The Need to Reconnect Value with Values. Interview with Nitasha Kaul

Nitasha Kaul interviewed during the launch event of Development 52.3 'Beyond Economics', which was held in New York on 29-31 October 2009.

Q: The financial crisis has already turned into an economic crisis. What is your view of the main risk of the crisis hitting the real economy?

A: I think that the crisis is already very much a crisis about the real economy, and in fact the crisis is affecting real people, especially those in the most vulnerable and impoverished state in this world, and has been so for decades if not longer. However, people are giving this crisis attention now that it has affected the interests of capital, now that it has affected big financial firms, and now that the knock on effect has become more obvious. But for the real economy the crisis has gone up for a very long time and the fact that statistics might tell us soon that growth has rebounded or that certain figures have improved for inflation and unemployment should not blind us to the fact that this is fundamentally also a crisis of ethics. The fact that we live in a world where there is an increasing democratic deficit, that people, in spite of being politically enfranchised, are actually disenfranchised. The fact that people's basic needs, their livelihoods, their everyday's existence is so precarious, these things are long-term factors, and even when the statistics improve those difficulties will remain.

Q: You say in your article you wrote for Development that bankers try to maximize their profit because they follow the economic logic which is dominant in our society. How can we change this 'lack of concern and conscience for fellow beings' as you term it in your article?

A: I was prompted to write this article by spending time with the G20 protest, in fact caught between two police lines with two sets of protesters on either side. I just happened to be there at the time when people were being corralled of. There was one set of protesters on one side, one police line, another police line and I was in this no person's zone in the middle, and since I had gone there with the intent to photographically document some of this but my camera was out of battery, I could just observe this, think about it, come back and I wanted to write about it. What I saw was economic violence. Governments have now intelligence briefings that tell them that if people face increasing economic deprivation they are going to react in political ways and that is some kind of economic violence because it's caused by economic grievance. What I wanted to argue is that economic violence is equally and more a different kind of economic violence which is the violence caused by spurious economics.

Q: What do you mean exactly by violence caused by spurious economics?

A: If people see massively divergent rewards for work, if people see increasing inequality, unemployment, and a predictable perpetuation of the pecking order, in which the most vulnerable lose, if they see the perpetuation of that daily crises that they face, then that is violence that's caused by the realization of economic principles that focus on narrow self-interest. The point is that when these protests were happening there were bankers weaving 20 pounds notes from their window. So the question is 'don't these people get it?' Some people were bloodied by these protests and one person even died. The point is they don't get it because they have been inculcated in a system where they can't see, it becomes an ideological blindspot, and this economic violence then perpetuates itself. The other aspect is that we have to think of development not just in terms of provisioning more things, or increasing choices. Development is also about lessening suffering, it's also about a different kind of consciousness that enables people to perceive themselves as embedded in a world where they are connected to other human beings, to nature, connected to the whole world around them. What we really want is a new definition of self-interest. So if one wants to be irrational in conventional terms, in economically conventional terms, they wouldn't be irrational, my self-interest is not solely about the body container that I am but also the people who form part of my world and the world.

Q: So how can civil society contribute to this? Is it a change in culture that you suggest, a change in how we view economics?

A: Firstly we have to realize that something can be economically profitable, economically right but ethically or morally wrong. Civil society organizations should not only make their arguments in saying 'this is the more economic way to proceed, that it's better because we can show that the benefits exceed the costs'. There are also spaces to make ethical and moral arguments. Secondly we have to question the accepted economic wisdom of rationality and efficiency. Everyone says 'this is more efficient, therefore we should do it'. Let alone the idea that markets are efficient- we almost have this kind of enforcement of these euphemisms- that the market is free, itís efficient. But what does a free market mean? I would argue that it's free in very specific ways, it makes people be free to pursue courses of action that actually harm others but benefit them. Or something is efficient but I would argue 'who is it efficient for?' It may be efficient for one set of actors but very inefficient for people, for example caregivers. We have to reconnect value with values and not distil all the causes of value into the one economic value. How we value something comes from our values and therefore the valuation we place on things, and the way we make something remunerative or not. Gender and care are important fields in which people argue for drawing the boundaries in a different way. Finally, economics is not a monolithic discipline, I mean it is in the way it is thought but in understanding it we should pluralize it and the way I do it phonetically is by saying econo/mixes. We should see economics for the plural set of constructions that are always also about social and political issues. And those ideological and political issues cannot be seen in isolation. Economy should not be seen as a system but as something which is the effect of our practices, something that we can transform.

Q: You said that you left economics before the financial crisis. So you are not teaching economics now?

A: I came to economics because I grew up in India and economics was something I wanted to understand and I wanted to understand inequality. Studying economics was oriented around how to be rich rather than how to understand poverty. And so over the years I gradually explored my discontent with economics more and more and after my PhD I used to teach economics but it was very difficult to function within that ideology and discourse. And I wrote it in my book Imagining Economics Otherwise, it's exactly that, a testament to how I feel about it, but I also write poetry and fiction on similar sorts of things. I am looking at the transition to democracy in Buthan which is a country pursuing a different kind of development paradigm, Gross National Happiness rather than GDP, so there is a commonality of identity and political economy in what I do, but I explore that through various different ways of writing.

Interview by Laura Fano Morrissey 

Click here to read the abstract of Nitasha Kaul's article in Development 52.3

Nitasha Kaul is economist, scholar and writer based at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. She is the author of the book Imagining Economics Otherwise: Encounters with Identity/Difference and Snapshots of a Changing Kingdom: Democracy and Identity in Bhutan. 


Cover photo: Iain Winfield