question for more than a century and they came up with different explanations like the theory of colonial victimization, dependency theory, geography and climate, institutions, culture etc. Out of these explanations the cultural explanation is fundamental. I strongly think that culture is the most important factor influencing the process of economic development of any country. I also strongly think that the twin process of biological and cultural evolution together, the gene-culture evolution, ultimately determines whether a country is going to develop or not.  This is because human beings are a product of both biological and cultural evolution.

Not going into the contentious issue of genetic basis of culture and economic development, here I just want to focus on cultural factors as a determining force behind economic development. I was recently reading an article by Argentine lawyer and sociologist Prof. Mariano Grondona  A Cultural Typology of Economic Development and found it very relevant to the development difficulties that a third world country like India faces since time immemorial.

In his article Prof. Grondona divides the (cultural) value system, values that can be grouped in a consistent pattern, of any society into two parts: 1) value system that favors economic development, and 2) value system that resists economic development. He lists down twenty different cultural factors, which are part of a value system, that are viewed very differently in cultures that are favorable and resistant to economic development. A quick review of these factors will tell us whether the Indian culture is in favor of economic development or resistant.

  • Religion: As Prof. Grondano says, throughout history, religion has been the richest source of values. A religion which treats life’s winners (the rich) unfavorably and losers (the poor) favorably is antithetical to economic development. Such religion breeds cultural values that exalts poverty and condemns riches. Hindu society and Hinduism is just like this. In India people who gave up productive societal lives for an ascetic life are revered everywhere whereas successful businessmen are derided for being greedy and selfish. Hard honest work is scorned and life of lethargy and laziness is celebrated. Such a culture can never develop.
  • Trust in the individual: The principal engine of economic development is the work and creativity of individuals. What induces them to strive and invent is a climate of liberty that leaves them in control of their own destiny. If individuals feel that others are responsible for them, the effort of individuals will ebb. If others tell them what to think and believe, the consequence is either a loss of motivation and creativity or a choice between submission or rebellion. However, neither submission nor rebellion generates development. Submission leaves a society without innovators, and rebellion diverts energies away from constructive efforts toward resistance, throwing up obstacles and destruction. To trust the individual, to have faith in the individual, is one of the elements of a value system that favors development. In contrast, mistrust of the individual, reflected in oversight and control, is typical of societies that resist development. Implicit in the trusting society is the willingness to accept the risk that the individual will make choices contrary to the desires of government. If this risk is not accepted and the individual is subjected to a network of controls, the society loses the essential engine of economic development, namely, the aspiration of each of us to live and think as we wish, to be who we are, to transform ourselves into unique beings. Where there are no individuals, only “peoples” and “masses,” development does not occur. What takes place instead is either obedience or uprising. And India is precisely this type of society where the individual simply doesn’t exist. An individual’s only identity is to which caste or clan or religion or community or family he belongs. The societal and community control over an individual are so many that it numbs one’s mind. Going against societal norms for most is suicidal. A society where such tight controls on an individual exist can never develop.
  • The moral imperative: The culture that is favorable to economic development is moral in nature. In development favorable cultures moral law and social reality coincides. In development-resistant cultures, on the other hand, there are two worlds that are out of touch with each other. One is the exalted world of the highest standards and the other is the real world of furtive immorality and generalized hypocrisy. The law is a remote, utopian ideal that does little more than express what people might in theory prefer, whereas the real world, effectively out of touch with all law, operates under the law of the jungle, the law of the cleverest or the strongest, a world of foxes and lions disguised as lambs. India is such a society of generalized hypocrisy. People say something in the public and do exactly opposite in private. The hypocrisy starts right from the top level authorities and leaders, both political and religious, and goes right down to the last man.
  • Two concepts of wealth: In societies resistant to development, wealth above all consists of what exists; in favorable societies, wealth above al l consists of what does not yet exist. This means societies favorable to development will innovate to change their future wealth whereas resistant ones will be happy in accumulating whatever wealth they can, and India is such a society where people are simply busy amassing wealth instead of busy thinking about how to increase their wealth in future. This is the reason why hardly any innovation takes place in India.
  • Two views of competition: The necessity of competing to achieve wealth and excellence characterizes the societies favorable to development, not only in the economy but elsewhere in the society. Competition is central to the success of the enterprise, the politician, the intellectual, the professional. In resistant societies, competition is condemned as a form of aggression. India is a society where most people, whether a businessman or politician or an intellectual or professional, hate any kind of competition. Most people are busy creating monopoly organizations for themselves using the state machinery. Indians love protectionism. 
  • Two notions of justice: In resistant societies, distributive justice is concerned with those who are alive now-an emphasis on the present that is also reflected in a propensity to consume rather than to save. The favorable society is likely to define distributive justice as that which also involves the interests of future generations. In such societies, the propensity to consume is often smaller and the propensity to save is often greater. A small percentage of people in India think of a future generation in India. The people in power, who are in charge of societal institutions, can hardly think beyond their tenures. They are ruining the coming generations to give little (false) benefit to the present.
  • The value of work: Work is not highly valued in progress-resistant societies … The entrepreneur is suspect but the manual laborer somewhat less so, since he must work to survive. At the top of the prestige ladder are the intellectual, the artist, the politician, the religious leader, the military leader. Again, India is exactly this type of society. Entrepreneurs, especially the smaller honest ones, are derided but unproductive people like politicians, religious leaders etc., are worshiped like Gods.
