What is the difference between a market and an economy? One difference that is often cited is that the market is essentially forward looking – it doesn’t care what the economy currently is. It operates on the principle of asking is it better or worse than what was anticipated and what is expected in the future – better or worse?
As everyone knows this is entirely driven by the ‘mood’, but because so much time and effort is spent on endless data charts to predict what the mood might be, what is sometimes forgotten that behind all that data are human beings and what they want, and how they see their lives and their countries.
A simple example of this is that some of the wealthiest parts of the world are consistently glum these days, while some of the poorest are upbeat. This is because the wealthy world knows, or it thinks it knows, that the future is all about a steady decline of wealth but even more critically of power and influence. However, poorer parts of the world are often filled with anticipation; especially in Asia, where many feel their time in the sun is finally coming.
The difference, I argue in this essay, between a market and an economy is that a market makes, sells and, most importantly, buys goods and services from the world, whereas an economy sells not only its good and services, but its ideas, it converts people around the world not only to its products but its choices.
This is what Britain did, this is what America did, and this is what the Chinese are doing as they shift attention from making mobile phones to making movies about Rambo-style Chinese warrior-saviours in, wait for it, Africa.
Africa whose 1.1 billion work force will the world’s largest by 2040, which will have a collective GDP of $2.6 trillion, and $1.4 trillion in consumer spending, by 2020, and around 500 million middle-class consumers. Africa which has some of the most vital mineral deposits for the digital age.
It is to Africa that China gives around 30,000 student scholarships (as a comparison, India gives around 900 scholarships to African students). And in 2017, Wolf Warrior 2, the Chinese action film which has a Chinese soldier-saviour in Africa as the hero, became the highest grossing Chinese film, and the biggest non-English film in the global box-office, of all-time. In China alone, it made $600 million.
China is slowly but surely becoming an economy from merely a market. It seeks to sell its ideas and not merely make and buy the products of the world. It is convinced of the superiority of the philosophies of the Middle Kingdom and believes the time has come to propagate this around the world.
In Africa, China doesn’t only pitch infrastructure projects but also the story of the early Ming dynasty explorer Zheng He, the first Chinese traveller to reach African shores. As the West once told of the romantic story of Vasco de Gama discovering the East, so does China, the risen power of our time reverse the gaze to pitch Zheng He, a eunuch adventurer, as the befitting progressive hero of our progressive age.
Therefore, I would like to argue that the conversation in India must now move from the merits of its vast market to the power of its idea. We must turn from being a market towards becoming an economy.
The recent success of Indian cinema in China is a good sign, as of course is the resurgence in global interest in themes like yoga, meditation, and even paganism. But India needs to do much more. It needs to recast its most powerful cultural themes into formats where the world can participate. It needs writing that speaks not only for how ideas evolved in India but also about how they were in dialogue around the world.
Living in Oxford these days, I have been reading with great interest the work of the brilliant Oxford historian and a fellow Worcester College man, Peter Frankopan’s retelling of the sheer interconnectedness of the old Silk Route(s) and their new, vibrant importance. In fact, the title of this essay came to me while watching a conversation Frankopan did with the British rapper Kingslee Daley (who has a Scottish mother and a Jamaican father) and uses the stage name Akala, which is taken from Buddhism and means ‘immovable’.
One of the most innovative acts of Akala is ‘hip-hop Shakespeare’ or bringing the performative energy of hip-hop to the resplendent poetry of Shakespeare. This has allowed Akala to reinvent the magic of Shakespeare and take it to audiences which may have not had the opportunity to access Shakespeare.
When I saw this, I remembered Swami Saraswati, the first Hindu African monk from Ghana, and I thought to myself: what if one day the mesmerising devotion and poetry of a man who was probably a contemporary of Shakespeare, Tulsidas, in the grand Ramcharitmanas is brought to hip-hop and its power ricochets in places which might otherwise never get a chance to experience it?
This does not mean that it can’t be propagated in its original form. The most powerful pieces of art that influences people around the world are those that can be placed in any context and they still soar. As a college student I remember watching, with wonder, theatre director Roysten Abel’s Othello in New Delhi put to Kathakali starring the stunning actor Adil Hussain as a dancing Moor. Where did I see this brilliant piece of innovation? At the British Council in Delhi.
This is the confidence of cultures that move from markets to economies. This hunger to make this transition I sense in everything that I see these days in India. It is time for India to make this transition.
Views are personal