What saving sex slaves in India can teach us about capitalism
Fears of another economic recession, the sluggish US job market, the disintegration of the Euro, world debt, the lethargic US economy, the “1%”, elitist Republicans, socialist Democrats, class warfare… YIKES!!!… Amplified by the United States’ fast approaching presidential election, relentless talk of these economic themes seem to dominate or at least flavor almost every bit of news that we are currently taking in. Both fronts of the American political system claim benevolent intentions in their approach to economic policy and simultaneously both accuse the opposite of having the most sinister of intentions. With the seemingly endless war of ideas is raging, and perhaps one of the most important elections in American History fast approaching, where is one to look for some clarity in regards to these economic matters? Believe it or not I would propose that we look to India. Well, not necessarily in terms of the nation, but in terms of one small enterprise whose amazing business model -in the Red Light district of Kolkata- not only inspired me, but changed my whole way of thinking about capitalism and the economy.
Several years back I returned to the United States after leading my first FOCUS Mission trip with American University students to Kolkata, (formerly known as “Calcutta”). Kolkata is a mega city of 15,000,000 inhabitants well known for its severe poverty and squalor. Kolkata is also famous for Blessed Mother Teresa, in whose spirit we were working to serve the poorest of the poor alongside the Missionaries of Charity themselves. The experience was at once heart wrenching, inspirational, joyful, life changing, and on all fronts, extreme. I could write much more about this mission, but I would rather focus on what I stumbled upon after my return from this particular trip. Not being able to kick Kolkata from my every waking thought, I found myself Googling “Calcutta,” an act that yielded a curious YouTube clip called “Calcutta Hilton.” No, this was not about the hotel chain, but a documentary about a certain business started by the Hiltons – a married couple from New Zealand who literally moved their family to the red light district of Calcutta and ended up starting a business. The wine-tote factory business that they created (yes literally creating cloth wine bottle bags for export) was a unique model that challenged the whole paradigm of capitalism.
Before we talk about the business let’s talk about the environment and realities of where this family landed. Kolkata’s red light district, or Sonagachi as it is known, is said to house 10,000 women that “service” an estimated 20,000+ men per day. Think that figure is bad? The ages of the women here start at around 11. To make matters worse, the women who “work” Sonagachi aren’t there because they chose to be. Largely in part, they started as young women, 11-12 years of age, growing up in the famished countryside of West Bengal, Bangladesh, or Nepal. They are offered work in the city – no definition of the occupation. Sometimes they are outright sold by their parents. Some are kidnapped. Upon arrival in the metropolis they discover their new source of income and food – prostitution. For these poor girls, this is an occupation not even lucrative enough to pay the “contractual” room and board obligations imposed on them by their new “employers.” The scheme systematically puts them into debt and their employers truly become their captors. Imagine an entire population of women, with no education, no hope, and no opportunity to escape this horrific, supremely desecrating reality. They are slaves.
As the story goes, it was by accident that the Hiltons rented an apartment in Sonagachi. This “twist of fate” and learning the realities of their new neighborhood inspired them to do something to make a difference. It wasn’t an NGO or non-profit organization that they created: they started a business, a very different kind of a business. As Mr. Hilton puts it: “The way that most people start businesses is that you pick the best people and you try to pay them the least that you can. We didn’t go out to find the people with the most skills. We in fact we went out and picked the worst people that nobody else would take in terms of education and experience…” The Hiltons didn’t give jobs to those who could make them the most profit; they gave jobs to those that needed it the most. The need they addressed ranged far beyond monetary help. As the women worked this second job, they were able to pay off their debt and literally win their freedom. Freeset (as the business is cleverly named – and Mr. Hilton will insist that this is a business), not only liberates these women, but it also aims to continue to liberate them by providing them opportunities for education, training, and most of all, dignity.
Having spent time in Kolkata and having witnessed first-hand extreme suffering of humanity, I was able to put real faces with the women that were being freed through this business. It was the little girl on the street corner that would beg us for money every afternoon. It was the women lying on the street that would look at us with faces of utter despair. It was in those moments that one was challenged to fall into despair – this is too big, the problems are too complex, how could anyone make a difference? What the Hilton’s business represented was truly inspirational. Their business was a staunch declaration that hope will conquer despair and their business literally set captives free. Now the amazing irony in this was that the Hiltons used principles of business as a medium to make a difference – mind you, it was also principles of business that enslaved these women to begin with. What the Hiltons did was take the business model and turn it upside down. It’s worth mentioning another layer of irony: this particular charity was in fact most effective when run like a business! This whole story was a raw demonstration of the extreme potential for good that capitalism can offer alongside the extreme potential for evil that capitalism has the potential to produce.
