Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Social limits of growth – II

For his analysis in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch divided goods into two primary types. The first type was material goods: These are, in a sense, goods as commonly defined in economics. Their consumption generates utility because of the intrinsic characteristics of the good in question. These will generally be called FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods like soaps, shoes, refrigerators etc.). The supply of material goods could be, and was, increased in response to the public’s rising demand for them. 

The second category was called positional goods. There were certain amenities whose supply cannot be increased. Economic growth increases their utilization which increases their relative scarcity. The ozone layer, clean air, drinkable water, natural beauty, land for infrastructure (e.g. roads, sewers) and growing food, antiques etc. are examples. (‘Buy land. They are not making it anymore.’ – Mark Twain). Positional goods have no equivalent in standard economic theory. The focus of Hirch’s analysis was on the interplay between these two divisions of the economy. 

Within the realm of material  goods, all the   accomplishments economists attribute to the invisible hand of the competitive market economy holds true. Economic growth understood as a continuous increase in affluence means that ever more people have their needs in the material sector satisfied – and turn ever more attention to the positional sector. What happens when the material pie grows while the positional economy remains confined to a fixed size? 

Classical economists focused their attention narrowly on mankind’s bodily needs and thereby managed drastically to simplify the economic problem. That made demand and increases in demand always into a good thing, it showed competition to be a beneficent force that diminished monopoly profits and caused market prices to reflect costs and preferences; and it made quantification possible by rendering GDP estimates a simple measure of the economy’s contribution to welfare.

But when positional goods enter the picture, the situation is muddied. So long as material privation is widespread, conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern. As demand for material goods are increasingly satisfied, demand for goods and facilities with a public (social) character become increasingly active. The limited demand for things with augmentable supply  (material goods) and the unlimited demand for those whose supply is limited (positional goods), have created a great number of peculiarities and problems in our society.

The consumption of positional goods is valued at least partly by comparison with the consumption of these goods by others – e.g., having a manager’s job makes me better off not only because of its intrinsic characteristic (salary, power, freedom etc.), but also because others are not managers. In a further sense, positional goods define our position within the society and are thus socially scarce.

Social scarcity can have differing visible effects. One is physical congestion: the more people acquire the material good “car”, the more frequent are traffic jams. The other is social congestion: this is the case in the area of jobs, where there is limited scope for “leaders”, “bosses” and the like. Furthermore, some positional goods are socially scarce because they generate utility by being physically scarce – for instance, there is limited amount of “picturesque” natural landscapes. Another area where such “direct” social scarcity prevails is in arts: a Picasso is seen as valuable mainly because there is only one of its kind.

The scarcity of a positional good renders different people’s enjoyment of it interdependent, so that one person’s increased consumption  or use of it reduces its availability for other people’s enjoyment. This causes numerous problems. Smog, traffic jams, the deterioration of cities, the spoiling of much natural beauty by overcrowding and too many tourists, the poisoning of the soil and ground water by the burying of toxic waste products are a few examples. 

While the economy as a whole keeps growing, the positional sector gets ever smaller (i.e more scarce) in relation to the rest. This makes positional goods relatively more expensive and/or their quality deteriorates (e.g., due to congestion effects). Also, while any individual has the possibility to attain positional goods, it is impossible for everyone to attain them making an increasing fraction of the population frustrated. Therefore, economic growth is continuously aggravating the problems arising from social scarcity. 

Demands for positional goods tend to grow as general standards rise, a demand that can be satisfied for some only by frustrating demand by others. For most people,  they become objects of desire that the most intensive effort cannot reach.  This creates situations in which individually rational behaviour leads to socially irrational outcomes. Positional competition that is promoted by growth leads to ever more frustration within the allegedly ever better off society.


Friday, May 6, 2022

Social limits of growth – I

It has long been believed, especially in Western societies (contrary to ancient wisdom), that the pursuit of economic advantage is actually a civilizing, moderating influence in society. Many people accept the view that people are motivated to pursue their narrow economic and material self-interests, assume that people support policies consistent with their vested interests, and regard behavior that is not self-interested with suspicion. The assumption that selfishness is the fundamental human motivation rests on the view that selfishness is beneficial, whereas otherishness is costly; people are selfish because they benefit from selfishness. 

We keep hearing material abundance would make it possible for everybody to have enough to be perfectly happy. Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly remarked that if he could put one American book in the hands of every Russian, it would be the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. A person with such a mindset views anything that history, literature, philosophy, or long-standing traditions might have to suggest about the prudence one ought to employ in the shaping of new institutions as romantic babble which can be ignored. Harvey Cox writes in an article The Market as God

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine's City of God. 

Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. 

But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The last couple of centuries witnessed an impressive array of scientific discoveries, technical inventions, and industrial innovations which seemed to make the mastery of nature an accomplished fact rather than an idle dream. Many took this as a sign that all ancient wisdom had simply been rendered obsolete. As one chronicler of the new technology wrote in Scientific American: "The speculative philosophy of the past is but a too empty consolation for short-lived, busy man, and, seeing with the eye of science the possibilities of matter, he has touched it with the divine breath of thought and made a new world. " 

The assumption of self-interest pervades the social sciences, particularly economics and psychology. Empirical research suggests that this assumption is wrong or at least overstated. After a lot of searching the economist Joseph Henrich found that the Homo Economicus of economists' dreams does exist but, it is not a human, but a chimpanzee. ‘The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments,’ Henrich noted dryly. ‘So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.’ As Langdon Winner says in The Whale and the Reactor:

‘To argue a moral position convincingly these days requires that one speak to (and not depart from) people's love of material well-being, their fascination with efficiency, or their fear of death. The moral sentiments that hold force can be arrayed on a spectrum ranging from Adam Smith to Frederick W. Taylor to Thomas Hobbes. I do not wish to deny the validity of these sentiments, only to point out that they represent an extremely narrow mindset.’

