A comment on this blog is worth highlighting because it is too important to be buried among the comments. It is from Gulab Singh who wrote:
What have you done to amend the situation, oh armchair intellectual ? Cribbing about the status quo is pointless, if you don’t follow it up with action. If you don’t have a way to put into practice the ideas you espouse, then your ideas are not practical. You seem to have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about “what should be done”, but what have you really done?
I cannot respond to the accusation of being an “armchair intellectual” because I am not sufficiently vain to call myself an intellectual, armchair or not. However, I would like to speak in defense of armchair intellectuals first, then admit that I am basically an armchair critic, then argue why critics are important in the overall scheme of things, and finally explain what I am doing to move beyond just being a mere critic.
The word intellectuals is often used pejoratively by some. They seem to value only activities that appear to move matter on the face of the earth, activities that result in things that you can hold in your hand, take a bite out of, bounce off the walls, see it plainly with unaided eyes. It is born out of a misunderstanding of human nature, human society, human capacity. Humans are primarily distinguished from other life forms on earth by their capacity to think, comprehend the nature of the universe they live in, analyse and solve problems in the abstract, comprehend the notion of time, plan for the uncertain future, etc. What humans produce is not just the result of physical action, but perhaps more importantly it is the result of the cogitation, the non-physical analysing, comprehending, solving and planning which goes on in the background and which superfically appear to be a pointless waste of time.
Ideas matter, both for good and for evil. It is safe to claim that pretty much everything you see around yourself is the result of ideas combined with action. The ideas come out of the intellectualizing of some people. Undoubtedly it isn’t that merely having ideas is sufficient–someone has to translate them into stuff. But ideas are primary, whether they relate to the physical world of objects, or to the abstract world of political economy and psychology. We can do worse than recall the last half of the last paragraph in John Maynard Keynes’s book General Theory of Employment Interest and Money.
” . . . the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
Keynes confined his opinion to the ideas of the worldly philosophers (academic scribblers, as he called them) but analogous statements can be made in practically all fields of human endeavor.
Consider an intellectual such as James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Did he build stuff? No, he gave a mathematical formalism to electricity and magnetism. The echoes of his intellectualizing reverbrates through time and touches every aspect of modern society.
A little reflection is all that is needed to realize that intellectuals of all varities — including the armchair ones — matter. How can you tell what is going on inside the brain of an intellectual who is passively sitting in an armchair, and how can you ever imagine what earth-shaking ideas are being formulated within?
I am not an armchair intellectual–I don’t have that brain power. But I believe that I do have the brain power to be a competent critic. Do we need critics? Yes, because we need keen observers to tell us what we may not be fully aware of. The one who tells you that you have spinach stuck between your teeth is a competent critic pointing out something that you need to take action on. Of course, you could berate the fellow and tell him that all he does is point out things but not do anything about it. But then, the critic, at least in this instance, is not empowered to do anything: you are.
We need people (critics) who recognize that things aren’t hunky-dory. Then of course we need people (thinkers) who understand why they aren’t h-d. And then we need people (intellectuals) who know what needs to be done to go from ~(h-d) to (h-d). Finally, we need people (movers) who can do the things that need to be done to effect the actual transformation. It needs all sorts to make a world. It is very rare that you find someone who is good at being a critic, a thinker, an intellectual, and a mover. Good movers build on the work of critics, thinkers, and intellectuals.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that when movers act without basing their actions on the work of competent intellectuals, thinkers, and critics, they quite frequently make things worse. These movers are like the monkey trying to save a fish from drowning by putting it up on a tree. It is very important to comprehend the nature of the problem and only then act on an appropriate set of moves. The Buddha’s directive was clear: First do no harm; then try to do good.
The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Very few of the movers who do harm (and their numbers are legion) actually wake up with an evil glint in their eyes and act to make things worse. Most are well-meaning monkeys trying to save fish from drowning. Again, as they say, we should not ascribe to malice what can sufficiently explained as stupidity.
Now on to what is it that I do. I am first of all a critic. Born and brought up in India, I am first and foremost a critic of India because India matters to me. I want it to be better than what it is today. I do believe that India can be better. Next, I try to be a “thinker.” I want to understand why things are the way they are, to understand the root causes of the problems I see around. The time I spent studying economics formally has been of great help to me in this regard. My engineering background had not prepared me for it.
In a few areas that I focused on–namely, rural development and education–I have some tentative solutions. I write and talk about it whenever I get the chance. Most of all, I try to sell my ideas in the marketplace of ideas. Again, as an economist of the neoclassical school, I believe that markets grind out efficient outcomes (subject to conditions, of course) and in the marketplace for ideas, the good ones will survive (subject to some conditions, again.)
Thus I claim that I am a full-fledged “critic,” a somewhat competent “thinker” and a budding “intellectual” as I have defined those types. I am, so far at least, not a “mover.” Can I be a mover? I don’t know. But I am very cautious about making moves. I don’t want to do harm. Most of the time I want to play the role of being a critic, thinker and intellectual to others who are movers. For instance, I have spoken to the movers who are going to implement the Common Service Centers (CSC, a scheme of the eGovernance scheme of the Govt of India). In my capacity as a critic, I think it is a disastrous plan. As a thinker, I have pointed out why it is flawed. I have proposed alternatives.
One area in which I can also be a mover is that of education. But since this post is already so long, I will postpone the discussion for now.
So, coming back to answering Gulab Singh’s question, the answer is that I have not done anything because that is not what my nature — my dharma — is. But as I have argued above, it is not true that only movers add value to society. Even someone like me does have a positive role. They also serve, as the poet said, who only stand and wait.