Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Colonial University: Three Debates About Indian Education

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax
That the Board of Control of East India Company, the parliamentary body supervising the affairs of the East India Company from London, sent a famous dispatch - dubbed the 'Magna Charta of Indian Education' later on - in 1854 to Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, which proposed the establishment of three Presidency universities in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, is well-known. That Lord Dalhousie largely ignored the despatch does not matter, as its recommendations were implemented later by Lord Canning, Dalhousie's successor, after the Great Sepoy mutiny, and the universities were duly founded. The origin story, at least for British convenience, is better linked with the dispatch than the mutiny, and so it is told. 

The Hindu Nationalists in India see this as a realisation of Macaulay's dream, of creating natives who are Englishmen at heart, who they call 'Macaulay's Children' and blame for subverting the Hindu India and for creating a colonial hotchpotch. For the Liberal Nationalists too, this is a creation moment: The Indian universities became, over time, the fountainhead of an Indian modernity, which will supply the modern national ideas leading to the Independence of India. The inconvenient facts, like that the Colonial Universities very much contributed to a Hindu resurgence and most graduates of these universities loyally served the British Empire, are usually left out of the narrative. Because of this transmuted narrative, Colonial university, lived on Indian imagination after the independence, either in the form of attempts to create an intellectual elite, or in the deep suspicion of foreign education.

Despite the contentions about its impact, the back story of the 1854 Dispatch remains insufficiently interrogated. The apparent straight line from Macaulay's famous minutes of 1835 to the Dispatch may largely be a red herring. The Dispatch was, in more ways than one, a different beast, and it went well beyond Macaulay's ideas of Anglicization (in fact, it recommended the opposite - use of vernacular in Primary and Secondary schools). Opposed to latter's idealistic and evangelical overtones, the Dispatch was pragmatic: It was not revolutionary, but rather a compendium of earlier ideas, shaped by the confidence of the Victorian empire but also by practical considerations about India. It took ideas from other practically minded endeavours, like the proposed plan for the University of Calcutta drawn up in 1845, and English Education Minutes of 1853. The dispatch marked the conclusion of three debates about Indian education that dominated the conversation between British Parliament and the East India Company for three quarters of a century preceding it.

First and the most obvious of these debates was indeed the one between the Orientalists and the Anglicists. Macaulay's ideas of anglicizing Indian Education - something that he took from his reading of Tudor suppression of the Irish language and forced installation of English instead - is only the most famous of a long line of arguments running since Warren Hastings. Hastings, who encouraged education in Indian languages, and helped set up the Sanskrit College in Benares ('Athens of India') and Aliah Madrasah in Calcutta, had a political goal: To govern India in a way to which Indians 'acquiesce best'. In that sense, the opposite side of Macaulay's position was not just the Orientalists like William Jones and Horace Wilson, who were leading the studies of Indian languages and Indian archaeology, but more so the practically minded Conservatives, who wanted to preserve the Indian society as much as possible. For this latter group, the idea of forced change of social institutions in another country might soon come back to haunt their own, as James Cumming, a leading voice of preservation of Indian social order, thought of the Liberal ideas of reforming India: "Tom Paine is writing Indian Constitution".

At the core of the debate about the language of Indian education, then, there was a political debate about how to govern India. And, significant too is that there were three sides of this debate, rather than just two: This was English versus Sanskrit and Persian versus the Modern Indian Languages, such as Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Gujrati and Marathi. Framing the debate in Orientalist-vs-Anglicist terms miss this very important nuance.

Charles Wood's dispatch, which would have been partly drafted by John Stuart Mill, takes the pragmatic position on this debate: It might have taken Macaulay's ideas of an English educated elite, but it accepted the opposing position that no country could be educated in a language other than its own, too. It recommends a school system based on vernacular - neither in English nor in Sanskrit and Persian - and envisions Universities as vehicles for promoting Advanced scientific and western knowledge (more about this later). Indeed, the universities were to promote learning in Sanskrit and Persian too, but with Government and Courts using English (rather than Persian, as was the case previously), the interest in these ancient learned languages declined.

The Second debate was about Christianising India. This was very much Macaulay's central purpose, and it was so for the English evangelicals ever since the administration of Warren Hastings. Their's was a strong voice in the Indian education debate, starting with Charles Grant who had tirelessly campaigned for encouragement of missionaries and their schools in India. This was a central point of the debates in 1790s, in the amendments proposed by William Wilberforce in the East India Company's charter, as well as in 1812, when the Charter came up for renewal again. Arrayed against this position were again the more practical colonialists, including Warren Hastings, who thought India was best governed if its communities remained divided. The prospect of an India united by Christianity was what defeated the Wilberforce amendments, and this remained a strong leitmotif in the conversations about Indian education.

By 1854, though, there was a significant change in the thinking about education. Unlike in 1812, the responsibility of education has passed from the Church to the State, and the secular idea of education, as in English Education Minutes of 1853m remains at the heart of Wood's Dispatch. But it was also so that the argument that India was best governed in a divided state had by then become conventional wisdom.

The Third Debate - or perhaps we should treat this as the first and foremost - was about the effect of Education on India's national feelings. As early as 1784, East India Company officials argued that educating Indians might have a similar effect as in America, as they blamed the American universities for the loss of the colony. This was indeed the Conservative position. Arrayed against it were various Liberal positions, ranging from ideas about rule of law to an acceptance that Indians were far too numerous to be permanently kept under British rule, and Indian independence when it came, as it would invariably come, should still keep the Indians connected to Britain through education and language.

Wood's Dispatch embraced the Liberal position, but its central idea was also aimed to address the Conservative fears. It is important to remember here that the foundation of the universities were not the beginning of Higher Learning in English in India - there were already a number of colleges set up by private Indian initiative and philanthropic contributions, mainly by rich Indians - but rather to impose a structure on this growth of Higher Education. The purpose of the new universities were not to encourage studies of Liberal Arts or free thinking, but rather to discourage such idle pursuits and groups like Young Bengal from arising. The key proposition in this is to co-opt the Indians into the colonial bureaucracy, and make Professional Education (primarily Law) as the centrepiece of the Indian University project. This was some sort of a colonial genius - making an educated class of Hindus (they were Hindus mostly) a beneficiary of the Colonial enterprise - which would serve the empire well for the next 90 years or so.

In conclusion, then, the Colonial University, as envisioned in Wood's Dispatch, was a practical, pragmatic institution aimed at bureaucratisation of Indian education. It is this, rather than the presumed sins of Anglicization or Christianising, that became its most enduring, and damaging, legacy. Besides, contrary to the Liberal Nationalist narrative, the Colonial University never aimed to reform and unite Indians, but rather to enshrine old divisions of caste and religion and create new ones between the university educated and others. After Independence, Indians sought to move beyond the colonial legacy, but the ghosts of the Colonial University remained alive and well.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Inescapable Locality of Innovation

Two things trigger this thought. First, the conversation I have been recently engaged into, and particularly the question, why is Indian IT Industry is not more innovative. And, second, this is about the Not-For-Profit projects which I dabble with, which concern themselves with the task of creating innovation ecosystems in India and Africa.

My point is - despite all the fuss about Innovation - developing countries are doing quite poorly in innovation. Overall, the world is living in a bubble that Fredrik Erixon and Björn Wiegel will call an Innovation Illusion. There is a lot of talk and lots of people claiming that they have made a truly new thing - and media fawning over this and that - but apart from 'digitization' of some of the tasks, we are moving forward little. And, this is particularly acute in the developing world, which is doing some 'Copy and Catch-up' innovation (Tyler Cowen's term) but failing to solve their most basic problems. In more ways than one, Peter Drucker's observation that the last true innovation was the ATM Machine has a ring of truth around it.

I think what we miss in the innovation conversation is that all innovations are essentially local. Local problems spur the innovative spirit, local usage perfect the application and local market build the traction. Somehow, we visualise innovation as a neat event where some genius inventor unleash the next great product on the world: It is about great technology, brilliant men (usually men), breakthrough ideas and universal truth. Whatever the truth of this picture, it misses a lot. The big part it misses is usage - that all innovation goes through a cycle of acceptance, modification and often endless series of re-innovation - and this crucial detail often generate talk about 'changing the world' without changing the neighbourhood first.

The importance of local in innovation is not merely benign, but crucial for success or failure of the innovation efforts. In the context of dependent economic structures that globalisation built, it is often more rewarding for organisations in the developing world - both in terms of availability of capital and in terms of projected revenues - to try to innovate for global, essentially American and European, markets. However, without a local demand, what they call innovation is based on insufficient 'native understanding' of what they are doing, consigning them to the role of 'execution partners' for overseas clients who may have to feel their way to the solution themselves (or find a local consultancy company to do this work). This is essentially the challenge of the Indian IT: The lack of local market for innovation.

This challenge is also central to the projects that aim to build innovation ecosystems - universities, incubators etc - because they essentially aim at the supply side of the innovation process with an assumption that the demand side will take care of itself. I shall claim that these two attitudes - our fetish with innovation and the assumption that the demand side will take care of itself - are at the core of our failure to innovate: This is why so many urgent problems remain unresolved in developing countries, so many born-global start-ups fail to take off, and why we talk so much about so little when innovation is concerned. The essential failure to create what Amar Bhidé calls 'venturesome economy' limits how we innovate.
Now, one final point: It is not easy to create 'venturesome economies'. This is not just a function of education: This is a social attitude that is created by the confluence of many factors, including economic affluence. Americans, living in one of the richest and most dynamic economies in the world, can afford to be 'venturesome' in a way poor Indians can not. However, here the governments can play a role, by being deliberately entrepreneurial (as in Mariana Mazzucato's idea of 'Entrepreneurial State') and creating demand for innovation in local markets. Indeed, the state interventions are often inefficient and bureaucratic, and the structure of state programmes often aim for predictability and does not suit innovative approaches. It is for no reason we associate the state interventions with crony capitalism than innovation. However, as Ms Mazzucato has illustrated, State can indeed be innovative and spawn great innovations (the Internet was one example), and it is the revolution in governance upon which the spotlight should fall first.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Indian IT Industry in 'Crisis': Learning from China

I wrote a post yesterday on the 'crisis' of the Indian IT industry. My essential point in this was that while the Indian media sees a sudden crisis in the Indian IT sector and summarily blaming it on Trump, the problems were simmering for a long time and blaming it on Trump Administration's current or intended policies would be mistaken. And, besides, while a number of observers - Rajat Gupta, formerly of McKinsey fame (and Galleon infamy), being the latest - blame the leadership of Indian IT companies for lack of vision and inaction, I thought this was unfair, it was hard to change business models for mammoth publicly listed companies: In fact, this is exactly what these companies are trying to do, triggering all the crisis talk.

