I AM A GREAT FAN OF THE COLOUR GREY, as opposed to black and white, which some people maintain are not colours at all.
This is another way of saying there are nuances to everything. Good people and bad people are not necessarily good or bad all the time; good people can do bad things and vice versa. So it is with social and political systems.
There have been two recurring themes in the articled history of PNG Attitude; one is the relevance of the Westminster system of government to Papua New Guinea and the other is the appropriateness of the Melanesian Way in the modern state.
Depending on the authors, these two states are often portrayed in simplistic terms as either good or bad. Occasionally writers also suggest that taking the good from either system and combining them together might be a good idea.
This last suggestion has some merit and a lot of dangers. The old adage about throwing the baby out with the bath water comes to mind. What might appear to be good in one system can often turn out to have unimagined consequences. Also, what appears to be good to one person might be anathema to another.
Take, for instance, our trusty old politician. The Westminster system with its basis in unbridled individualism and capitalism works well for him. It gives him opportunities to create personal wealth.
If he tosses in a bit of the Melanesian Way it works even better; he can load whatever department he controls with malleable wantoks, spread largesse to his clan and gain huge amounts of prestige.
On the other hand, the villager sitting on the banks of his polluted river surrounded by the stumps of what was once his forest and larder holding the carton of SP that his wantok politician has given him might view the intangible gains of the latter’s enhanced prestige somewhat ambivalently.
So who should we blame for this corrupt politician? Capitalism and the Westminster system or the Melanesian Way? Clearly it is a bit of both. Maybe they both need to be replaced by something else. Or perhaps Papua New Guinea should decide which system it wants to adopt and drop the pretence of supporting the other.
John Fowke has made a good case for what is wrong with the Melanesian Way. So has Susan Merrell. I don’t think either is advocating abandoning it altogether. It has some very highly redeeming features, not least the importance of community.
So what about capitalism, is it as great as everyone seems to suggest? It certainly appears to deliver considerable material benefits, perhaps not across the board, but to a widening spectrum of society.
Modern capitalism is basically a system whereby people sell things to each other. Sometimes these are things that people need but more often than not they are things that they don’t need; junk food, prodigious quantities of clothes, flash cars and electronic gadgets, for instance. Sometimes the things sold are intangible with no physical substance.
The need for these mostly useless objects has grown into a kind of global addiction and whole industries and cultures are geared to supplying the demand. The people who control these industries do so to make money. They call this money profit or wealth. The reason they need this profit and wealth is to buy useless objects themselves.
Some people hoard profit and wealth as a sort of bank of useless objects. The fact that they can go out whenever they want and buy any useless object that strikes their fancy is somehow a great reassurance.
One’s ability to do this is a matter of great status and is used as a measure of individual worth (aka as our politician). People aspire to be in this position but they also worry about where to store all their useless objects so as to make room for new ones.
The right of people to sell things to each other has been encapsulated in a doctrine known as democracy. This doctrine once stood for the rights of an individual to personal freedom but has been subverted to mean the right to own things. In many ways it is a philosophy of greed.
In the west, individuals, communities and whole nations prize their right to be greedy so highly that they are prepared to kill to defend it. A massive armaments industry has grown up around this right. In some countries guns are the ultimate useless object.
All this buying and selling is useful in the sense that it stops people getting bored. An object which can keep someone occupied for a few hours but then creates an overpowering urge for something new has an intrinsic worth in the capitalist system.
Other objects, like television, serves the same purpose by constantly exhorting people to go out and buy new things. Some people’s whole lives revolve around their television sets.
Although some people persist in believing capitalism is not a finite proposition, the opposite is true. This is because one day the raw materials needed to manufacture useless objects will be depleted.
This process is being accelerated by the burgeoning number of people occupying the planet and especially by those being drawn into the capitalist net. This latter process is called globalisation.
Globalisation will eventually denude the planet of all the resources needed to manufacture useless, as well as useful, objects. What will be left will be a lot of very bored people sitting on the shell of a once bountiful planet blaming each other for the mess.
So, is replacing the Melanesian Way with something like capitalism such a good idea after all? Is it worth completely abandoning an age old social and political system for another system which clearly has major downsides?
Of course not, but it is probably inevitable that this will happen eventually anyway.
So what is the answer?
The answer to that question is ‘there is no answer’.