  • The role of heresy: A development resistant society always censors people who are dissidents. Heresy is always punished. Any kind of questioning of the established norms and authorities is strictly prohibited. But such questioning is the very process that creates innovation and new ideas that promote development. In India most people are simple followers of the past traditions and customs. Questioning is forbidden. Inquiring minds will get frustrated in India and so most of them fly to Western countries. In new India (sic) rational people are not tolerated and are now murdered regularly.
  • To educate is not to brainwash: Value systems favorable to development nurture the formation of individuals who are innovators, heretics. Education is the principal instrument of this nurturing. However, this must be a form of education that helps the individual discover his or her own truths, not one that dictates what the truth is. In value systems resistant to development, education is a process that transmits dogma, producing conformists and followers. In India the education system is a pure propaganda machinery of the government for brainwashing the future generation so that everyone become docile citizens. There is only rot memorizing going on inside the classrooms. Schools only create herds of graduates who can’t think on their own. No wonder India is a third world country.
  • The importance of utility: The developed world eschews unverifiable theory and prefers to pursue that which is practically verifiable and useful. To know what is verifiable and useful requires scientific attitude which hardly few Indians have. Indians are fatalist who will blindly follow what their lives dictate to them instead of controlling their lives through their intelligent actions. Such people can hardly develop themselves.
  • The lesser virtues: Advanced societies esteem a series of lesser virtues that are virtually irrelevant in traditional cultures: a job well done, tidiness, courtesy, punctuality. These contribute to both efficiency and harmoniousness in human relations. They are unimportant in a resistant culture. A job well done, tidiness, courtesy and punctuality are unknown concepts for most Indians. The Indian society hardly values time, and that is the reason why the chances of its development are minuscule in present.
  • Time focus: There are four categories of time: the past, the present, the immediate future, and a distant future that merges into the afterlife. The time focus of the advanced societies is the future that is within reach; it is the only time frame that can be controlled or planned for. The characteristic of traditional cultures is the exaltation of the past. To the extent that the traditional culture does focus on the future, it is on the distant, eschatological future. Indians always look to their glorious past forgetting their present dismal condition. If at all they think about the future then it is either their afterlives in heaven or hell or the next life. All want to get moksha in the afterlife but will happily live a wretched present life!
  • Rationality: The modern world is characterized by its emphasis on rationality. The rational person derives satisfaction at the end of the day from achievement, and progress is the consequence of a vast sum of small achievements. Most Indians are irrational and tribal to their core so true progress is impossible.
  • Authority: In rational societies, power resides in the (natural) law. In resistant societies, the authority of the prince or the state is similar to that of an irascible, unpredictable God. People are not expected to adapt themselves to the known, logical, and permanent dictates of the law; rather, they must attempt to divine the arbitrary will of those with power. This perfectly characterizes the Indian society. The present God of most Indians is Narendra Modi.
  • Worldview: In a culture favorable to development, the world is seen as a setting for action. The world awaits the person who wants to do something to change it. In a culture resistant to development, the world is perceived as a vast entity in which irresistible forces manifest themselves. These forces bear various names: God, luck, the devil, a powerful international conspiracy, capitalism, imperialism, Marxism etc. As I said above, upon any kind of failure or success most Indians will immediately blame of give credit to factors like God or luck etc. They will never say that my actions are responsible for my failure or success. Most Indians think their dismal condition is permanent and they can’t do anything to change it. This is a typical sign of a backward development resistant society.
  • Life view: In the progressive culture, life is something that I will make happen-I am the protagonist. In the resistant culture, life is something that happens to me – I must be resigned to it. Again, as I said above, most Indians are fatalist and they have resigned their lives to external forces. Whenever I discuss the issue of changing the Indian society in my classes most of my students will always say, what can we do sir? We are so small and powerless!
  • Salvation from or in the world: In the resistant conception, the goal is to save oneself from the world. But for the favorable culture salvation in the other world depends on the success of the individual’s efforts to transform this world. This again typifies the Indian society at large.
  • Two utopias: Both progress-prone and progress-resistant cultures embrace a certain kind of utopianism. In the progressive culture, the world progresses slowly toward a distant utopia through the creativity and effort of individuals. In the resistant culture, the individual seeks an early utopia that is beyond reach. The example of the latter in India is Narendra Modi’s grandiose utopian unrealizable vision of new India in 2022!
  • The nature of optimism: In the resistant culture, the optimist is the person who expects that luck, the gods, or the powerful will favor him or her. In the culture favorable to development, the optimist is the person who is resolved to do whatever is necessary to assure a satisfactory destiny, convinced that what he or she does will make the difference. This again is quintessential India.
  • Two visions of democracy: The resistant culture is the heir of the tradition of absolutism, even when it takes the form of Rousseauistic popular democracy, which admits no legal limits or institutional controls. The liberal, constitutional democracy of John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, James Madison etc., characterizes the vision of democracy in the progressive culture. Political power is dispersed among different sectors and the law is supreme. India is a namesake democracy only. Politicians behave worst than past nabobs and kings, and the law is absent.  

After reviewing the list of these twenty cultural factors that are favorable or resistant to economic development one can easily see that all twenty factors in India are resistant to economic development. This is not surprising as underneath the veneer of modern democracy India remains a collectivist tribal society. This resistant culture is the reason why India is still a third world country, and will remain as long as this resistant culture is not changing in favorable direction. Such cultural changes come only after centuries of persistent hard work.  And it is also possible that such changes might never come and India remains a third world country forever. In the end everything depends on Indians. If they wish they can change their culture, but if they are comfortable with the kind of miserable lives they are living in present then there is very little hope for the future.

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