However, all this don't point to a solution, which some reading the post pointed out. To this, I do not think there is any silver bullet. Many, Rajat Gupta included, have spoken about educational change, but that is neither short term nor can happen on its own. The two hundred year old culture of Indian middle classes of educating themselves for a job is unlikely to vanish away short of a complete catastrophe. Some talks of start-up ecosystems, but in India, the start-ups are limited to the privileged and the celebrity, and while many Indians on the other end of the spectrum have always been entrepreneurs, the street-level entrepreneurship in India is seen as a sign of failure, not of ambition and grit. And, the culture of innovation - that some people think is missing - does not happen on its own, without a 'venturesome economy', where the consumers are not risk-taking and everything remains so top-down.

Instead of pretending to find an easy solution though, it may be more profitable for us to draw some lessons from China. Indeed, this is bound to raise eyebrows - what does Indian Software industry have to learn from China - but I think our impressions that India is global IT leader may be mistaken. For this, my debt of gratitude should go to Roopen Roy, whose blog post a few years ago contrasted the trajectories of IT industries in the two countries very effectively (see here). Before I proceed to my views, and elaborate why I think the comparison has value in the present context, it is worth disabusing ourselves from the notion of India's IT leadership by looking at some of the figures quoted by Mr Roy: Indian IT industry is projected to be worth $225 billion by 2020 (by Nasscom, an industry body) compared to the estimated size of China's software industry, $868 billion in 2016. About 20% of Indian IT revenues are from the domestic market, whereas approximately 50% of China's is. And, whereas the biggest names in Indian IT are TCS, Wipro, Infosys, Cognizant (despite its US roots) etc., all IT services companies, the biggest in China are Alibaba, an e-commerce company, Tencent, a product company taking on Facebook, and Baidu, a search engine company.

So, here is the paradoxes: The Chinese IT industry is perhaps 5 times the size of India's, but we hear about it less because they are more focused on domestic market, and play less of the global outsourcing game (of which India has a 50+% market share). However, the Chinese IT companies are successfully playing the 'product' game, and even leading the technology race (for example, the development of 5G standards). One could point to the restricted market access in China for Western companies, both in terms of active legislation and the Chinese language being a barrier, and indeed, echoing the standard western complaints, point to the Chinese model of 'copy-and-catchup'. But that hardly holds water as the Chinese companies are now competing successfully with Western ones in the product game, and filing for patents as fast the American companies do. 

My point is that the narrative of industrial development we have come to believe in, the free market thesis driven by individual enterprise, needs revising. The idea, borrowed from British Industrial Revolution (or from the standard narrative of British Industrial Revolution), is that the Government should get out of the way and let an industry develop, and the global competition, a demand side factor, will ensure innovation and competitiveness, rather than any supply side factor. But what is happening in Indian IT perhaps shows the limitations of this idea in three related ways.

First, that the Indian IT industry developed as an offshoot of globalisation - opening of Indian markets, availability of submarine cables and commercial availability of bandwidth etc - and established a dependent relationship with global markets from day one. One may make the assumption that a company, successful in providing basic services, would climb up the value chain, the experience of Indian IT shows that the reality works the opposite way. In fact, if there were a few Indian IT companies focusing on newer technologies in the 90s, they were superseded by the work other companies were doing in Y2K work. The latter could carry on doing application maintenance whereas many of the former lost their shirts in the Dotcom burst. Instead of climbing the value chain, Indian IT industry remained a victim of its success.

Second, one may easily overlook this, but the roots of the Indian IT Industry were very much in the 'import substitution' culture of the 70s and 80s (many Indian IT companies, HCL and Wipro among them, started off when IBM was made to leave India in 1977). Its growth was sustained by computerisation of government services and financial services (mainly government owned those days). However, since the 90s, the Government embraced the model of limiting the state involvement and generally desisted from big and transformational IT projects (which has made a comeback recently, in the form of Aadhar cards and various e-Governance projects. So, the government stopped playing the role of 'the entrepreneurial state', as the economist Mariana Mazzucato would call it. This is in line with the Thatcher-Reagan era consensus, but completely at odds with the reality of what the American government had done (funding research, developing military technologies which were later commercialised, and being the first customer of the IT). China followed the model of US government of the 60s and 70s, whereas Indian government allowed the Indian IT industry to develop itself following the logic of global markets.

Third, the government also allowed the Higher Education to grow through private initiatives, following the logic of the markets. This meant an enormous expansion of the Higher Ed system, but all in a dependent relationship with the IT industry, which was the employer of choice and whose patronage built or destroyed institutional reputation. The Higher Education was allowed to develop as a factory for IT Talent. There was none of the deliberate policy-making befitting an entrepreneurial state guiding the development of the sector, but rather, apart from social conservatism, the policy was guided by the free-market model of a series of market-based dependencies. Just the opposite in China, where private education was allowed, but the management of these institutions were minutely controlled (often, it is hard to distinguish public and private institutions in China). The Indian companies which copied Western business models - local E-commerce companies, payment service providers, Uber knockoffs - built cheap and cheerful models, but all within the context of global open market model, content to dominate local markets and hopeful, more often than not, an exit through acquisition of a bigger global rival. 

In conclusion, I believe that the pride India displays about its successful IT industry is somewhat misplaced both in degree and its content. We are looking at the wrong parameters when we celebrate the dominance of India in the global outsourcing market: Benchmarking against China, and indeed, against South Korea or Taiwan, would have a sobering effect. Further, that the Indian IT industry developed as a product of globalisation, and free of Government policy (mostly), is not a great thing: The limits of the model is now well exposed. The bad news is that this may adequately out the myth inherent in the free-market thesis of development. The good news is that the current, activist Indian government can perhaps step in now to transform the IT Industry. This may indeed seem like wishful thinking, but given the consensus that urban job creation in India needs some emergency measures, this may indeed be a good place to start.   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Surprising 'Crisis' of Indian IT

Indian IT is in a crisis, or so the newsmen claim. 

A string of layoffs, some at very senior level, and the new and proposed visa measures in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore have contributed to a sense of seize. 

But, while this headline story has its merits, but the sense of crisis and the connections with US Visa changes are certainly overblown. The problem with this crisis-mongering is that this diverts attention from the structural challenges that the sector faces.

The Indian IT has had mixed fortunes for some years, and the salaries, at the entry and mid level, were stagnant for some time now. 

There are a number of reasons for this. 

First is the 'productisation' of IT - this whole phenomena captured in the expression 'there is an app for that!' - that challenged the custom development model that the big Indian IT companies are usually accustomed with. The trend, which started in the Consumer sector, is rapidly spreading to enterprise, and the custom development market is increasingly being eaten away by purpose-built products, or plug-and-play environments.

Second, with a transition to cloud and newer technologies, the business of application maintenance - which is perhaps an ever bigger chunk of IT Services business - contracted. When an application moves to Cloud, it needs less people to maintain it: These people need to have different skills too. And, with Cloud, comes a different set of security concerns and data ownership issues, creating a trend towards near-shoring.

Third, there is the impact of automation too, and this is not just about Robots and intelligent machines. Machine-readable forms and automated routines for everyday tasks eat away more jobs than the more glamourous aspects of automation. There were an army of people in the Indian IT sector doing routine maintenance work - backing up and restoring data, managing user privileges, attending to breakdown situations - and a number of these tasks are now being done through relatively simple computer programmes.

Fourth, the costs of operating in India has been rising. This is primarily as the cost of living was rising fast in the key cities, driven by high real estate prices and consumer price inflation. Though India is far from being a middle income country, the IT companies were caught in an equivalent of a middle-income trap, as they failed to move out of certain key cities, and drove up the costs in those areas. The availability and quality of manpower has also become an issue - partly the IT industry was a victim of its own success - and this has contributed to rising costs.

These factors were in play for a long time. I would recall Vivek Wadhwa writing about the unsustainability of Indian IT Business Models in around 2011, where he lamented that the senior managers, though acutely aware of these challenges, were failing to drive change in their companies.

The Trump Administration's rhetoric about curbs on H1B visas, and layoff announcements by top Indian IT companies, have resulted in a perfect storm of news. The hyperactive Indian media found its demons all too easily: Indian IT bosses for their collective lack of foresight, and the Trump Administration for making it difficult for the Indian IT sector. 

However, it is perhaps unfair to say that the Indian IT companies were sleepwalking. Many of them were reducing headcount (remember the fuss about TCS layoffs a couple of years ago), freezing recruitment or moving to other, lower cost, locations, like the Philippines. There was also a range of measures to expand the recruitment pool, with extensive pre-recruitment training and deeper engagement with select colleges to get students ready early, aimed at combatting the cost-disease.

Besides, while it is easy for outside observers to notice and point out the business model challenges, it is not easy for executives running large, publicly-listed companies to change tack easily. 

Besides, one must also recognise that the shifts in the global market not only a visa issue, but part of a wider shift in the process of globalisation. This challenges not just the business models of Indian IT companies - using relatively low-paid Indian engineers to implement business IT applications for customers worldwide - but essentially the role India sought to play, and positioned itself for, in the globalised world. 

In summary, it is exceedingly difficult for the Indian IT companies to shift away from their proposition of building and maintaining IT applications at a low cost and start building products without a profound change in overall context. The sector does not have access to the educational infrastructure, local demand or start-up ecosystem that can help build a different kind of business models. The teeming millions in Indian Engineering colleges are trained, in best cases, to follow instructions, not to innovate and think for themselves; the culture of the Indian workplaces favour being the Manager - with better pay - than accumulation of technical expertise by working in an area over many years; start-ups are frowned upon by middle class families with background in Government employment, which most Indian middle class families have, but even a lowly maintenance job in a publicly listed company gets more attention socially. There are relatively little enthusiasm about art and design - those areas are 'feminised' in India and kept at arms length from Engineering and Business - and the relatively disengaged world of the Indian middle classes rule out imagining new solutions to social problems. These, and other, ideas, approaches and engagements have to change before Indian IT sector can suddenly start becoming great technology companies. The IT companies, for all their size and resources, are at the mercy of their return-seeking shareholders: Initiatives that will bring difficult-to-measure rewards are not usually welcome in the stock markets.

