Friday June 21, 2024

Development and transvaluation

By Hussain H Zaidi
July 15, 2021

Popularized by German philosopher Nietzsche, the concept of transvaluation of values implies that norms and ideals embodied in a moral system shouldn’t be hostile to life and progress. At the very least, cultural values must be concordant with the economic or political goals set by a people.

No society, for example, can register economic development by keeping a half of its population and potential workforce – women – in shackles. By the same token, democracy can’t mature in a polity which looks down upon debate, dissent and consent or which confers upon its political leadership a cult status.

Of course, neither development nor democracy has an intrinsic value – that is to say they should be judged by their consequences – and it’s open to a nation to eschew or embrace them. But if it chooses either or both, it must be prepared to undergo a transvaluation of values. Should it fall between two stools, it will never be able to hit bull’s eye.

Let’s put democracy aside and focus on development. It is a widely held view in our part of the world that Western societies are creaking under the strain of materialism (read: lack of principles) and individualism (read: each to themselves). Even if such a view were to be consistent with the facts, it would at best be a half truth. The West may be in decline, but this predicament follows a long period of triumph and glory.

The spectacular economic and technological progress that the West registered over the past two centuries, of which we have drawn upon as well despite all our reservations about its cultural values, owes substantially to materialism and individualism properly understood and divested of the negative ethical connotations that these terms have unfortunately acquired in societies like ours.

Development, like its antithesis of impoverishment, has above all a cultural context. Capital formation is a necessary ingredient of development. But no society has made significant strides on the road to economic development by simply building factories or upgrading infrastructure. In the course of development, the biggest challenge a society faces is to evolve the values that support, rather than discourage, efforts for economic turnaround. The objective of economic development must become part of society’s value structure.

Yes, a people are free to shun economic development as a goal if they are not well-disposed towards changes of far-reaching significance in the social structure that the pursuit of the goal entails. But they can’t have the one without the other.

A glance at the history of Western Europe and North America, which together constitute most of the developed world, would reveal that economic development was driven by a supportive social structure. On the basis of the Western experience, that social structure may be sketched as follows: a society aspiring for economic development must have a positive attitude towards life. People by and large must attach high value to life in the herein. They must not dismiss the world of flesh and desire as essentially evil. While it may have its merits otherwise, a philosophy of otherworldliness is fatal to development.

On a positive note, a society must put a high premium on things material and must be willing to render the necessary sacrifices. It's only in this sense that Western societies may be called materialistic. Let’s not forget that ‘To be rich is glorious’ was the most powerful watchword when the Chinese set forth on economic development during the late 1970s, which transformed them from one of the most impoverished nations to the globe’s second largest economy, where absolute poverty has recently been eliminated.

Not only that, individuals ought to believe that by dint of their efforts, they can change the course of their life and make the world a better place. Fatalism is equally fatal to economic progress.

The predominant way of thinking in a society seeking economic development should be rational and empirical. A set of beliefs should not be treated as binding merely because it's rooted in traditions or customs regarded as sacrosanct. One of the most cherished beliefs which Western society had inherited was that the earth was in the centre of the universe. However, the geocentric view never passed the empirical test and finally gave way to the heliocentric view.

A scientist is always prepared to have his/her theories tested. In case, fresh evidence, which can't be accounted for by the theory of the day crops up, it's the theory and not the evidence that's set aside. Such has been the prevailing attitude in developed societies. By contrast, in backward societies, it's the belief, not evidence, that prevails in case of a conflict.

Scientific attitude gives rise to individualism. If long-held traditions can be questioned, the claim of the group – clan, tribe, society – as their repository to be invariably right can also be. Individualism, contrary to what's popularly believed in our part of the world, does not mean letting everyone do what they want – that would be catastrophic. Instead, it means giving individuals the right to think and decide for themselves. In modern states, the individual's freedom of conscience, expression, association, movement and profession are regarded as fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution viz-a-viz both society and the government.

The right of the individual to economic initiative and private property played an important role in the growth of the market economy and the accompanying technological and economic development. As one economist puts it, “high need achievement, high need-autonomy, and high need dominance” are essential features of an industrialized society. The value of the individual is determined by the status they acquire by dint of their hard work rather than by the status ascribed at birth. Venues of social mobility, both upward and downward, are wide open resulting in the circulation of the elite.

By contrast, societies which look upon individualism as dangerous and seek to suppress it either through state machinery or by collective action, such as mobs or as in our case through religious edicts, find it arduous to graduate from underdevelopment. One of the changes that economic development entails is displacement of the existing elite – the landed gentry, the clergy, etc. To safeguard their position, the elite use the dominant narrative to silence dissenting voices.

Development necessitates changes in the family structure as well. Since the joint family system stifles individual initiative, the nucleus family becomes the dominant form of family organization. With women increasingly joining the workforce, decision-making in the family gets more democratic even if it may make marriage susceptible to dissolution. Divorce no more has a stigma attached to it. Family planning gains wide acceptance and the birth rate comes down. Family organization assumes a variety of forms, such as a reconstituted family (after divorce a couple finds other partners), a single-parent household, a single-person household, pre-family (young children leaving their parents to try their luck), etc.

In many under-developed societies, social norms do not approve of changes in the traditional family organization, which runs counter to development efforts.

Development is not without its costs. But a society which regards economic progress as a goal worth pursuing must be willing to pay the necessary costs whether they are in the form of changes in family organization, or attitude towards life and work.

The problem with developing countries like Pakistan is that they are keen to emulate the attractive lifestyle of developed nations – driving in luxury autos, flying in privately owned jets, and living in centrally air-conditioned or heated houses – and at the same time are not willing to open up their culture to the changes which made that lifestyle possible. One outcome of this cultural lag is that they become a consumption-oriented society, which time and again has to borrow from the developed nations, whose values they otherwise assail, to sustain that pricey lifestyle.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi