Recently, PM Narendra Modi gave yet another stellar speech in the parliament. This speech was important for several reasons. This was the first general address by the head of the state after the pandemic hit us. Several questions were lingering for some time and the PM was expected to answer most of them. Also, this speech came after an extremely important budget and a slew of third wave reforms that were ushered in by the government during and after the lockdowns. What struck me the most during the budget and PM’s speech is the unabashed utterance of the P word i.e. Privatization.
We in India have been lingering under the socialist hangover for so long, that we have had to invent words like ‘disinvestment’ to even begin thinking about reducing the public sector influence in our private lives. In such a backdrop, chest thumping about privatizing the ever loss making PSUs is nothing short of audacious. But not to anyone’s surprise, the opposition hit back by making a petty comment about ‘Hum 2 Hamare 2 ki sarkar’. This was nothing but a jibe to the long standing reference to Ambani and Adani. The first and the second richest persons in India have become a virtual punching bag for not only the anti-reformists but also for the entirety of the political left. This attempt to make the Gujarati duo into India’s poster boys bourgeoisie is neither new nor surprising. But this pegs the question – Why do we hate billionaires?
Indian Society and Mimetic Violence
To answer the above question, we need to understand the current nature of the Indian society. Even with the economic reforms and the subsequent boom in the economic growth, a large part of the country is still poor. Adding to that were the horrific socialist years for a young republic which made prosperity a distant dream for most Indians. Indian millennials are the first Indian generation in history to have seen abundance of most things for most of their lives. A large part of India is still playing catch up. India is also largely a status driven society. Many rich societies also value status but a society which lacks enough economic opportunities values status more than its prosperous counterparts. We tend to fill the gaps left by low economic growth and social mobility with signals of status. For example, weddings in India are a great way to signal status. People borrow money to signal status that they don’t have. Rich people on the other hand don’t need to flaunt their status beyond their means as their wealth gives them access to things that even status can’t. This brings us to the French philosopher Rene Girard and his theory of ‘Mimetic violence’.
To put it succinctly, Girard states that humans fight not because we are different but because we are the same. When we are the same, we end up chasing the same goals and end up as competitors instead of peers. This effectively results in violence which Girard terms as Mimetic violence. But as the society progresses, the warring participants feel the need to end the violence. But since none of the warring factions are willing to back down, they find something Girard calls a ‘scapegoat’. This scapegoat acts like a surrogate victim who is held responsible for the violence. This helps the warring factions to escape the violence as both parties get a face saver. The problem is that the scapegoat is often innocent.
Status and status games are by definition zero sum. If many people are of the same status then that status makes no sense. For one person to gain status, another has to lose. India largely being a status driven society, often engages in these frivolous status games. This gives rise to our own forms of mimetic violence in the form of envy and hatred for anyone who is seen to be doing well for themselves. In order to maintain our status in our own minds we find a way to make a scapegoat out of our fellow prosperous citizens by assuming that the wealth they have accumulated must be ill-gotten wealth. If you are following the thought, Ambani-Adani are nothing but our Girardian Scapegoats.
Are billionaires good or bad?
This is, as usual, a complicated question. But it is simplified to an extent by Ruchir Sharma in his books. In short he posits that whether billionaires are good or bad depends on where their wealth has come from. Wealth that has come from rent seeking, political connections, passed on for generations, etc is much less ideal for a society as it extracts wealth at the expense of others. But wealth accumulated from investments in innovations, new technologies, etc often is valuable as it creates a tide that lifts all boats. I would put Ambani and Adani in the second camp as their wealth or future wealth is dependent on telecommunications tech and international trade respectively. Both of which have a significant positive impact on India’s economic progress.
When we neglect this fact, we risk losing out on potential economic activity that arises due to the investments that such people make. Adani by virtue of his investments in ports is having a monumental impact on India’s ability to trade with the world. None is stranger to the tectonic shift that Jio has brought in India’s internet and tech landscape. Let’s admit, no government or private entity would have the financial and mental wherewithal to patiently put 20 billion dollars in a tightly competed field of telecommunications. We often tend to forget the second and third order consequences of this phenomenon. Let’s take the example of Steve Jobs. Apple not only created the iPhone which literally changed the world, but the archetypal great founder Steve Jobs inspired millions others to start their own ventures thereby creating a virtuous cycle of economic progress.
That’s not to say that billionaires are all saints and only care for the greater societal good. The recent adventures of our Bad Boy Billionaires certainly doesn’t help my case. But a little nuance always comes handy in this complex world.
So what do we do?
This piece is not in defence of the ultra rich. To say that they have enough resources to defend themselves would be a severe understatement. This is to make ourselves reflect on our own attitude towards wealth and prosperity. We don’t hate the rich if we know that we can be a participant in the same system. We hate them when we know that the system is stacked against us by the same people. Thus we need to differentiate between the rent seekers and the wealth creators. Wealth creators are good for society as they often chase wealth in opportunities that have the ability to grow the overall societal wealth.
Being economically independent makes us socially independent, thus ensuring individual liberty. Chasing wealth, as opposed to chasing status, can be a positive sum game. As Girard would suggest, to be happy and prosperous we all need to be differentiated. Differentiation suggests having own differentiated goals that make us economically and socially independent which in turn renders any form of mimetic violence, obsolete.
In summary, chase opportunities, think independently, live long and prosper! Cheers