Also, the Trump Administration is not the first administration that talked about tightening H1B and other visas: This was in conversation ever since George W Bush's time, and any other president would have talked about reviewing the long outdated (like $65,000 salary threshold for a skilled worker) norms. Besides, many other countries are already revising the norms for the kind of visas Indian IT companies use - Australia and Singapore have already done it, and UK is going to make significant changes after the June elections - and Trump administration would only be doing catchup. Trump's encouragement to weak dollar should be a bigger issue for Indian IT than his rhetoric around the visas, which should be treated as a part of the business environment.

In fact, by talking up the crisis and blaming Trump, the Indian media is looking at the wrong problems. The big Indian IT companies are no longer 'Indian' - they have global footprint and Infosys' plan to offer 10,000 American workers is a sign of what they are going to do - and Mr Modi can do little to solve the bigger problem (though he is being urged to influence Theresa May and Donald Trump on visa issues). There are complex issues on the table - of a new kind of education, of regional re-balancing, of developing a larger ecosystem of smaller cities (as opposed to pushing a few metropolises to unsustainable size) - and the easy globalisation that benefited India for last 20 years is over. The conversation that we need to have now should be about how to change course, not of a company or of a sector, but for the country as a whole.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Writing The History of Colonial University

I am finally onto a project I always wanted to do: Write a history of the Colonial Universities.

Indeed, I start with a very modest work - an essay on the establishment of metropolitan universities (Calcutta, Madras and Bombay first, and then Allahabad and Punjab Universities) in India - which I intend to finish over the next few months. But I hope to make this a prelude to the bigger project, because I see the Colonial University as a distinct form of institution, whose purpose was to educate for the economic purposes of imperialism, and even if the empire is long gone and dead, this institutional form and modes of thinking lives on.  

That way, I shall claim, this is not just a freak exercise in academic pretencion for me, but an essential part of my overall work. 

While I work on it, I already find it fascinating to study the rhetoric and ideas around the establishment of the Indian universities. The conventional narrative runs along the lines of Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, with the historical figure of Lord Macaulay appearing in the background (though perhaps more important figures, like Charles Trevelyan and William Bentinck, are rather forgotten). The idea of the Indian Universities are seen - by today's Hindu nationalists in particular - as one of those great Anglicist impositions that perverted the course of Indian history, creating 'Macaulay's Children', Indians who were 'native in colour but Englishmen at heart'. It is, however, a mistaken narrative, because it was Indians, particularly Hindu Indians, who were intent on English Education and an Indian style university. The new universities became a springboard of Hindu supremacy in India, creating a new generation of elite who spoke English rather than Persian, and who would occupy the Civil Service roles soon thereafter. It is they, along with their Anglo-Indian compatriots, who would help make the British conquest of India complete, so much so that, in another 90 years, in the Constituent Assembly of Independent India, English would be retained as an official language, reluctantly, as it was the only common language that multi-lingual Indian elite use to communicate between themselves.

But there are two other narratives which I find equally misleading.

The first was the narrative of Progress and Enlightenment, favoured by the British historians then and now. The shortcomings of this narrative is clear: The universities in India were part of the oppressive imperial structure rather than institutions of freedom and liberation. They were designed, from the very start, to be different from the American Colonial Universities, which were started by the settler initiatives (backed by the Crown) and which were blamed for whatever happened in the American colonies thereafter. In fact, East India Company successfully argued against establishment of universities in India, proposed by William Wilberforce in the 1790s at the juncture of renewal of its charter, citing the debacle in the United States. The Colonial Universities in India were not in any way similar to the 'Colonial Colleges' such as Harvard, William and Mary or Yale (named after the East India Company clerk who made his fortune in Madras). The Colonial Universities in India were designed to be tools of economic exploitation of India, to turn it into a huge 'back-office' of the imperial enterprise.

The other is the liberal Indian narrative of the universities as the bedrock for Indian nationalism. This rather popular narrative does three things at once: First, it denies, wrongly, the existence of an Indian 'national consciousness' before the British conquest and education. Second, as a corollary, it reduces the Indian 'Struggle for Independence' in a single narrative dominated by Indian National Congress run by its college educated leaders, and airbrushes out the other important struggles, peasant revolutions, Sepoy mutiny, and workers' agitations from the picture. Third, as a result, it presents the idea of India as a derivative of European style idea of nation, denying the historical reality of the popular conception of 'Bharath'.

This narrative is wrong because the eventual dissatisfaction of the college-trained Indian elite with the discrimination at the workplace was not the fountainhead of Indian national consciousness. India was not, as some British historians would like to claim, an entity conceived in Imperial terms. India  was an ancient geographical, cultural and political entity, and both outsiders - early British merchants, for example - and people in India, knew it as such. Mughal empire was very much an entity, and it would be wrong to read the demise of India in the political fragmentation after Aurangzeb. There were several competing parties, and the British was one of those parties, and they sealed their dominance only in the mid-Nineteenth century. The colonial university as the fountainhead of nationalism denies this pre-existent reality, and inadvertently promote the idea of India as a British political construct (as indeed the modern India, reflecting the imperial boundaries, have become).

As I mentioned, this also bundles all other 'conflicts' - peasant revolts, Sepoy Mutinies, workers's struggles - in a subordinate role to the national struggle, as the National Consciousness seemed to belong exclusively to a group of college educated people. This is largely anomalous, as most of these college graduates devoted themselves, as they were expected to, in the colonial service, and, on the other hand, when Mutineers were being tied to the cannons and blasted away, they were not dying for 'special interest' but for their battles against the British (in many cases, for loyalty to the Mughal Emperor). This is not to undermine what the educated leaders of a later generation did in India, but while the Colonial universities may have played a role in creating a new 'imagined community', but that was not the only game in town.

I am also aspiring to tell the tale from a global perspective, as I see the Colonial University to be an instrument of globalisation, which created an ephemeral 'modernity' and various attempts at reconciliation with the ideas and practises of the Indian society. The economic structures of 'dependence', the political quest for an 'Indian people' and a very Indian love of 'science' - not of the scientific, questioning worldview, but the superficial labelling of anything as 'science' to claim higher ground and stop questioning - are all rooted in how the colonial universities were conceptualised and run. And, therefore, my attempts are to tell the story of the colonial universities in India as an expression of India's relationship with the world at large.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thinking Beyond The Nation State

Three building blocks of the world order we are accustomed to are Global Financial System, Nation States and Democracy. 

This is what we have built over the last 150 years. The Global Financial System, in its earlier forms such as the Gold Standard, came about in late Nineteenth century. Nation States emerged around the same time, first in Europe and then they were everywhere as European empires disappeared after the Second World War. And, Democracy became the rallying cry, and standard of political systems, since the end of Cold War.

In the post-war world, when the global financial institutions were designed in Bretton Woods, a few key policy-makers knew that the Global Financial System and Nation States may not be perfectly compatible. They, Lord Keynes among them, decided on a system of priorities - they put the Nation States first - and built an 'inter-national' economic system.

This worked for some time, but the system was being dismantled, ever since the day America lost its surplus and Nixon abandoned the Gold Standard, but increasingly and openly so after the end of Cold War, and opening up of previously 'closed' economies, India, China, Russia and South Africa, to global capital flows.

The nineties made us believe that it worked. Despite all the wrenching crisis in Russia, East Asia and South America, that was somewhat a time of optimism. But as that era ended, with the crash of dotcoms and crumbling of twin tower, the tensions between the three building blocks of the world order is apparent.  Princeton's Dani Rodrik said that Global Financial System, Nation States and Democracies could not coexist: One could have two of the three, any two, but not all three. 

From what we have seen in 2016, and the various 'populist turns' in different countries before that, this seems prescient. In the Western nations, there is a popular rebellion against the Global Financial System, which impoverished a section of the population in these countries and they are now voting against it. The British voters unexpectedly sprung a Brexit on its policy-makers, and the American voters chose a tweet-wheeling President Trump, and while the French suddenly looks like a bastion of globalisation (how ironic), its Populist Marine Le Pen is only another incompetent Presidency away from grabbing power. 

On the other side of the world, the choice of two is different. The staunchly democratic India chose the Chinese model of a 'strong leader' so that global investments can flow in: A strong nation attractive to global investment is what they wanted. Philippines, won over to democracy in the 80s, also made a similar choice: A strongman leader at the expense of 'democratic inefficiences'. China remained committed to its combination of Global Financial System plus Nation State, inspiring many African and Asian nations who would rather have development over democracy. And, Russia, of course, has abandoned the democratic rhetoric some time ago and made its choice too.

This means the World System is decisively broken. There is no consensus on global financial system and how it works - and voters in major countries, Britain and America among them, are in revolt against its working. If this is a great moment for democracy, the party is spoilt by the moving away from democracy in equally significant countries such as India or South Africa, or for that matter, Russia, the great prize that democracy's apologists claim at the end of Cold War. However, importantly, there is a clear consensus in favour of the third element of the global system - the Nation State!

Theoretically, a third possible combination - of Global Financial System and Democracy - exists, but there are no takers for this. In theory, European Union is supposed to be the great post-national experiment, but it became, in practise, all about transnational finance marginalising democratic processes. The EU's immense policy-making powers and financial muscle were insufficiently balanced by its democratic accountability and the latter was reduced to tokenism. After the current travails of EU, which exposed how unloved the idea really is, nation state seemed to have triumphed with a sort of unquestionable finality.

However, at this very hour of its ascent, the idea of nation state has grown hollow, drawing legitimacy from the demagoguery, becoming an instrument of corporate interests. Global Finance lost its appeal as it impoverished too many people. Democracy became unappealing as it became too imperiously distant and run by 'professional' politicians who served not their electorate but their party-political interests, being his or her master's voice and puppets of special interest. And, the handiwork of the soulless globality and gutless democracy was to divert all attention from deprivation and inequality and a quest for identity, from which the current obsession with nation state has arisen. And, it is Nationhood now that these special interests have converged on. And, this consensus on Nation State is therefore just another swindle, this time one of exploitation of the vast public resources and of privatisation of the basic services in Health and Education, which will lose its appeal sooner or later.

But even if the Nation State becomes a tool of Global Finance right now, they are inexplicably opposed - the modern states are conceived as viable autonomous monetary unions, and the global flows of capital effectively undermines both the viability and autonomy - and the coexistence of the two is bound to lead to conflict. Without the democratic legitimacy, this conflict is expected to morph either into revolution and chaos, or authoritarian takeovers, and possibly both together (as in Egypt). However, there are other forces too undermining the Nation State: The twin forces of 'geriartrification' and migration undermine the idea of nation state as a political and social community; global networks and connections create an environment of contagious ideas that often challenge the notion of nation state as a conceptually useful category.

