Archive for November 3rd, 2011

A pattern of ripples?

November 3, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

There are few things in the world as beguilingly enigmatic as the rivers of the Sundarbans.

 

 

 

Underneath the surface there are titanic currents and counter-currents; there are billions of creatures, large and small; there are thousands of micro-environments, some hanging in place like tethered balloons, and some joining together to form continuous ecosystems; even the composition of the water changes continually with the flow, the salinity varying from place to place.

Yet all that can be seen of this hurtling universe is an illegible pattern of ripples and striations on the surface. If you stare at the water long enough the markings will assume a certain kind of predictability, a sort of ‘normalcy’, and you’ll forget that what you are looking at is exactly turbulence, which is by its nature unpredictable. Only very rarely do the patterns suggest a cumulative movement – it is almost impossible to know when a huge whirlpool will suddenly appear, or when a river will break through some jutting mud-bank, thereby changing its course.

The flow of human events is similarly deceptive. That which is ‘historic’ never reveals itself in its earliest stages except through tiny, almost invisible ripples and eddies. Over the last few days, reading about all that is going on in the world, I’ve sometimes had the feeling of being in a boat in the Sundarbans, heading towards a bend in the river, running into ripples that suggest the presence of something unknown ahead.

Today, with Europe’s future pivoting upon Greece, the leaders of the G-20 are meeting in Cannes; next door, Italy is heading towards a major crisis (never a good sign for the world at large); yesterday a small group of protesters in Oakland, California, were able to shut down, against all the odds, the fifth largest port in the United States. They carried signs calling for a ‘General Strike’ – a phrase that harks back to the most turbulent years of the last century.

At the other end of the US there was a ripple of a different kind, much smaller, but in its own way perhaps equally significant. In a show of support for the ‘Occupy’ movement a large group of students walked out of Harvard University’s flagship economics course, taught by N. Gregory Mankiw, a leading theoretician of the right and one-time advisor to George Bush.

“Harvard graduates have been complicit [and] have aided many of the worst injustices of recent years. Today we fight that history,” said one student. “Harvard students will not do that anymore. We will use our education for good, and not for personal gain at the expense of millions.”

In their letter of protest the students wrote: ‘We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.’

While writing Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke I often wondered why the doctrines of  ‘Free Trade’ and the ‘Free Market’ are treated as if they have no history, no past. How is it that unlike all other ideologies these have been absolved of any burden of guilt for what has been done, historically, in their name? One reason perhaps is that mainstream economists like Mankiw have somehow succeeded in persuading the world that these are not doctrines at all but akin to forces of nature, a kind of ‘natural law’ (this was of course, exactly what opium traders believed).

It is both heartening, and in a sense, astonishing, that a protest in a park has provided these students (amongst the world’s best) with an insight that was denied to them by their education – an education which is widely vaunted to be the best in the world. Was it Bertrand Russell who described education as the chief obstacle to intelligence and freedom of thought?

As a prelude to the event I will be doing tonight with Jonathan Spence, at the Asia Society in New York, I have been re-reading The Gate of Heavenly Peace, his masterly study of the Chinese Revolution (I have admired his work for more years than I can count and am immensely excited at the prospect of meeting him).

When I came to Spence’s chapter on the May 4 movement of 1919 I was struck by this manifesto, also written by idealistic young students who were defying their teachers:

 

 

 

‘We believe that the moral progress of mankind should expand to a standard above the life based on animal impulse; therefore, we should extend a feeling of friendship and mutual assistance to all peoples of the world….Although we do not believe in the omnipotence of politics, we recognize that politics is an important aspect of public life. And we believe that in a genuine democracy, political rights must be distributed to all people. Even though there may be limitations, the criteria for the distribution will be whether people work or not, rather than whether they own property or not.’

In the first weeks of May 1919 I am sure that very few people in China noticed the small bands of students rippling through the streets.



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