Inequality and Social Mobility
Uncomfortable questions over lunch

I once asked a young and successful professional in jest, over an academic lunch, what would occur if capitalism collapsed. From time to time, I pose questions like this to young, sharp minds to get a sense of how they think about the future.

It was a Thai lunch, if I remember correctly. Or it could have been Indian. Anyway, the spoon stopped short of her mouth. Her face froze. She stared at me revolted, as if I had made an indecent proposal. Had I asked her the question once again, she might have called Campus Security. I changed the subject.

I went out for a quick smoke after lunch. When I returned, she had fled my ideological life forever.

What a pity. To be fair, my question had been somewhat tongue in cheek, but her lack of response gave me pause. Why had she been so hesitant to answer? Did she have any thoughts about this whatsoever? If she did answer, perhaps she would have said: “Countries will collapse.” To that, I would have replied: “Countries do not collapse. Systems do. A country is not like a shop that can simply shut down. It is a collection of people who survive one system after another.”

She might have countered that she fears communism as a systemic alternative to capitalism. So do I. I possess very little capital. In communism, I would lose even that little.

She might have added that fascism would provide the only global answer then. I would have reminded her of what the Nazis did to the Jews or the Japanese to the Chinese — before the Allies reversed the Axis powers in their fascist tracks and America reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to nuclear rubble.

She could have invoked the Bretton Woods system that had inaugurated an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in parts of the globe after the Great Depression and World War II. I would have joined her in agreement and raised a toast to John Maynard Keynes, the key architect of the Bretton Woods system. Keynes exists on the economic margins today, a fate that itself calls attention to the perilous direction of economics in bad times.

I wondered if this young professional possessed any of these thoughts. After all, she had said nothing of the sort. But what I did know was that she was bright, terribly well-educated, and as far as I could tell, quite comfortable within and unquestioning of the systems that be. Perhaps I am projecting too much on this young woman, just getting her bearings as a working adult. But she is one of many young people to whom I have spoken and been met with silence after asking big questions about the future. It seems that there is an assumption, among some young people, that the global system would last merely because it has lasted the entire duration of their lives.

My encounter with the professional occurred long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In today’s Covidean universe, preceded by the sharpest ecological breakdown in the history of human existence on earth, hypothetical questions are becoming passé.

Can climate change and global warming destroy the earth? Of course, they can. Do women’s rights make for an equitable world in which men benefit as well? Common sense would say so, since men have mothers, sisters and daughters. What if women exploit their freedom, as men do theirs today? Then, women’s fathers, brothers and sons would suffer.

What if capitalism were to disappear? Then a better system should replace it. Which one? How? When?

Those are secondary questions that will come later. The primary question will have to be answered first. If a known world disappears, an unknown world will have to take its place. What unknown do humans want in place of the known?

The active participation of thinking individuals is required in these urgent, sometimes uncomfortable discussions. Youth in particular, who will inherit an uncertain future, must give radical answers to these chronic questions. Thinking that there is some natural permanence to the current order of things is self-delusional. Living in a world inherited by default simply will not do.  I wish I could have told my lunch companion that.


The author is co-general editor of the Singapore Chronicles series published by IPS and The Straits Times Press.

Top photo from Freepik.

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