So, in conclusion, it is the best and worst of the time for nation states. It is its hour of glory, but its foundations are inexplicably hollow. At this moment when it pervades all aspects of our being, the nation state is being reduced to an apparatus of surveillance and submission. The idea that swept away the Ancient Regimes now looks ancient, out of place and oppressive. As limelight is shone on it, it appears ugly and inadequate, ushering a new opportunity to think beyond it - a new idea of radical global democracy!


Friday, May 12, 2017

Waiting for Technological Unemployment

Technological unemployment was a long time coming. When Keynes used the term, he was not speculating about the future: He saw machine replacing humans in his own time. And, before him too, other acute observers saw this, and called it by other names, like 'Industrial Revolution'. And, yet, it may not have been anything like what we see now - automation of an unprecedented scale encroaching upon what we thought was to remain the most human of functions, like writing, teaching or sentencing a felon. 

Yet, it is not the scale but the idea which we should attend to. As it is, technological unemployment is being presented as 'common sense', an inevitability of progression of technologies and its tendency to replace human work. It is a secular force, we believe, that comes about by itself, in a self-directed manner.  We believe that Microsoft Word was a piece of our destiny - it was bound to appear as the Typing Pools became too busy - and as they say, rest is history.

However, technologies are directed and prioritised upon, a thing we know when we enter into a conversation about things that save lives. We know there is never enough money to develop a cure for Ebola, because the disease kills poor Africans, and yet we can easily find money to make space travel safe and comfortable enough for tourism: Technologies are directed by human priorities and human incentives. 

And, while we are quite happy with this theory and built a sophisticated and successful discipline solely focused on studying incentives - that's what economists do, by the way - we are never comfortable fully elaborating what the incentives really are in developing Robot Waiters and Automated Cars. Do they save lives? Do they make the environment better? Do they make dining experience more pleasurable or riding more social? Or safer? Not really. These do little but increase the rate of profit, which is a fine enough incentive, but they don't arise autonomously from the technologies themselves or consensually from the society at large. So, technological unemployment is not an automatic phenomena, it is being willed upon.

What's more is that The conversation about the inevitability of technological progress obscures not just its motive, but its method too. The capital flowing into the creation of Labour saving technologies stems from, more substantially than not, the low-tax regimes that the middle classes love to vote for. The governments thus installed, beholden to special interests because elections are expensive affairs, lower taxes because 'investments create jobs', and frees up surpluses to be invested in labour-saving technologies. The other side of the same process is indeed the defunding of public services, that eliminate the public domain research and any possible competition to proprietary technologies, and at the same time, create 'markets' for basic services so that the rest of the people have no option but to be indebted forever to keep the demand going. 

So, in a way, what we call technological progress isn't about going forward, but about going back to the ages before the democratic revolutions, where a few lorded over the many. And, yet such claims are blithely made: When Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, calls the Labour Agenda to renationalise Railways and reinvest in National Health Service a plan to take Britain to 1970s, she is plainly unaware that her own obsession with coming out of European Union can also be interpreted similarly; and considering that one of her key election pledges is to make fox-hunting legal again, she is yearning to go back to a more distant past. Like Turkeys voting for Christmas, middle classes everywhere vote for technological progress, blissfully ignorant of the consequence when more investment in made in making a machine learn than Children study.

However, this may sound pessimistic. Haven't technologies always created new opportunities, the liberal-minded journals like The Economist asks. However, carefully read, this is the same fallacy at the core: Technologies operating, developing, progressing, creating opportunities by themselves. In the breathtaking vision of The Economist, for example, people did nothing: All those poor people who stormed Bastille and inflicted the fear of God in Europe's ruling classes, all those revolutionaries and assassins who roamed the streets once and who found their mecca in the storming of the Winter Palace a century ago and changed politics forever, didn't mean a thing in this vision: It was just technologies moving forward, one inevitable step after another.

But consider the utopia that today's technology evangelists have. The World Economic Forum sums it up really well: I own nothing, have no privacy and having the best time of my life! So, in a way, the happy proletarian living in a complete surveillance state it will be. And, in this world, mass education would be unnecessary and health care is only needed for maintaining productivity: The future, as I said earlier, looks very much like the past. Going back, rather than going forward, is what we really collectively desire.

Someone warned that if this continues, people will rise before machines do. That is a really dim possibility, as this would require not just taking up arms, but, before that, forming a collective, which has been disbanded: Before technological unemployment hits us, we have been endowed with technological loneliness. The amplification of our demands have made us unique in the world, the glorification of selfishness has alienated us even from our families and mechanisation and personalisation of entertainment has ensured that we attend the circus of one, all the time. 

So, we wait not the people or the machines to rise, but for a fall. As we fast forward to the past, the underclasses may emerge, and maintaining economic participation becomes the challenge of the state. One would believe that the history will repeat itself, if not in Bastille but perhaps in Batangas this time around, but we should be weary about the repeat of history: Marx may have got a lot of things wrong, but he was right about repetition of history, as a farce.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Idea of India and Its Thinkers

Seventy years on, the Republic of India is now at one of those crossroads when its foundational ideas are being questioned. Its middle classes, in the throes of an existential crisis as the globalisation that made them reverses, have found their demon in the idea of India itself. Nations, usually, consider their origin stories with a special fondness and deep reverence, enshrining the creation ideas as the basis of all new imagination: Despite the passing of the years, the British therefore looks at the Glorious Revolution, the French to French Revolution, the Italians to Risorgimento and the Americans revere their Founding generation. But, in India, as a newly-rich, recently disappointed middle class hunt for the ghosts, they find their Republic flawed, its democracy rickety, its people disunited, and above all, the idea that unites it all misdirected.

This makes a re-examination of the idea of India worthwhile. Surely, this is much discussed, but as the optimism turns to pessimism and pride turns into embarrassment, and a commitment to change takes hold, a new priority, to debate, to understand and to rediscover, has arisen. This is especially so as the new debate opens up two seemingly contradictory and yet coexistent possibilities: That there was not one but many competing ideas of India, and yet, the Republic was founded not on ambiguity but on certainty, a vision as forceful as any: It was arrived at not hesitatingly, but optimistically; and was proclaimed with a faith in the country's future, with an aspiration of universality reminiscent of the great experiments of Paris and Philadelphia.

This synthesis was the founding generation's great work, and in this, despite their differences, Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, Pratap Singh Kairon, Frank Anthony, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sarat Chandra Bose, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad, Somnath Lahiri and other members of the Constituent Assembly for drafting Indian Constitution worked together. Coming at a time when violence and division was on the air, the commitment to democracy and republicanism needed imagination and accommodation. These were people with great intellect and independent vision, and they acted with responsibility and with a sense of purpose over consideration of personal profit, to accommodate diverse ideas into an unified imagination of a modern state. It is this imagination that we are concerned with here - this is what is being questioned today - and this unifying imagination of India, I shall claim, was the work of three men: Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

While names of Nehru and Gandhi are obvious, Tagore's inclusion in this list is likely to elicit surprise. However, Tagore's vision was both distinct and influential. Tagore, who remained outside the political mainstream, was often his country's ambassador to the rest of the world, imagining an engaged, global India, a vision that he sought to realise in his educational enterprises. Tagore was deeply engaged with Gandhi, influencing and getting influenced by the latter, and Nehru acknowledged his intellectual debt to Tagore openly and frequently. Thus, some of Tagore's ideas, a diverse and tolerant India, India as an Asian nation, and India with a mission of peace in the world, remained at the core of the imagination of the founding generation.

However, the ideas of the three men were very different. Tagore envisioned a kind of modern and peaceful nation, which was distinct from Gandhi's, who saw India in its villages. Tagore's cosmopolitan globality was also at odds with Gandhi's commitment to tradition and rooted practises.

And, while Nehru might have agreed with Tagore in the quest of modernity and peace, Tagore would have disagreed with Nehru's technocratic ideas. Tagore remained committedly outside Nehru and Gandhi's nationalism, considering nationalism exclusivist and anti-humanistic. And, yet, Tagore was no ascetic detached from the realities of political struggle: His voice was heard at crucial junctures of Indian and World History, and through his art, he was omnipresent to this day in the political discourse in India. 

And, despite their differences, the trio was united in one thing: Their imagination of India was something different and bigger than the other competing ideas. First, they all conceived India as a historical entity, something that existed long before the British arrived, rather than a political entity cobbled together by imperial conquests. Second, they saw India as more than an European-style nation, a relatively modern entity founded on an illusion of homogeneity of its people, but rather invoked both its tradition of tolerance and the modern imagination of a moral community to imagine a community of people united in its purpose in the world. Third, they all agreed on the unique mission of India in the world: Peace and nonviolence, tolerance and hope. Fourth, in their own different ways, they found India in its nature: Nehru in Ganges and the Himalayas, Gandhi in its villages and fields, and Tagore in its rivers, seas and mountains. And, in this, they saw timelessness: An India that always existed, and will always exist, regardless of temporary predicaments. Despite the inglorious conditions they lived in, their's was an optimism of persistence, of a great and incorruptible civilisation.

Today, these ideas are being contested. A certain narrowly technocratic vision of India is triumphant, and India is at odds with its own history. A myth of India, which invokes ancient glory but mirror the imperial imagination for its content, has taken over the conversation. In some ways, this marks a return to the nationalism of a nineteenth century variety, which is based on a deep historical pessimism. At the core of this idea is a narrative of a fall - India as a glorious country that fell to pieces - one that dates back a millennium, to the advent of Islam in India. The adolescent India, still unsure of its place in the world, have taken on to a legend of the fall. And, hence, for this new generation, the founding ideas appear too weak, too ambiguous or too limiting. Currently, this anger is the handmaiden of a corporatist vision of India, the political excuse for an elaborate ploy to undermine the Republic: On offer is an alternative idea of Capitalist Disneyland. This is what makes reopening the conversation about the Idea of India, and its thinkers, an urgent and important issue.

Friday, May 05, 2017

What Do Universities (Really) Do?

In India, people demand that there should be more universities. Why, they point out, India has only 600-odd universities, whereas United States as 6 times as many for one-fifth of the population? More universities, in their mind, equate with more education, and also economic success, as we live in 'knowledge economies'. So far, so straightforward!

I state this as an Indian phenomenon, but it is really a global view. Indians only demand so as the Chinese, the Malaysians and the South Koreans are stealing the march, building more and bigger universities faster. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the South Africans are all in it. I remember, as late as 2002, I was told in Bhutan that it did not have a college in the country as the Government was fearful that the student politics would destabilise the country; those days are long gone, colleges in Thumpu came up in due time - by 2015, the new government was floating the idea of a greenfield 'education city' and checking out in any international universities would be interested in starting a campus! This is based on a view of economic development powered by universities, which is an integral part of the narrative of growth through innovation and technology. 

