What's New?


NYTimes Op-Ed "Toilets and Cellphones"

By Roger Cohen

Published May 24th 2010

NEW YORK — I was intrigued to learn the other day that there are now more cellphones in India than toilets. Almost half the Indian population, 563.7 million people, is hooked up to modern communications, while just 366 million have access to modern sanitation, according to a United Nations study.This can be seen as skewed development favoring private networks over the public good. It can be seen as an example of markets outstripping governments: Nimble cellphone companies profit while lumbering Indian authorities are unable even to stop the propagation of water-borne disease through defecation in the open. Or it can be seen merely as the choice Indians have made about their priorities.

What is certain is that those half-billion Indians with cellphones — and they will be a billion within the next decade — have begun to inhabit parallel universes. There is their mental community, perhaps including regular contact with far-flung family members in London or Louisville. Then there is their physical community, with its tattered village poverty and bureaucratic inertia. Texts fly. Sanitation dies.

In some measure this duality is the modern condition. It brings an attendant schizophrenia about the state and government.

On the one hand people who are increasingly autonomous — linked globally through technology, able to choose their own real or virtual gated communities, outstripping controls and taxes in their frenzied networking — feel contemptuous of the government and the state.

As Mark Lilla has noted in The New York Review of Books of America’s Tea Party movement, a toddler-tantrum expression of individualism run amok, they have “only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.”

On the other, aware that our globalized little earth has come very close of late to complete financial meltdown and is still hovering near the brink, noting that there are drawbacks when mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, perhaps even glimpsing that shared institutions are essential to any society, people clamor in moments of crisis for the reviled state to step in and save them. Or at least save the homes bought with the very financial instruments they now decry.

At some dim level the words of John Stuart Mill still resonate: “The idea is essentially repulsive of a society only held together by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interests.”

But that’s the kind of idea — and the kinds of societies — that have tended to dominate over the past two decades. The great leaps forward of China and India came after the immense post-war Social Democratic and Christian Democratic achievements in Europe had begun to be taken for granted. After 1989, people were more inclined to attack the cumbersome welfare state than recognize how social entitlements and neo-Keynesian economics have insured the Continent against renewed fracture.

China and India grew to the beat of a globalized get-rich-quick generation and financial masters of the universe rather than social responsibility. The consequences are now before them.

In post-Cold War Europe — with Thatcherism still resonating, a market-knows-best consensus spreading, and the loss of the common purpose that came with having a common enemy — political and social cohesion eroded.

The crisis of the euro today is in many ways a crisis of stalled integration. The common currency was supposed to be the capstone of a united Europe, in turn the ultimate insurance against 20th-century horror, but instead came into being just as the European ideal fell victim to easy-money hedonism, consumerism, atomization and anti-immigrant populism. It remains to be seen whether the euro’s plight can revive any convictions about the shared European governance necessary to sustain it.

In the United States, the rapid growth of the Tea Party movement represents what Lilla calls a “populist insurgency” against government and regulations in virtually all forms. It’s the “politics of the libertarian mob.”

Yet this mob is driven in large part by fury over a financial implosion whose root lay in a murky universe of collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that escaped all government control — and served in the end as a reminder that some problems are so big they do demand a collective response.

This is the schizophrenia I alluded to above: I want my freedom undiluted, and unhitched to responsibility, up and until the moment I need Big Brother to rescue me.

We have entered what Tony Judt has called “an age of insecurity.” By any measure, at least in the West, we are living a crisis of the market economy, or at least of the pure market-driven individualism (with the spiraling debt that accompanied it) that predominated in the first two decades of the post-Cold-War period. The binge has reached its limit and the tabs are in.

But some new balance between state and market, one that provides toilets as well as cellphones, awaits definition. Dignity should not be incompatible with opportunity. We don’t need to look too far back in time to see the violent consequences of financial collapse and social disaggregation. The Garbo retreat is not an answer. Private networks alone cannot salvage the commonweal.