William Butler Yeats felt intimidated; the world was more full of weeping than a human child could possibly understand; he/she should therefore scoot, “come away”. Mao Zedong had stronger nerves and thought in millennial strides. The Yeatsian problem, Mao knew, has it flip — or is it non-flip — side: some people’s sorrow is the source of boisterous happiness for some others. The general run of human children, besides, cannot simply withdraw from the world. That is not a practical proposition. There has to be a different tack. Snatching time, amidst his many other activities, Mao sat down to write his dissertation on Ten Contradictions.
Outsourcing is the outstanding contemporary contradiction. Outsourcing is good for American capitalists, and since American capitalists control the American administration, it is reckoned to be good for the latter too. A section of American technologists and scientists, however, take a dim view of it. For outsourcing allows the capitalists to deny jobs and opportunities to American citizens and, instead, scientists and technicians based in poorer countries, who are paid low wages and only modest perquisites, are commissioned to do specific assignments, thereby increasing the profits of American capitalists. Two contradictions arise thereby: (a) between the interests of American capitalists and American working class, and (b) between the scientists and technologists of the advanced countries and those belonging to the poorer nations.
Look around; similar contradictions are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Farm subsidies are good for the economy of the United States of America, since they allow the American system to set aside only three to four per cent of the nation’s working force to produce the entire range of agricultural products the nation needs, as well as surplus for exports. But, from the same American point of view, subsidies are bad where recipients of such subsidies are poor farmers in the under-developed economies; subsidies of this kind would stand in the way of successful penetration by American farm products into the poorer countries. The philosophy of free trade preached by the World Trade Organization is good and excellent: it allows the Western industrial countries to flood the markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America with their wares and make roaring profits. For precisely the same reason, the WTO message spells doom for the countries of these three continents.
Mao Zedong, perhaps the wisest person China has reared since good old K’ung-fu-tzu — Confucius to us illiterate ones — offered ample hints how such contradictions can be tackled in the real world. Not in all cases, but at least in some. Human activities cannot come to a stop because of the presence of contradictions; there must be ways of getting around them. Mao concentrated, inter alia, on two categories of the genus: contradictions that are antagonistic, and those that are not so. Human endeavour, he hinted, has largely consisted of quests for rendering seemingly antagonistic contradictions into non-antagonistic ones. Examples of such non-antagonistic contradictions are to be found in the history of both revolutionary and post-revolution China, including the praxis of walking on three legs and the slogan of “one nation, two systems”.
The US establishment, on the other hand, is somewhat unsure about handling dialectics of this nature. Although a revolutionary episode marked the birth of the American nation, it was based on a relatively simple theme: no taxation without representation. The world has not only grown unipolar in the 21st century; it has grown more complex too. Simple syllogisms do not satisfy the queries that come crowding. For instance, the American nation almost as a whole will warmly approve the notion of outsourcing the task of armed surveillance over the enslaved Iraqi population. It does not make sense for American boys and girls to miss Thanksgiving and Christmas back home, and, who knows, even risk their lives so that the bad Iraqis could be brought to book. Let that responsibility be passed on to the Indians. India, in any case, is a scandalously over-populated nation: most of them are also abysmally poor. The worth of an Indian’s life is infinitely less than that of a good American citizen. So, if some people have to die in Iraq, let them be Indians.
The moment the statement is made, the Americans of course comprehend the contradiction latent in it. Even if Indian lives are worthless, the Indians themselves may not regard it thus. Therefore, while the Americans might go along with the suggestion to hire outside labour to fight their dirty wars, the Indians in general could hold an antagonistic view. This is where the teachings of Mao Zedong turn out to be of great relevance. An antagonistic contradiction inheres in the proposal to substitute US troops by Indian army personnel in Iraq; American and Indian interests are antagonistically poised. A solution to the problem is however at hand. Offer the Indians some fat wages, throw in some “procurement” baits covering such items as steel and cement that will be called for Iraq’s “reconstruction”. The Indians, it is widely known, are highly materialistic; once they are softened up with an adequate supply of green-backs, they will not mind dying on behalf of the Americans: what started as an antagonistic contradiction will be quietly converted into a non-antagonistic phenomenon.
There is a snafu though. Indians are a greedy lot; they however also take pride in describing themselves as the world’s largest democracy, surpassing even the Americans. They also organize periodic elections in the manner of the US. One such election is round the corner. And while the Indian government could easily succumb to the lure of money, the Indian electorate could have a different perspective on the issue. The satisfactory transformation of the nature of the contradiction might in that event be delayed and, in the interim, American children would continue to die in Iraq.
This leads us to the discovery of yet another contradiction. Democratic elections in the US are considered as a basic prerogative by American citizens. Democratic elections in India may similarly be desirable from the Indian point of view. But it may not be so desirable if seen from the American angle. One reason the US administration prefers Pakistan to India is that, unlike in India, there is no nuisance of democratic decision-making besetting Pakistan. Even so, appearances deserve to be kept up; the American administration is working overtime to marry democratic practice with encouragement of comprador culture in the countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Fixing a round peg in a square hole, or a square peg in a round hole, of course needs some doing — and could even a need a revolution. Antagonism does not dissolve into non-antagonism merely because a George W. Bush wants such a denouement.
Come to think of it, this is not really a new challenge which has emerged only with the dawn of the 21st century. Western capitalism has been nurtured for over two centuries on the victuals of liberal philosophy. But the domestic practice of liberalism, including trade practice, was feasible because it could be combined with imperialism overseas: the resources gathered from the colonized countries fostered domestic economic growth as well as the spread of social welfare. The availability of colonies and subjugated lands as readymade markets for goods produced in the home country was an additional advantage.
Bridging liberalism with colonial and imperial exploitation is no easy exercise. If our own people are free, the people elsewhere should be equally free: the suggested symmetry sounds good as an ideal but is not always compatible with either national prosperity or global domination. One is suddenly reminded of a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine nearly 40 years ago: a couple of automobile tycoons were having a furious argument, “You may not like tailfins, I may not like tailfins, but what will happen to the American economy if nobody likes tailfins'”
In the late Thirties, a noted Scandinavian social scientist wrote a book on the great American dilemma. He was referring to the grim racial divide. That dilemma persists, but in a different form, and has assumed a global context, because the US is now the global hyperpower, while all nations are equal, the US is more equal than others.