I want to take a contrarian view, and question what universities really do. This is not because I belong to the same corner as Charles Murray, who believes in the creation and preservation of a 'cognitive elite' with the exclusion of everyone else. Quite the opposite: I believe everyone has intellect - as Darwin would say, human beings only differ in zeal and capacity to do hard work - and the privileged have no monopoly on ideas and insights. My objection is to the automatic assumption - more universities equal more education - which has resulted in already disastrous consequences in India. And, I argue not for the suspension of building new universities, but a more thoughtful approach to it.
One final point: I make no presumption of special insight here. The questions I have in mind are rather obvious, but there is an obvious reason why they do not get asked: People in the universities are expected, by others but also by themselves, to ask questions about social practices, and they can hardly be expected to raise doubts about the social value they create. As it is, they are embattled, and such questions are seen as yet another intrusion from the 'neoliberal state'. I only ask the question because I am an outsider, and to me, the universities look very much a part of the apparatus of the 'neo-liberal state', though an appartus which seemed to have lost its usage and is in the danger of falling into disuse. 
The recent history of the universities has been, I shall claim, parallel to that of democracy: Once a great hope of political inclusion, then a tool to deliver a good life and finally, an empty rhetoric with a track record of broken promises and faced with the gloomy prospect of populist onslaught. And, in this, there were perhaps three points of inflection: Once in the late sixties, when the Liberal State turned, and then again after 2008, when the populist revolts took hold in Obama, and now Trump, administrations in America. So, we are at a time of the second 'ruin' of the universities, which mirrors, but is different in substance from, the 'University in Ruins' Bill Readings portrayed in the 80s.
In fact, universities, expanded at great public expense since the 60s, became tools of the state policy more than ever; they served the state, justified it and in turn, were legitimised by it. Claiming monopoly on 'questioning', the universities shaped the 'public sphere' and defined what kind of questions can be, and can not be, asked. They became a sorting machine, more efficient than class, race, gender or lineage as they were more scientifically justified - a mechanism of universal stratification. Their non-bureaucratic bureaucracies took hold of all the key material abstractions and helped built the abstract materialism that they non-labelled with the 'neo-liberal' label. They crusaded to make an educational diploma the worth of a man, making inequality naturalistic through the illusions of talent and built a vast ecosystem of ranks and tests to subvert the political agency, perhaps irretrievably, and replace it with a consumer choice of identies - 'be what you want to be'!
It is this consumer promise of the university which is now broken. That illusion, which was always an illusion, that one can be what s/he wants to be, core to the proposition of an university education, is now lifting. That wealth is almost begotten by birth, luck or buccaneering, and never by an university education, is becoming obvious. And despite their sneering about wealth, it is universities themselves which made the pursuit of wealth a centrepiece of their promise (and still do): Their protestation now sound hollow and their claims of 'independent inquiry' is distinctly at odds with their reality.
This predicament of the university, as I said before, is much like democracy. Exclusion is only the other side of inclusion: It lies not just at the quest but as a concurrent reality. The universities, a thoroughly modern beast which only borrows the name and prestige of a very different medieval institution, were very much part of the democratic schema in the lofty imagination of some of its modern imaginators, but just as they stopped short of radical social change in their quest of democractic society, they let the pretensions of the medievalism and exclusionary spirit of meritocracy take over the university very easily. The student unrest in the sixties, which made not just governments but the also the academic bureaucracy uncomfortable, led the universities become consumer institution, just as democracy became a means to an end, a good life! And, once this failed to materialise, it became open season, for the privileged to push back, and root out even the last vestiges of the challenge to primacy of, well, birth, luck and buccaneering.

So, more universities in emerging countries is not a quest for greater education, but rather a quest for a new social ordering following the well-trodden path of the West. One perhaps forgets that universities can often result to less education, as the expansion of university system and formal education can often mean a decline of public and non-formal education, things like Workers' Education Association or movements such as Lyceum movement in America. From our vantage point, it may seem that these public education movements may be only filling the space left by lack of universities, and it is only natural that expansion of university education made such movements redundant. However, university is a different kind of education - regulated, restricted and rationed - and the decline of public education meant a less flexible workforce, as we have now. The hegemony of university education also means that we continue to see MOOCs, which serve the space left by public education, only a placeholder for college credit, again discouraging participation rather than encouraging inclusion.
The current loss of legitimacy of the consumer university perhaps open up a space for a new kind of institution. Call it an university if you like, but it is time to restore the multi-dimenality of education. This challenge is no different from the ones our democracy is facing today: The youth, who prefers to protest than to vote; the angry and the marginalised who impose all kinds of fringe politicians on the rest; the opportunists who channel the anger and steal the booty, are converging in a perfect storm where most people don't see how their views reflect in the state, and what the elected politicians do other than to become the placating agents of the state and justifying every unjust action in smooth words and right intonations. The new democracy, if one could be imagined, and the new university, if a relevant one can be perceived, would both have to engage with a sincerity, granularity and substance than the forms that we know now. But such a change does not happen unless the university administrators start to realise that the institution is adrift; and sadly, as they never asked themselves what they really do, they are as clueless as the politicians regarding what has really gone wrong.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Am I Optimistic About New Universities in India?

University making in India is entering a new phase. The rushed expansion of the Higher Education system is perhaps over, with many of those new colleges and universities in crisis. There is a definitive shift in the regulatory environment: The unrestrained and often useless Distance Learning Study Centre business has been effectively shut down, the unregulated institutions have been challenged and there is greater clarity and order. However, university making in India has not stopped - there are new institutions being built and planned every day - and more and more serious philanthropists and entrepreneurs are entering the fray. I see these developments with some optimism, and believe that we are at an inflexion point, from which a new Higher Education system would emerge.

This may be overtly optimistic and there are a number of things that can go wrong in India. For a start, we now have a nationalist turn, and the 'not-invented-here' syndrome has become all pervasive. That regulators have become more effective is a good thing, but the regulatory structure is bureaucratic and punitive, and the regulators are often used to carry out a political agenda. Many new universities are tottering on the brink of failure - a recent one has just enrolled less than 10 students - which is not a good thing for the sector as a whole. And, though the business of Distance Learning helped to create 'diploma mills' and undermined the overall credibility of Indian education, the current regulation is meant to take distance out of distance learning, and rule out any online learning innovation for years. However, the changes signify that Indian Higher Education would stop being a 'market for lemons' - a marketplace where corrupt operators thrive and can marginalise or drive out the more honest ones - and sheer demographic logic would ensure that Higher Education sector continues to grow, with more serious operators.

From the statements I made above, it is also quite clear that I see Indian Higher Education to be a 'mixed' sector, perhaps with more private institution than public ones. I know this isn't how one would perceive growing a Higher Education system, at least in Western Europe. In India, however, this is the way the rapid growth of Higher Education will have to be achieved. And, indeed, Private Higher Education growth does not have to be For-Profit, subservient to the analyst sentiments and stock markets in a get-rich-quick country: There is enough private wealth in India that can fund Not-for-Profit institutions and enough inventiveness to channel other sources of 'patient capital' into more socially responsive forms of organisation. But, overall, the sector will be driven by private initiative and enterprise, just like the Japanese or the Korean Higher Education systems (and like the modern-day developments in Chinese Higher Education).

Also, in India, the key challenge has been all-out vocationalism in all parts of the Higher Education system, accentuated by rapid expansion of Engineer and Business schools that came to overwhelm it. I say this not as a purist believing in 'Education for Education's sake' but rather by being aware of the danger of vocationalism, which focuses the mind too much on the immediate outcome - a job - at the cost of the long term perspectives. Higher Education, an once in a lifetime activity (for most people), should afford someone, particularly in today's world, an ability to adjust with changing realities; Indian schools hardly attempt to do this, organising themselves solely for an entry-level job. This is ineffective for several reasons: The supply-demand asymmetry means that only a few students are eventually successful while other sectors and jobs go unfulfilled; and this makes for poor progression, which means that the labour market is flooded with poorly skilled people who can't move up, making it more difficult for the newcomers.  On top of this, with deep structural changes in global commerce which threatens Indian IT Services industry, this system is totally out of sync, and its graduates are struggling to find jobs.

However, it would be wrong to assume that vocationalism in Indian Higher Education is a private university problem: It was part of the origin story of modern Indian Higher Education, and even in Independent India, Higher Education was never slated to take the responsibility of making citizens (as in the United States). It is only now that a conversation about Indianness is focusing minds on what role the universities should play, though this conversation, at least so far, is conducted in a tone and style unwelcoming to critical enquiry and new thinking. However, such conversations open the possibility, even if it is just a possibility, of new thinking and new models.

The big opportunity in India, in the next decades, will be in the domestic market, as the reform programmes such as value-added taxation, infrastructure building and rapid expansion of digital services (India has added 100 million new Internet users in the last 12 months) would create many entrepreneurial and job opportunities. This would need a new imagination, which the narrowly focused schools, living in a bubble of testing and campus placements, sorely lack. And, surely an M Sc in Innovation from a school which don't want to break the mould and don't want to commit itself to anything new is a clear non-starter. This is where the big change indeed is: The new universities emerging in India are looking at the Post-IT world more intently than the previous generation of the universities, and they are taking on the challenge of innovation more willingly than their predecessors. 

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to engage in different conversations about new universities being planned and set up, and the differences are quite clear: The conversations are very much about innovation and differentiation, about putting together high calibre management teams, about planning ahead strategically and defining scale and scope appropriately. It may seem strange to more established universities, but these are new things for Indian universities: The enterprise, thus far, was opportunistic, and were run by uninspired retirees closed to new ideas. My recent engagements tell me this is changing, and I am very excited to be part of these new projects.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Return Path: Making Reverse Migration Work

As much as we, expats, try to deny it, we are at an inflexion point. The great global wave of migration, that set off in the 90s and that many of us leave home and settle abroad, is beginning to ebb. And, this is not just about a Trump or a Theresa May, not just about some kinds of Visas becoming more difficult to obtain. This is as much about a cultural turn - street-level nastiness combined with resurgent national identities - that marks an ending, as well as a beginning, that we should take note of. 

This isn't unprecedented - global movement of people always ebbs and flows - but this time, it appears to be the start of a long term trend, a reversal of opportunities driven by growth in the other side of the world. The emerging markets may have been a mixed bag in the past, but we are perhaps entering the phase of relatively closed economics, which would make the large markets - such as India or Indonesia - a great receptor of local innovation. And, even in the markets where not-invented-here syndromes were strong in the past, like India, the demand for global standards and service levels is now ever higher. This is driven by reverse migration itself, but also as the awareness have risen through diffusion of ideas and imagery, as well as, perhaps ironically, because the barriers between countries are becoming more prominent.

