Sandel: Loss of co-mingling and the sky boxification of life
The unquiet American
By Meenal Baghel, Mumbai Mirror | Jan 23, 2014, 03.29 AM ISTAcademic rock star and public philosopher Michael Sandel on the moral limits of the market, and why AAP may be good for us.
Invariably, Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard, is described as a 'rock star' for the crowds of thousand plus students he draws at Harvard each year; for the Koreans who come to listen to him by the stadium-full; and the Chinese who invite him to speak at their universities each year, or the attentive hordes in Brazil, Japan, and increasingly now in India.
In person, Sandel is more Phil Collins than Axl Rose. For those who have watched his series of Harvard lectures, Justice, online, the initial tentativeness comes as a bit of a surprise. But Sandel's mild demeanour is misleading. He routinely weighs in against "imperialist economists" (his terminology) like Lawrence Summers; among those whom he advises (discreetly) are Rahul Gandhi and leader of the British Labour Party Ed Miliband, both policy wonks, and possible future prime ministers. He argues passionately about the moral limits of a market-driven society, tackling complex issues of justice and ethics and values clearly and engagingly. That so many around the world, especially the young, find resonance in what he says, points to the lack of debate on the big questions of our time.
Rhodes scholar Sandel, 61, is in Mumbai to promote his new book, What Money can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and will be speaking at an Asia Society event later this evening to an audience that will no doubt have many a quibble with him.
Q: I bring up fault lines because in India, or say in a city like Mumbai, the disparities have always existed but this disengagement between the wealthy and the poor has gone fathoms deep. While politically everybody in India has a franchise, and socially there have been inequalities but they are historical owing to reasons of caste. But this new sharpened economic disparity, manifest say in the rise of gated communities, points to a near horror of the poor. Do you see this in other developing countries as well?
A: This is one of the most corrosive effects of marketization of life that we've experienced in the last few decades. There has always been a gap between the rich and the poor, but there is something distinctive about the erosion of the moral and civic fabric that we are seeing today as a result of more and more markets in everyday life. Towards the end of my book I talk about this tendency in the US-- the loss of class mixing institutions and common spaces, and how one can see this in sport. I am a great baseball fan, though I know I should be a cricket fan instead (smiles)...When I was young and would go to see a baseball game there were box seats and cheaper seats but there was not such a big difference between prices. So going to sports stadium was a kind of civic, class mixing experience where people mingled but that's changed and now most sports stadiums have built sky boxes up above for the elite. This is a symbol of something bigger that's happening in our societies. I describe this as the sky boxification of life. The growing separation between rich and poor in the ordinary activities of daily life. That's what's distinctive--less and less co-mingling. This is damaging, I think, to democracy because democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that people from different backgrounds and walks of life at least encounter one another in certain common spaces.
Q: Yes, but if does not happen, how exactly does it damage democracy?
A: Because we gradually lose the sense that we are in this together. We lose the sense that we have mutual obligations to one another by virtue of living in the same country, the same community. The moral and social fabric is gradually eroded by rampant marketization that often destroys public spaces where people mingle. It erodes the sense of belonging, the shared identity that democracy requires.