At the top of today’s list of trending music videos on YouTube is SYL’s ‘Sidhu Moose Wala’. The production is slick and the lyricism imitative of American hip hop, following the recent move in K-Pop from north of the South China Sea towards rapped, rather than simply sung, lyrics. Indeed, like K-Pop, Indian pop seems to be moving towards a similar synthesis of hip hop ‘rap’ and pop singing, fused with the style of singing pertinent to the local context. Rather than pop’s ‘globalisation’, we are seeing a ‘glocalisation’, where global competition meets local context to shape the dynamics of musical evolution.
But music is not the subject of the video itself. Politics is. The video takes aim at the rapidly depleting fertility of land in India, and the government’s failure to adapt to the effects of this downstream effect of man-made climate change. Although climate change itself is up to richer states like America to address, since poorer states like India are compelled by market forces to industrialise to ‘catch up’ with their richer counterparts, adapting to climate change is something individual states can address. But the Indian state cannot, and will not, address this problem. Fertility of land will continue to decrease, and the river will run dry.
Economist Elizabeth Economy argues this is the case with China especially, but China does not face the same kind of immediate economic devastation that India faces. China can adapt to climate change. India cannot. The reason? The state.
According to political theorist Francis Fukuyama, the central institution of the modern state is bureaucracy. Ironically, this ‘modern state’ has its roots in ancient China, following Shang Yang’s reforms to the bureaucracy of the state of Qin in 356 BCE, preceding the formation of the first Chinese empire under Qin’s imperium in 221 BCE (replaced by the more moderate Han dynasty in 206 BCE, lasting four centuries, in tandem with the Roman Republic and subsequent Principate in Europe). By streamlining the bureaucracy and removing aristocratic privilege, the state of Qin developed a level of governmental efficiency that allowed it to rely on its internal economic resources to wage military campaigns, while restricting external trade.
India, by contrast, is enmeshed in global market networks that constrain its freedom of action. China is, too, but the Chinese government restricts the excesses of trade, particularly in finance, while tackling monopolistic forces in housing to avoid an Asian equivalent of the 2008 financial crisis in America (a crisis which ricocheted around the world, with China upholding global growth through massive infrastructure spending). Indian growth rates are increasingly competitive with China’s, but India is unlikely to become a realistic competitor to American hegemony in the way that China is. The reason? Bureaucracy.
The Indian state, unlike the Chinese state, never developed the bureaucracy that the Qin innovated, all those millennia ago. The Indian state remains hostage to the old British parliamentary system imposed on the subcontinent by the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While Britain’s political institutions evolved to fit its context, India’s institutions were imposed on it by external forces, restraining local adaptation. India, in particular, does not have a powerful bureaucracy, thereby preventing the same kind of governmental efficiency that promotes growth in China.
Without a modern state, India cannot deliver public goods such as reliable education, transport, and basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. As Francis Fukuyama notes in Political Order and Political Decay, the Indian government in the 1990s launched an investigation into why only half of teachers in rural areas turned up to school. Ten years later, after a reform program was implemented, still half of teachers failed to turn up to rural schools. The government failed its citizens, because the bureaucracy lacks any efficiency. The state is disparate and decentralised, while in China the state is strong, centralised, and ruthlessly effective.
But the Chinese state has its own problems. The reason? Too much bureaucracy, and an overly strong state at its head. As Acemoglu and Robinson argue in The Narrow Corridor, economic growth is hampered by excessive or deficient state power. Too much bureaucracy, the market cannot expand enough to promote growth in technology. Too little bureaucracy, and the market expands so much that labour is undermined and people lack the basic necessities to put technology to good use. The state cannot be excessive or deficient. It must be balanced.
In western representative democracies, the state is more or less balanced. But growth is still hampered by the limits of economic expansion. The industrial revolution has already taken place, and only financial expansion into unproductive investments is left. Even service industries are now exported to less developed countries. The west cannot expand economically, but not due to its political institutions, which are facing their own problems resulting from economic inequality, but due to simple laws of capitalist development.
Both capitalism and the modern state are facing a crisis that is mirrored by the crisis of representative democracy, torn between populist anarchy and technocratic tyranny. The crisis is one that afflicts any social system towards the end of its natural lifespan. We are seeing, all over the world, the death spasms of a world out of sync with its earthly foundations. The world system of social life and the earth system of natural life are coming into conflict with one another. We homo sapiens have gone too far: our wisdom (‘sapience’) has failed to catch up with growing decay and incipient mediocrity (or ‘homogeneity’). Everything around us is crumbling — ecologically, institutionally, morally.
We have lost faith in a world that doesn’t care, and we have lost the ability to change the world to better take care of the Earth on which we all depend. From the infertile lands of India to the arid stretches of outer space, humanity has reached the limits of its expansion. As political theorist James Harrington noted in the crisis of the seventeenth century, when civil wars wracked a continent afflicted by climate change, political turbulence, and moral uncertainty, the fate of a decaying civilisation lies along one of two paths: collapse, or rejuvenation. We, as a species, can either combine to confront our common crisis, or collapse into chaos. Combine or collapse: this is our choice. Let us hope we make the right choice, and act to put the necessary changes into effect. Before it is too late.