What makes this emerging-market opportunity even more significant is that many of these economies are slated to undergo significant structural change in the coming years. This is partly because of the structural change in global trade - once the easy globalisation is over, a lot of new formats would have to be created to compensate for it - but also because of the technological transformation of the societies. 

Once the cost-arbitrage models of contract manufacturing or IT services are challenged, many of these economies have to readjust to newer models, with expanded manufacturing for local demand, digitisation of local services, and greater South-South trade facilitating what is going to be a painful process.

In this, the technological change is both going to cause trouble and help. At one level, the process of automation wouldn't be denied forever: The abundance of labour is no guarantee of low labour costs, as social and political frameworks rule out a return to Dickensian England or to the imagined nirvana of perfect market societies. But as automation eats up jobs, the process would also create opportunities for creating new products and services for domestic consumption, and when skill levels rise, for global competition. 

Overall, therefore, I am arguing that this is a great moment for reverse migration, not just because the visa changes would force some people to return, but because structural changes would create opportunities for others, who may not be disadvantaged by the visa changes but just disturbed by the cultural turn or inspired by the new economic opportunities. 

Now, I have been engaged in this conversation for far too long to have a rose-tinted view of the process of reverse migration. It is not easy. The countries themselves often don't want the people back: They demand fairer political systems, better public services and disrupt societies with their foreign habits, all the while their nice little remittances, which help the currency and allow the rich to buy their Land Rovers, disappear. Even the relatives too don't like it too much: Closeness, however sweet, makes the longing wear off pretty soon, while special gifts become rarer. The nostalgia about homeland, for the returnee, often lasts a few seconds on arrival, as everyone seems predatory and the imagined warmth fails to materialise. Worse, as they walk into workplaces, a kind of reverse nationalism hits them - they are derided as anti-nationals as they chose to stay abroad and fools as they chose to return.

There are economic arguments to be made why countries should welcome the returnees, which are rather identical to those to be made to the countries where they are returning from. These migrants bring skills and expertise, financial and intellectual capital and, most importantly, a new way of looking at the world. They often bring ideas that could be of big help in the inevitable structural transition of the economies. 

However, it is also important to think about what the returnees should do themselves to help this process. Often, the process of going back is all too abrupt, and all too disruptive because one did not want to give up the lifestyle of faster Internet and easier commute. Most returnees, therefore, do a disservice to themselves as they return, forever complaining about the inhospitability of the terrain, resenting the work environment and being too quick to proclaim their foreign heritage and specialness.

My point is indeed to change the conversation and make the process of return a deliberate, engaged and entrepreneurial process. Some returnees are well placed to do it this way - and those who do it, they are usually very successful in their return. The point is to think of this as a two-way process: Taking one's own country for granted isn't a very intelligent way to return. (And, since I have met many migrants who sought to go back for their mothers and came back double-quick because of their mother-in-laws, I suggest to prospective returnees a 'mother-in-law' approach: When returning, one should not treat their homeland as their mother, all forgiving and forever waiting for their return, but rather like the mother-in-law, where one needs to earn acceptance every single day).

So, in conclusion: We may be at the start of a new age of reverse migration, connected with the great rebalancing of the economies. Those who return are not the failed carpetbaggers of a bygone age, but those who may play an active role in constructing the future. The return is really the start, a process that would create new opportunities if one is looking for it. However, only those who return with humility and not entitlement, with imagination and not fixed mindsets, and with an urge to build and not one to sit back and enjoy, would inherit the future.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

History Essays: Nation As An Imagination and History of Italian Risorgimento


“Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of Nineteenth Century” is the opening statement of Elie Kedourie’s history of the idea of Nationalism. One may debate with the categorisation of Nationalism as a doctrine, its European origins and the dating of the idea to Nineteenth century, but its impact on creating a politics of a new kind, and that “nationalism is now obviously a worldwide phenomenon, vitally affecting both the material and intellectual development of modern civilisation”, is perhaps easier to agree with.

However, it is perhaps also easy to be in agreement with Walter Bagehot, who reportedly said that nation is a phenomena we understand as long as we are not asked to explain it. The ubiquity of nation states, and the common acceptance of the idea of nationhood as the legitimate, and the only legitimate, principle of statehood, at least since the ‘Wilsonian Moment’ of Autumn 1918, somewhat obscure the contested nature of the historical debates on the origins and the nature of the ‘nation’, and its role in historical transformations.

Anthony Smith have identified three fundamental debates that shaped the historiography of nationalism as
  1. Whether national communities are organic and historical, or voluntarist and brought into being by deliberate political action between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries;
  2. Whether the awareness of a nation as a large community has long historical roots or brought about by changes with industrial capitalism and rise of the secular political orders;
  3. whether the idea of a nation is a modern social construction brought about by a ‘national’ elite, or such ideas emerged over a long period of time through a connection between the ‘national present’ and an ‘ethnic past’.

This essay purports to explore the role of one particular idea of nationhood, that as an ‘imagined community’, from Benedict Anderson’s eponymous book first published in 1983, in the historical debates about the rise of Nation States, giving particular attention to the historiography of Risorgimento and Italian nationhood.

The idea of ‘imagined community’ attempts to offer a ‘general theory’ of nations and nationhood, taking a ‘social constructionist’ approach and attempts to arrive at explanations of nationalism in emotive and cultural terms. This essay would begin by briefly tracing the origins of the idea within the broad spectrum of theories about nationhood and nation-states, before exploring the contours of the idea itself and its influence on historiography.

Genealogy of the Idea

Hans Kohn, writing in 1945, saw the origins of Nationalism within the socio-political changes in the second half of the Eighteenth century, in the changing ideas about popular sovereignty, with the help of ‘a new natural science and of natural law as understood by Grotius and Locke’, and transformation of the economic life with ‘the rise of the third estate’. While he situated the appeal of nationalism in ‘some of the oldest and most primitive feelings of man’, like ‘love of his birthplace or the place of his childhood sojourn, its surroundings, its climate, the contours of hills and valleys, of rivers and trees’, it was the differences in economic progress and influences of the ‘third estate’, or the commoner and its most influential representatives, the bourgeoisie, that obviated the rise of two different strands of nationalist ideology.

Where the third estate became powerful in the eighteenth century - as in Great Britain, in France, and in the United States - nationalism found its expression predominantly, but never exclusively, in political and economic changes. Where, on the other hand, the third estate was still weak and only in a budding stage at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as in Germany, Italy, and among the Slavonic peoples, Nationalism found its expression predominantly in the cultural field. Among these peoples, at the beginning it was not so much the nation-state as the Volksgeist and its manifestations in literature and folklore, in the mother tongue, and in history, which became the centre of attention of nationalism.

The ideas of ‘cultural nationalism’ have historical roots in the late eighteenth century ‘cultural populism’ of the German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, writing in the late Eighteenth century, as he broke away from the enlightenment tradition of universal reason and cosmopolitanism. While Herder accepted an equality between the cultures, he ‘saw it to be ‘part of God’s plan that we experience the world in organic groups, that the “people” are the natural repository of authentic experience, and that vernacular language and culture are the authentic expressions of our collective identity and experience.’

Opposed to this were the voluntaristic, political ideals of the nineteenth century nation, which found its most eloquent expression in an 1882 lecture by the French linguist, Ernest Renan:
A nation is therefore a large scale solidarity, constituted by the feelings of the sacrifices one has made in the past and of those one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarised, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as the individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.”

The tension between the Organic and Cultural Communities and Voluntaristic Polity were noticeable in the early Nationalist literature. Smith observes that Fichte and the German Romantics gave a political dimension to Organic nationalism by arguing that ‘true freedom consists in the absorption of individual self-determining wills in the collective Will of the community or the State.’  This was to be achieved through ‘correct’ education in the vernacular language and national struggle, to make individuals strive towards their ‘authentic self’.

It is at this point that these different, continental, strands of ideas about nationhood stood in contrast to the Whig, and American Republican, ideals of individual liberty and democracy, and were rooted in a revolutionary ethic of subjecting individual will to the community in search of an ‘essence’ as the basis of sovereignty. Lord Acton, writing in 1862. noted this, and said as much: “Nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and the measure of the state. Its course will be marked by material as well as moral ruin..” In Acton’s vision, the State was different from the nation, which was ‘merely natural’ and it is the state which was to impose a progressive moral purpose on the chaotic world of nationality.

The ideas of nations and nationalism were also antithetical to the Marxist ideas, which presupposed a cosmopolitan culture to emerge with advancement from Capitalism to socialism. But on the fringes of the broad Marxist-Socialist tradition, important ideas about nations and nationhood emerged in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. For example, Georges Sorel, French radical syndicalist whose ideas would influence the European fascists, explored the appeal of myths in people’s ideas and that arguing that industrial progress might make national myths more appealing to the Proletariat rather than making them more class conscious and ready for revolution. At the other end of Europe, Otto Bauer, the Austrian Socialist, wrote Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (1907) exploring the nationality question, arguing that Nations were historical creations, a product of intermingling of many ethnic communities, and necessitated by the Great Transformation, the dissolution of ancient, isolated communities into the modern industrial societies, and brought into being by a solidarity built around literacy-based high culture.  

After the Second World War, as the Actonian nightmare came true, John Dunn was writing ‘Nationalism was the starkest political shame of the twentieth century’ and commentators were writing deeply suspicious tracts about the idea and politics of nationalism. At the same time, nation-building assumed a different dynamic with the success of national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, and new countries coming into being as nation-states. The national identity and ideals also assumed an emancipatory dimension in Eastern Europe, where the tensions between the Soviet domination and ethnic politics were clearer.

In the 1960s, the lines in the debate about nationalism were very clearly drawn. Elie Kedourie was writing about ‘Politics of A New Style’, defining Nationalism as one that ‘pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the population proper to enjoy a government exclusively its own’. Around the same time, two Czech thinkers, Miroslav Hroch in Charles University in Prague and Ernest Gellner at the LSE in London, were writing very different sociological tracts about the origins of nationalism: Hroch was arguing about the existence of ‘large communities’ through ancient trading links and markets prefiguring later nations, and Gellner was looking for roots of nationalism in modernity and dissolution of the isolated communities. While Gellner’s account focused on sociological processes and had little consideration for national cultures, Hroch treated the nations as anthropologically formed and looked in national cultures and identities for explanation of persistence of nations.

