Cultural nihilism by Girilal Jain

The New Statesman ceased to be the mentor of Indian social democrats of the well-heeled variety long before it went into decline and added “& society” to its name. Most of them may not have read the article entitled “Coming next: Christian socialism” in its March 19 issue.

But in the wake of the humiliating defeat suffered by the French Socialist Party it is particularly relevant for them, discussing as it does the British Labour Party leadership’s efforts to reclaim the religious, specifically Christian, ground it once occupied and then lost.

This return to Christian socialism and the movement away from even a watered-down version of Marxism may or may not help it win the next elections. But that is not the point. The point is that crude economism is being found inadequate among the Labour in Britain as elsewhere.

Thus, India may well turn out to be its last refuge. Indeed, all over the western world, concern is growing over the consequences of economism which covers attempts to explain the breakdown of the family and the phenomenal growth of crime in terms of economic causes.

The late sixties and early seventies witnessed devaluation of tradition in the western world. The growth of chick radicalism in our metropolises seeking to combine Naxalism, Mandalism, consumerism, if not alcoholism, and worse made fashionable by Berkley and Paris, can also be traced back to the same period.

The proponents have occupied the high visible ground which they think is also the high moral ground; it is not. As in much else, the United States has been in the lead in this “enterprise” of cultural nihilism which has been sought to be sold to the rest of us in the name of progress as well as multi-culturalism. And just as Europeans became victim of the racism they espoused in relation to Jews, Asian and Africans, Americans have fallen a prey to the philosophy of unrestrained and instant gratification they have propagated. According to Mr William J. Bennett, a former education secretary, since 1960 “there has been a 560 per cent increase in violent crime, more that 400 per cent increase in illegitimate births; A quadrupling of divorce rate; A tripling of percentage of children living in one-parent homes; More than 200 per cent increase in the teenage suicide rate”. Experts in the US are agreed that “children are in worse shape than generally thought” and that they have been the worst victims of the rise in divorce and illegitimate birth rates and abandonment of traditional values. Family is the best anti-poverty programme there is and it has all been vanished.

This issue of the movement away from tradition is discussed by Mr Magnet, an editor of the Fortune, in a book entitled “The Dream and the Nightmare: The sixties legacy to the underclass”.

He poses the question why the indices of social pathology listed earlier went wrong in the late sixties and early seventies. One answer is that just as barriers to upward mobility were being removed as a result of the success of the civil rights movement, the values and character traits – industriousness, sobriety, thrift, self-discipline and postponement of gratification – were being ridiculed by “intellectuals” and subverted by generous social welfare and judicial leniency.

Mr Magnet is, of course, not the first person to discover that poverty is more a cultural than an economic phenomenon.

Keynes, much quoted in other contexts, noted the central importance of ideas and traditions decades ago. Virginia Woolf quotes him as saying towards the end of life: “Our generation owed a great deal to our fathers’ religion … And the young… Who are brought up without it will never get so much out of life. They are trivial: Like dogs in their lusts. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity and yet we had its benefits.” I have quoted Western writers and thinkers for two reasons. Their observations have been readily available in the newspapers I read and currently, the atmosphere is not congenial for references to Indian rishis and saints.

Of course, another cultural current is flowing in the country. But its adherement is not in the forefront of our public discourse. Incidentally, Mr Magnet’s “underclass” is the dominant elite in ours.

Economic Times 3 April 1993

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