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Globalization and the Knowledge Industry

By Subhash Kak
March 16, 2004 09:55 IST
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Although outsourcing of backoffice jobs has become controversial in the current presidential campaign in the US, it is really a non-issue. The number of jobs that India has gained in the last year is only about 100,000, out of the loss of nearly 3 million during the Bush administration. The much greater loss of jobs is in manufacturing, to China and Mexico.

India is only picking up low-margin jobs that, one way or the other, are bound to leave America as its economy adjusts to the latest pressures of globalization. The expectation is that the higher end service and manufacturing jobs will remain in America, because of its domination of knowledge production in sciences and humanistic narratives, such as history, art, and the social sciences.

America sees itself as the city, with countries such as China and India that do labour intensive jobs as provinces. The city has special skills and services that are a magnet for the wealth being generated in the provinces. These magnets are knowledge, financial and entertainment industries, and a superb infrastructure. Since America already has an annual trade deficit of $500 billion, its higher standard of living is already maintained by the capital and goods inflows from the rest of the world.

This current phase of globalization has some parallels with the earlier globalization unleashed by the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, and the spread of colonialism. But ultimately, more than the knowledge of science and technology, the British Raj was based on its superiority of organization and control of the public discourse and education. The East India Company used several stratagems to annex Indian territories, such as the doctrine of lapse for rulers who died without male heirs. The idea of British superiority, drummed into the students at school, was used to keep out Indians from the superior positions in law, medicine, science, and administration until 1910.

British ideas formed the core of the divide and rule policies that frustrated Indian freedom fighters. Many of these constructs persist even after more than fifty years of independence, suggesting that Western hegemony in the social sciences will last a long time.

The fundamental shortcoming of India's centralized system of education compared to the non-centralized Western one explains the persistence of old attitudes. If we consider the representations of Indian culture as a struggle between the hegemonic West with its imperialist moorings and India, with its lived experience that is at odds with the Western narratives, the upper hand remains with the West.

A tightly controlled centralized system is like a blind elephant, since the persons at the top cannot have the resources to process all the information being generated. (As an aside, such information overload is the reason that the Soviet Union collapsed because no economist, howsoever competent and patriotic, could have the capacity to deal with the massive information of the marketplace to set rational prices for the goods produced in the government factories.) If there is a lesson here, it is that fully autonomous and even private universities must emerge to provide the necessary churning that leads to reform.

Academic institutional power is now used by the Western academy to foster its constructs of India. Just a few US-based journals control intellectual output in Indian studies, directly or indirectly, promoting ideas that support Western interests. Indian academic scholars, wishing to partake of Western material comforts, are part of the bandwagon of this critique.

It is amusing, but not surprising, that the fiercest opposition to reform in education comes from the academy in India. Indian curriculum remains Westcentric. Take, for example, Ayurveda, for which last fall the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine decided to establish an Ayurvedic Center of Collaborative Research to study medicine as it is practiced in India. It is hard to imagine that the Indian medical establishment would approve of such a Centre in a mainstream medical college. Or consider the long battle that had to be fought for years to establish a Sanskrit department at the JNU, or how there is no required teaching of the history of Indian science and technology at the IITs, or the history of Indian business at the IIMs.

In a new stage in the economy of the knowledge industry, there is now a direct recruitment by Western universities of scholars of Indian origin who have internalized Western constructs. In this sense, it may not be a loss. On the other hand, the graduate of the India university who stayed back to teach in India may not have known Indian texts in original (since he does not know Indian languages), and he may have simply adopted Western theories, but by living in India there was always the possibility of absorbing Indian culture by osmosis, perhaps from the office clerk or the barber. The Indian professor in the West will not have the opportunity for this learning of India by living it.

It is natural for cultures to be hegemonic, the process of domination being a side-effect of the economy of knowledge production and dissemination. If large cultural areas maintain their identity, there is bound to be a region of overlap and accommodation. With India's rise, its ideas are becoming increasing popular the world over. Unbridled consumerism has led to a moral crisis and, with the hollowness of the material life exposed, there is a great desire to be connected to spirituality.

For example, in the US, almost every YMCA teaches yoga, although it is a different story that some Churches are speaking of Christian yoga, without mentioning the origins of this tradition. This yearning for wisdom was expressed by Zimmer over fifty years ago when he said, 'We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason, why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy and yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Indian wisdom.'

Meanwhile, we need urgent reform in the system of school and college administration, and curriculum reform, so that classics of Indian literature, science, and the arts are integrated into the experience at school and college without loss of material on other cultures and history. This should be done with a commitment to the highest standards of scholarship, requiring the establishment of independent, autonomous institutions that do not merely look back at the past, but see it for what it is, a living system of traditions.

It is sad that Indian traditions tend to be supported in India only after becoming popular in the West. To deal with the challenges of the future in these uncertain times, we need to be fortified by the story of our past and our culture. That strength is necessary to discover creativity and art that will set us free.

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Subhash Kak