If Acton proved prescient by wars of the Twentieth century, the dissolution of the Empire and the transformation of British Commonwealth into Commonwealth of nation states seemed to point to a transformation of the politics of nationalism into a legitimate organising principle of the states. Even India, a vast project overarching a myriad of nationalities constructed around Actonian imagination, was meant to be very much a nation state, with its founding generation, myths and symbols of nationhood. In Liberal imagination, the Republican Patriotism is meant to combine civic pride and institutional commitments in place of ethnocultural nationalism, and yet this falls short of an explanation how this could possibly build large scale solidarities that a modern nation needs to build.

Persistence and the success of nationalism, as evident in the emergence of new nation states in Asia and Africa and the acceptance of new nation states by the working classes in these countries, prompted new explorations within Marxist historiography as well. A particular problematic was the ‘nationalist’ wars between Vietnam and China in the late 70s, which underlined the need to explain these conflicts using explanations other than the class war.  

It is within this broad context, the ‘cultural turn’ in the ideas about nations should be seen. An important contribution was that of Eric Hobsbawm and his colleagues, who argued that Nationalist ideas and conceptions emerged in the 1830s as a mass democratic and political nationalism in Western Europe and North America, followed by an ethno-linguistic nationalism in the smaller countries of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe in the following decades. It is in this later period, Hobsbawm argued, one could see an ‘Invention of Tradition’, statues, national festivals, an elite-led ‘myth-making’, of ‘creating an ancient past beyond effective historical continuity, either by semi-fiction (Boadicea, Vercingetorix, Arminius the Cheruscan) or by forgery (Ossian, the Czech medieval manuscripts).’ Hobsbawm argued that the “comparatively recent historical phenomenon, the ‘nation’, with its associated phenomena..rest on exercises in social engineering which are often deliberate and often innovative”.  

The ‘Imagined Community’

The idea of nation as an ‘Imagined Community’ should be seen in the context of this ‘cultural turn’ and perhaps specifically as a response to the ‘invented tradition’ within the Marxist historiography. The basic thesis here is that ‘nationality..as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind’ Positing ‘nation’ as an ‘imagined political community’, which is both limited territorially and sovereign politically, Anderson’s basic argument is that this ‘imagination’ is not fabrication and based on falsity, but rather a creative realisation of the existence of a broader community beyond one’s immediate surroundings, as a ‘deep. Horizontal comradeship’.

The idea of ‘imagined community’ is attempting to address several problematics that arose out of Liberal and Marxist historiographies of nation and nationhood. Why, to question the Liberal idea of State as a rational entity focused on liberty and prosperity, would someone be prepared to die for the country, when doing so for Liberal Party would be unthinkable? Also, the Marxist problematic, why do nations persist despite the advancement of Capitalist state, as well as the uncomfortable reality of self-declared Communist States of China and Vietnam going to war with each other, needed an explanation beyond the class-based identities.

Anderson traces the origin of the idea of the nation to the disintegration of the religious communities and dynastic realms. However, for him, it is not enough, as some Modernists would argue, to simply think that ‘nation’ grew into the void left by the decline of religion and dynastic states, with the associated ‘sacred communities, language and lineage’. Instead, he looks for cultural explanations - particularly, in the modern conception of ‘chronological time’ and a new conception of ‘simultaneity’, in which instead of the past, future and the present blending together, as it does in ‘messianic time’ of the medieval age, one recognises the parallel existences of others who we may never meet, and yet whose actions, interests and existences interplay with one’s own. This conception of ‘homogenous, empty time’, argues Anderson, is the result of the new economic life, ‘print capitalism’ propelling new cultural engagements through novels and newspapers, enabling the possibility of an ‘imagined community’, a ‘comradeship’ with people who one may never meet, but whose parallel lives are lived along her own and whose interests and ideas she can share.

Nations as imagined communities, then, are presumed to have its roots in the Sixteenth century convergence of Printing and Capitalism, and emergence of ‘Print Languages’ that could be read by people within a particular geographic territory, thus creating communities which cut across political boundaries of the time, defined by various courts and their languages. Nations as a political form, in Anderson’s view, arise between 1760 and 1830, predating the French Revolution, and as work of creole elite in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Spanish America. The economic change, liberal republicanism, and enlightenment ideas had an impact on the growth of national consciousness, which were, it must be noted, led by men who spoke the language of the Colonial power, Spanish in Spanish America or English in the Thirteen colonies, they were fighting against.

This model of American Nation States then become a model for popular vernacular based movements in Europe, which ‘pirated’ the model of nation state and were influenced by the ideas of the French revolution, from the ‘second decade of the nineteenth century’. As Anderson observes
If we consider the character of these newer nationalisms which, between 1820 and 1920, changed the face of the old world, two striking features mark them off from their ancestors. First, in almost all of them ‘national print languages’ were of central ideological and political importance, whereas Spanish and English were never issues in the revolutionary Americas. Second, all were able to work from visible models provided by their distant, and after the convulsions of the French revolution, not so distant, predecessors.

The advent of ‘popular nationalism’ created a tension between nationalism and imperialism, as the imperial expansions of the major European powers and nation-formation in countries such as England, Russia and France were proceeding alongside. This gave rise to ‘Official Nationalism’, where a ‘national realm’ was nurtured at the core of worldwide multinational empires. This is why, explains Anderson, while “Slovaks were Magyarized, Indians Anglicized, and Koreans Japanified, but they would not be permitted to join pilgrimages which would allow them to administer Magyars, Englishmen, or Japanese.. The reason for all this was not simply racism; it was also the fact that at the core of the empires nations too were emerging - Hungarian, English, and Japanese. And these nations were also instinctively resistant to ‘foreign’ rule.”

It is a combination of all three types of nationalism that supplied the model for later nationalisms of Asia and Africa, whose leaders would ‘deploy civil and military educational systems modelled on official nationalism’s; elections, party organisations, and cultural celebrations modelled on popular nationalisms of nineteenth century Europe; and the citizen-republican idea brought into the world by the Americas’. These colonial states, argue Anderson, were based on the colonial imagination - so much so that the new nation states almost identically resemble the old Colonial territories - and this colonial imagination was built around the three artefacts of the colonial rule, Census, Map and Museums. “Map and census shaped the grammar which would in due course make possible ‘Burma’ and ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesia’ and ‘Indonesians’. But the concretization of these possibilities - concretizations which have a powerful life today, long after the colonial state has disappeared - owed much to the colonial state’s peculiar imagining of history and power.”

Anderson’s world-historical analysis of the nation state as an ‘imagined community’ allows the conversation about nation-states to move forward beyond various dichotomies of culture versus politics, intentionalism versus structure, modernism versus perennialism to one which is based on historical continuity and human agency at the same time. At this point, it may be worthwhile to turn to the historical debates about Italian Risorgimento, and explore how the idea of Imagined Community, and the associated conceptions such as ‘Deep Images’, has contributed to the debate.

Risorgimento Contested

The Italian Risorgimento, or Resurgence, is usually considered a defining phase in the Italian history, like the American or French Revolutions and German Unification for the respective nation states. And, just like the French, German and American events, Risorgimento has a special place in the literature of nationalism, and some of its key leaders, Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi, were well known both in their time as well as to the posterity as men who built a nation. However, its canonical place in history did not deter historians from questioning the origin, nature and legacy of the Risorgimento, and its historiography has produced a rich and dynamic study of how ideas about nations and nationalism have played a role in understanding of this historical phase, over time.

The Risorgimento, or Resurgence (1815 - 60), was meant to be a period of resurrecting Italy’s glorious past over an imperfect present, a time of division, foreign occupation, and moral decay. However, after the Italian unification in 1860, when the resurgence failed to materialise and political divisions and economic deprivation continued, the period of Risorgimento itself became the subject of political division and debate, and Italy’s ‘failure to resurge’ and Italian ‘peculiarities’ became the subject of much historical analysis.

After the First World War, collapse of Liberalism and Fascist take-over, the reassessment of Risorgimento history came from two opposite directions, from the idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce and the imprisoned Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
For Croche, who published his analysis in 1928, the objective was to defend the achievements of the Historic Right (Desta Storica) of Risorgimento and Italian Unification, whose leaders were presented as ‘a spiritual aristocracy of loyal and upright gentlemen’. For Croche, Italian Fascism had no connection with the Risorgimento, but it was rather an anomaly made possible by the war.

Gramsci, who was influenced by Croche, and whose account would not be published till 1949, nonetheless saw the Risorgimento history in a completely different light. For Gramsci, the Risorgimento was a ‘passive revolution’, marked by a betrayal of the Mazzinian Radical Democrats by the Conservative Liberals who worked with the existing Feudal order. For Gramsci, this was the reason for the ‘breach between Italian Polity and Italian Civil Society’, which caused political instability and social disorder. Fascism arose out of this rupture, argued Gramsci, as a weak bourgeoisie attempted to reorganise the political system and stop a socialist revolution.

The view of Risorgimento as a period of nationalist resurgence under the benevolent liberal leadership, as argued by Croche and others, were already under attack since soon after Italian unification. The Risorgimento leaders were seen more as ‘realists’ rather than ‘nationalists’ and particularly Cavour, along with Germany’s Otto Von Bismarck, was seen to be a pioneer of a realpolitik of state-making. The success of Italian unification was seen more in terms of balancing of the Great Powers, than a nationalist triumph. This view surfaced again in the 1950s and 1960s, in forming a new ‘realist’ orthodoxy about the history of Risorgimento. Denis Mack Smith, while challenging the accounts of Cavour’s realism, argued that the leader was inept as well as cynical in his political ambitions and actions. For the realists, the Italian Unification of 1860 had little to do with national feelings and awareness, but rather this was traditional state-making with little regard to any nationalistic aspiration. Also, with the post-war discomfiture with nationalism, alongside the availability of new archival sources such as Cavour’s correspondence, the historical attention shifted to political and dynastic politics and diplomatic history and away from the ideas of nationhood. While many of these historians rejected Mack Smith’s negative judgements, they shifted away from the grand narrative of ‘nationalism’ as implied in earlier liberal accounts such as Croche’s.

On the left, the Gramscian perspective was deeply influential and the focus shifted to the divisions between the Liberals and the Mazzinians, and on divisions inside the Mazzinian movement itself. The dynamics of political programmes, rather than any account of Risorgimento or the Italian Unification, dominated the Marxist-Gramscian analysis of history of Restoration Italy. From the Marxist-Gramscian perspective, Risorgimento increasingly came to be seen as a movement of the elites, disconnected from the poor, the peasants or the working classes, with political change being brought about by wider social and economic change. These accounts, while treating national movement as an account of political conflict and its legends and heroes with suspicion, held the weakness of the middle classes was the root cause of the weakness of Italian unification.