Having been truly inspired, I was eager to learn more about similar business philosophies. During my search, I ended up tripping on a “pot-of-gold” that articulated and elaborated on exactly what the Hiltons were getting at. I started reading Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). As I read, I realized that the Hilton’s example was the complete manifestation of themes always taught by the Catholic Church and particularly reiterated in this encyclical. Perhaps the biggest theme was that we are not to work against capitalism – this is like fighting gravity - we are called to sanctify capitalism. With the Hilton’s “revolutionary” concept in mind (and we can also say, the Catholic Church’s “revolutionary” concepts in mind), I began to wrap my mind around a few fundamental economic principles.
What I have come to learn when talking economics is that it all comes down to one main theme: justice. Providing a crucial component for the foundation of the Church’s social teachings (because it is intrinsic to our humanity), Pope Benedict XVI defines justice in Caritas in Veritate as “prompt[ing] us to give the other what is ‘his’, what is due to him by reason of his acting or being.” Why is justice essential? Justice in essence structures our systems to work with human nature. Notice that this is a two-part definition. First, it gives what is due to one who acts. In other words, it gives reward to those who labor. Now, notice the other crucial component to the Pope’s definition of justice: giving one their due by reason of their being. This refers to awards due to people by virtue of their human dignity, and not necessarily merited by labor. For Christians, addressing this specific component of “giving one their due by reason of their being,” comes in the form of charity. When considering this two part definition of, giving one his or her due for reason of their acting absolutely cannot exist without consideration for giving one his or her due for reason of their being.
Now applying these principles to economics we can begin to understand how a lack of justice in capitalism can take on such an evil nature. Saint Alberto Hurtado (a 20th Century Saint from Chile) points out that: “Unregulated capitalism leads to the exploitation of the people, and the accumulation of wealth and power among a small elite.” Yes, if there was ever a clear demonstration of this in the extreme look at Sonagachi – talk about exploitation of people. If we look to Latin America, one can see perhaps some of the clearest historical examples of accumulation of wealth and power among the elite. In contemporary Brazil one percent of the population owns approximately 46% of the land and in Venezuela, up to the year 2004, 60% of the land suitable for agriculture was in the hands of 2% of the population. So what are the roots of the problems? In simple terms, capitalism, in its raw, unbridled form, tends to ignore the justice deemed to people by reason of their being. Basically when it is “raw” and “unbridled” it ignores charity.
Now obviously, there are also grave dangers in abandoning capitalism altogether. Let’s face it many of the grave dangers inherent to capitalism can lead people to think outside the structure of capitalism. Certainly, if you have nothing, or if you have deeply held convictions about the poor, the concept of socialism (for simplicity let’s just define socialism as government mandated redistribution of wealth), is a concept that can be very attractive. There is one prime component to socialism that inevitably causes it to collapse. –Namely, any socialist economic structure negates that which is due to people for the reason of their acting. Socialism architecturally removes justice. To think about it in other terms, what the socialist model does is place charity before justice. Note that in the definition of justice, charity does not precede awarding acts (labor), it follows them. Saint Alberto Hurtado puts it best when he states, “True charity begins where justice ends.” The rule here is that one cannot structurally disorder the sequence of justice. Again, humans have long tried to reverse this order through social experiments (i.e. socialism). The results of this type of experiment are consistently, that when justice is structurally removed or inversed, the whole system collapses leaving neither justice nor charity. To quote Hurtado again, “Charity without justice will not save us from social ills, but only creates a profound resentment. Injustice causes much greater evils than charity can repair.”
So where is the clarity in this mix? The more I thought about what the Hiltons had accomplished through their model of business, and the more I read through Caritas in Veritate, the more I realized the fundamental wisdom behind “Christian economics”: business, and all capitalism, should have the end of charity, that is to say, the foundation of all business should be for the betterment of mankind! Charity cannot just be something conveniently executed when profits allow, it must be integrated into the foundation of the business. We realize that capitalism has to exist because it ensures justice but also that justice tends to disappear without charity.
Seeing economics through this lens helped me to discern some of the truths and fallacies of proposed economic policies. In the context of our American political choices, what it really comes down to is supporting a logical economic structure that is in accord with justice. Socialist policy or anything even resembling socialism must be avoided at all cost. Policy of this nature instantly negates our ability to develop “sanctified capitalism” with charity at its core. The big caveat to all of this is that the structure is only a framework for what truly needs to be implemented. A political economic structure cannot solve the world’s problems! The only thing that can do this is cultivating a culture that uses the capitalist structure with charity and benevolence and this comes down to us. Beyond voting in support of sound economic structure, it is absolutely imperative that each of us look toward our own decisions and our own actions to fulfill the charity that is absolutely essential to sanctify the structure. Looking toward the example of the Hiltons, we must strive to make charity and the betterment of mankind the driving force behind all we do.
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What saving sex slaves in India can teach us about capitalism
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