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The crises of money
The Indian Express, India Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
There is no dearth of proposed solutions for the current moral crisis regarding political institutions: everything from the creation of independent investigative agencies with more powers to political reform is on the table. The big mystery of our time is not corruption; it is the breakdown of institutional proprieties at so many sites. And this crisis will only deepen. To paraphrase Freud, money is not about money. It is always important and signals very important different things, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express.

The current sense of moral crises, across a range of institutions, has led to a justifiable clamour for institutional reform and political accountability. There is no dearth of proposed solutions: everything from the creation of independent investigative agencies with more powers to political reform is on the table.


But here are three paradoxes of institutional reform. First, in an era where even the smallest of reforms has become hostage to political division, rancour and monumental shortsightedness, how do we expect the very same political forces to join hands and bring about larger and more consequential changes? In an era when routine functioning has become difficult, we are expecting political miracles.

Second, institutional measures are not a sufficient condition for reform. The tragedy of our times is that the “independent” institutions, whose formal powers were unchallenged, like the Supreme Court, have begun to lose moral authority, unable to dispose of the smallest of internal issues with any degree of confidence. The big mystery of our time is not corruption; it is the breakdown of institutional proprieties at so many sites. And this crisis will only deepen. Just looking at the quality of recruitment in so many institutions, it would be hard not to conclude that this crisis may deepen. Why do we not even for a moment think that new institutions will not reproduce the pathologies of the current ones? We need to think of not just formal quick fixes, but how norms come to be embedded in institutions.

Third, there is a great clamour for what might be called punitive solutions.


The current sense of institutional disorientation is pervasive, and infects a vast range of institutions: politics, judiciary, civil service, media, academia, corporates, armed forces, the professions. It is almost as if an entire ruling class, and those who have recently joined its ranks, have lost their sense of purpose, a sense of what their institutions are supposed to be about, a sense of their identity and mission. The more pervasive danger we face in these institutions is not corruption, it is a sense of anomie, where fewer and fewer members of these professions can give an account of what they are supposed to be about, in a way that can legitimise them with the public.


To paraphrase Freud, money is not about money. It is always important, but in times of social change it signals three different things. First, it is the means and sign of social mobility. Access to state offices is still an important path to social mobility. Second, the power of money is intimately tied to a form of democratisation. No one can now be assured of their social standing based on rank; all claims to authority are uncertain, and access to material power becomes, in the end, the sole fixed point and source of uncontestable value. In the professions in particular, when old closed guilds break down, money has the allure of being an “objective” criterion by which to measure worth. It is strangely democratic, in that it does not depend on any authority or closed peer group for validation. But it is strangely corrosive, for the meaning of professional accomplishment gets transmuted. Third, a consequence of democratisation is not just that it opens paths to mobility; it makes those already privileged fear losing what they have.


Societies are not held together only by laws, formal institutions or punitive measures. They depend upon a complex set of social understandings about the norms and objectives of different institutions and social roles. How are these social understandings produced? We take it for granted that we know the answer to this question. But the blunt truth is that in societies in transition the answer to this question is very elusive. There is a lot of hope vested in the fact that we believe the next generation will not be tainted by the complicities of the current one. But this is more hope than accomplished fact. The next generation is truly extraordinary in its talent and aspiration. But equally, it also has a great sense of entitlement, which may take a pathological form. It can be invested entirely in personal advancement; and the quest for security can itself produce, as Montesquieu taught us, new forms of timidity. It is perhaps not an accident that, with one or two exceptions, you see no young politicians respond to this sense of crisis. Where is the generational equivalent of the Young Turks that the last set of corruption crises generated? While we pursue our institutional solutions with assiduity, we should be under no illusion that the equally important task of moral education and cultivation of an institutional sensibility will be a long haul. Let us hope our good luck with growth buys us the time to settle into new moral bearings.

This article was published in the The Indian Express on Wednesday, January 5, 2011. Please read the original article here.
Author : Dr Mehta is the president of Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
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