In the 1980s, a new revisionist history of Italian unification emerged, rejecting all accounts of nationalism and national unification, and focusing instead on the persistence of the local identities. While the revisionist historians rejected the Marxist argument of capitalist development as explanation of social change in Italy on account of regional variations, they prioritised social and economic history over political analysis and produced ‘a rich, varied and complex picture of changing societies, whose politics and identities were unaffected by any notion of the national.’

However, this very approach invigorated a new debate about Italian National Identity, as it failed to satisfactorily answer a number of questions:
For if the political odds were so obviously stacked against them, how and why did the opposition elites struggle to create a united Italy? How, in an Italy characterised by municipal interests, traditional loyalties and separate economies, did the nationalists win the argument against the Restoration rulers?  How was resistance to change transformed into an appearance of a consensus in its favour? Moreover, if Italy was oblivious to nationalist sentiment, how can the fame and popularity of Garibaldi be explained? And why did Cavour perceive an advantage in manipulating nationalist opinion? Finally, if there was no economic or political logic to national unification, what made it happen?

Italy As An Imagined Community

The ‘unintended consequence’ of the revisionist histories of Risorgimento was a search for the roots of Italian identity. Even if Italy was not a political entity until after 1860, a sense of Italian-ness was prevalent among a small educated elite, and culture, rather than politics or economics, defined this ‘nation-ness’. After the French Revolution and subsequent French occupation, the language and iconography of revolution pervaded the Italian-ness, and the repression of the revolutionary politics by Restoration rulers failed to suppress the popular imagination of Italy in the arts. Alberto Banti’s ‘Risorgimento Canon’, “some forty texts through which.. The future young patriots of Italy ‘discover’ the nation, and ‘understand that it is necessary to fight for her’”. Riall writes
For Banti, there is a single continuum which ties the images, metaphors and narratives of these texts to the national-patriotic discourse of Risorgimento politics. In Risorgimento texts and the political rhetoric of Italian nationalists the nation is imagined in similar ways: a voluntary pact amongst a free and equal fraternity; an organic community; an extended family; and a shared historical identity.

Banti, who was deeply influenced by the ‘cultural turn’ in the ideas of nationalism, as is perhaps evident above, published his La Nazione del Risorgimento in 2000, which marked a new turn in Risorgimento historiography. This idea of culture as the ‘binding force’ allowed them to overcome the issues of political competition, focusing instead on ‘a single way to think about the nation’. Also,
[T]he attention to culture - as opposed to social structure or high politics, and the treatment of culture as a variable independent of both - leads to a crucial reappraisal of of Italian nationalism’s reach and importance. The Risorgimento, according to Banti and Ginsborg, ‘was a mass movement’.

This approach led to research in pre-Risorgimento Italian Literary and artistic public sphere which confirmed the increasing ‘italianisation’ well before Italian unification. So, as Riall writes,
[E]ven as cultural activity remained a local affair based on regional networks and associations, its languages, rituals, themes and subjects became more Italian. Italy was an especially strong presence in the visual and performing arts: in painting, music and plays.. Theatre in particular played a nationalising role. The popularity of opera led to a wave of theatre construction in major cities and small towns, and these theatres created a recognisable and uniform public architecture across the Italian peninsula.. Thus, both the theatres themselves and the performances in them provided and helped construct a sense of imagined community in Italy.

The revisionist historians, in support of their ideas about predominant local identities and the elitist nature and irrelevance of Risorgimento, argued that Italian language could not be the national unifying force because of its low penetration. Tullio de Mauro argued that only 2.5 per cent of the population, and only 160,000 people outside Tuscany and Rome, out of 20 million, were ‘Italophones’. However, de Mauro’s definition of ‘Italophone’ was based on ‘command of national language’, which could be achieved, for him, only through post-elementary education. However, this was a highly contestable claim, and based on an expectation of literacy which was uncommon in the nineteenth century, before the spread of public education. Allowing for different degrees of familiarity with the language, the historical Linguist Luca Serianni revised de Mauro’s figures, and estimated that about 10 per cent of the Italian population spoke the national language at home or at work. However, a much larger proportion of the population were able to use the national language whenever necessary, for example, with customers or while travelling, and even a larger section understood the language even if they did not speak it. Putting this together, about 22 per cent Italians understood the language, though, they might not have been able to read the ‘risorgimento canon’.

Riall also points to the use of new science of Statistics and its popularity and use of creating peninsula-wide information as an important element of ‘national imagination’. Also, this new ‘cultural’ approach presents an opportunity to reassess the role of Mazzini and somewhat reverses the image of Cavour and his friends getting the upper-hand over the Mazzinians. Riall writes
Mazzini also realised after arrival in England in 1837, the technologies of mass communication could be used to encourage and spread such feelings of empathy far beyond any natural boundaries of national community. By the middle of nineteenth century, the effects of this nationalising and internationalising print capitalism had become more widespread.
Mazzini’s various newspapers, particularly Apostolato Popolare, published from exile in London, and addressed to ‘Italians and Italian workers’, and his popularisation of Giuseppe Garibaldi as a selfless Italian hero, had enormous impact on Italian imagination, making Garibaldi famous even before he returned to Italy in 1848. Even when Mazzinian insurrections failed, as in Calabrian expeditions, Mazzini could turn them into publicity triumphs winning more and passionate followers of the cause of Italy. Besides, Mazzini’s popularity and influence in England helped spread the Risorgimento ideas all over Europe, which played no little role in influencing various diplomatic decisions in the following years that helped the Italian unification. And, while Cavour and his friends might seem to have won the ‘political conflict’ over the Mazzinians with the decline of the political influence of the latter in the 1850s, that Cavour’s hand was forced into Italian Unification by the expedition of Garibaldi can now be seen as a triumph of Mazzinian politics of insurrection and propaganda.

As outlined in the brief discussion of the historiography of Risorgimento and Italian Unification above, the idea of ‘imagined communities’ rescued ‘nation-ness’ as a legitimate object of historical analysis, and not just as a transient state or a convenient invention by the elite to attain objectives of their own. The idea of ‘Imagined Communities’ allowed the conversation to move beyond both the idealistic notions of a nation being through the imagination of a group of elites and their self-less action, as well as the notions of the nation as an ‘accidental’ creation. Such notions were bound to be challenged with the availability of new evidence, as it was by the revisionists, but their tale of social and regional divisions obscure the key question - why did Italian unification happen at all?

Admittedly, the new historiography of Risorgimento, illuminating as it is in opening up new discussions about public and private spheres, remains a work in progress, and whether it could be called a ‘mass movement’ is still being debated. The connections between ‘high and popular culture’, as well as ‘between secular and religious culture’ are still being debated, and ‘not enough is known about the relationship between cultural developments and social change, or between cultural forms of identification and political action.’  

An emergent approach from this historical analysis is to separate nationalism as a cultural movement from that of nationalism as a political programme, with the connection to political action being provided by political thought and considerations of realpolitik. The argument about separating Cultural and Political Nationalism is not new but rather than reverting back to the ‘cultural primordialism’ and reasserting the ancient origins of the nation, the idea of ‘Imagined Community’ allows cultural nationalism to become a tool of historical analysis in its own right, and supports a system of ideas that links Cultural Nationalism with political action, as the new Historiography of Risorgimento may demonstrate.

The other prominent criticism of ‘Imagined Communities’ idea is that it is elitist, and that its explanation of national awareness depends too much on a Mazzini or a Gandhi. But, as the discussion on Historiography of Risorgimento shows, its implications are quite the reverse: The nuanced understanding of cultural nationalism that it affords, by being distinct both from political nationalism which gives the elites an outsized role, and from cultural primordialism which has a deterministic quality about it, allows one to see the agency of ‘little people’, in a voluntaristic formation of ‘national space’ rather than in submission to a ‘common will’.

In conclusion, the nation as an imagined community exerts a deep influence on modern historiography and opens up new possibilities of historical discussion. It also brings the influence of newer media, radio and television, into the sphere of legitimate concern of historians. As ‘Print Capitalism’ gave way to these newer forms of mass communication, new forms of politics also emerged, history of which is being written now. The relationship, it seems, works both ways: The decline of newspapers have been linked to the diffusion of nationalism in the Western societies, and vigour of the print culture in some of the Asian societies have been linked to affirmation of new national sentiments. And, emergent now is the new politics of Internet, which, with a new narcissism of ‘avatars’, and of personalised news feeds (which can also be said of the proliferation of TV channels made possible by Cable and Satellite television) creates ‘echo-chambers’, a new kind of personalised social existence without the kind of ‘simultaneity’ that allowed the empathies beyond one’s immediate surrounding. The question, asked by Ernesto Laclau, ‘which imagined community’, is acquiring a new potency with the emergence of the new media, and generational and professional divides challenging the sense of belongings and identities of the previous generations. And, in these challenges, one could spot the extraordinary possibility of the idea - in itself as well as an analytical tool - in its ability to generate deep insights and conversations across contexts and historical phases.


Secondary Sources

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, Verso Books, London, 1996

Riall, Lucy, Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation State, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009

Balakrishnan, Gopal (Ed), Mapping the Nation, Verso Books, London, 2012

Beales, Derek and Biagini, Eugenio F, The Risorgimento and The Unification of Italy, Pearson, Harlow, Essex, 2002

Cole, Laurence (Ed), Different Paths to the Nation: Regional and National Identities in Central Europe and Italy, 1830 - 70, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007

Culler, Jonathan and Cheah, Pheng (Eds), Grounds of Comparison: Around The Work of Benedict Anderson, Routledge, New York, 2003

Hayes, Carlton J H, Nationalism: A Religion, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1960

Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence (Eds), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997

Hutchinson, John, The dynamics of cultural nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state, Allen and Unwin, London, 1987

Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism (4th Edition), Blackwell, Oxford, 1966

Kohn, Hans, The Idea of Nationalism: A study of Its Origins and Background, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1945

Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

Patriarca, Silvana and Riall, Lucy (Eds), The Risorgimento Revisited: Nationalism and Culture in Nineteenth Century Italy, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012  

Riall, Lucy, The Italian Risorgimento: State, society and national unification, Routledge, London, 1994

Riall, Lucy, Garibaldi: Invention of A Hero, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007

Smith, Anthony D, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism, Brandeis University Press/ Historical Society of Israel, Published by University Press of New England, Hanover, 2000

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