Of course, all of economics is not about Homo Economicus. There are models which try to incorporate the complexities of human behavior. There are many results from experimental studies showing that people don’t behave according to the Homo Economicus model of human nature. We are far more cooperative and willing to trust than is predicted by the theory, and we retaliate vehemently when others behave selfishly. But most people who study economics don't go beyond the undergraduate level where such complexities are not discussed.

In Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, Dani Rodrik says that many economists may have the predisposition of being knee-jerk market fundamentalists but it is certainly not what economics teaches. The correct answer to almost any question in economics is: It depends. Different models, each equally respectable, provide different answers. All the valuable lessons that economics teaches are contextual. They are if-then statements in which the “if” matters as much as the “then.”’

Economists don’t regard physical limits as a major problem because of the potential scope for substitution as a result of technological advance. Thus economic theory focused on explaining how conflicting selfish interests of market participants balance out in a way that results in the production of goods and services according to consumers’ preferences and an efficient allocation of resources to their production. What is not discussed are the ways in which growth creates its own frustrating limits.

The common argument is that even though the masses today could never get close to what the well-to-do have today, they can get most of the way there with patience in a not too distant tomorrow, through the magic of compound growth. If the fruits of aggregate advance appear inadequate or disappointing,  it merely reflects inadequate economic effort or excessive demands by individuals, or poor organization or inadequate capital equipment currently available to them. Too much has been expected too soon. Conventional wisdom thinks in terms of “excessive expectations.” The populace wants it now. It cannot have it now. It is too impatient. 

But in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch argued that the promise of economic growth which has dominated society for so long has limits that were essentially social rather than physical which made their analysis flawed. The distributional struggle is heightened rather than relieved by the process of growth. He shows why the affluent compete among themselves and how they create social scarcity. Affluence, by creating a kind of congestion, limits the welfare attainable by society as a whole.  

The affluent society is the frustrated society, seemingly incapable of improving the quality of life through greater material quantity. Generalized growth then increases the crush. It is an exact reversal of what economists and present-day politicians have come to expect growth to deliver. ‘To see total economic advance as individual advance writ large is to set up expectations that cannot be fulfilled, ever’.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Bullshit jobs - II

 What about jobs that are just partly bullshit? There are very few jobs that don’t involve at least a few pointless or idiotic elements. To some degree, this is probably just the inevitable side effect of the workings of any complex organization. The problem is getting worse and Graeber calls this trend 'the bullshitization of society' - 'I don’t think I know anyone who has had the same job for thirty years or more who doesn’t feel that the bullshit quotient has increased over the time he or she has been doing it.'

 For example, take the case of teachers in higher education. They spend increasing amounts of time filling out administrative paperwork rather than teaching. According to a survey, the amount of time American office workers say they devoted to their actual duties declined from 46 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016, owing to a proportionate rise in time dealing with emails (up from 12 percent to 16 percent), “wasteful” meetings (8 percent to 10 percent), and administrative tasks (9 percent to 11 percent). It shows that (1) more than half of working hours in American offices are spent on bullshit, and (2) the problem is getting worse.

This increasing 'bullshitization' accompanied by technological changes has resulted in creation of jobs up with fancy titles with imagined roles. In an essay in the Guardian on corporate rubbish, André Spicer writes, “A century of management fads has created workplaces that are full of empty words and equally empty rituals… Consider a meeting I recently attended. During the course of an hour, I recorded 64 different nuggets of corporate claptrap. They included familiar favourites such as ‘doing a deep dive’, ‘reaching out’, and ‘thought leadership’. There were also some new ones I hadn’t heard before: people with ‘protected characteristics’ (anyone who wasn’t a white straight guy), ‘the aha effect’ (realizing something), ‘getting our friends in the tent’ (getting support from others).”

Fancy designations are just an extension of this phenomenon. Thus you have ’Chief Geek Officers’, ‘Dream catchers’, ‘Gold Miners’, ’Heads of Fire Fighting’, ’Omni-Maestro of Integrated Commerce’, ‘Curator of next-generation digital experiences’ and ‘Preserver of Experience’. You also have ‘Chief Tweeting Officer’, ’Chief Jolly Officer’ and ‘Chief Geeky Officer’. Apparently, a service technician at Apple is called “genius”. More impressive designations that I have seen:

  • Chief Delight Officer (HR) - responsible for connecting people, building teams, reducing stress and promoting a happy work culture.
  • ‘Social Birds’ - look after social media and connect people through various campaigns 
  • ‘Community Data Guerrilla’ - looks after data analytics.
  • 'Chief of Customer Success’ - formerly known as Chief Operations Officer 
  • Crayon Evangelist - oversees all of the company's graphic-design needs  
  • Catalyst - executive assistant/office manager 
  • Creator of opportunities - SVP of business development 
  • Ambassador of buzz - corporate communications associate
  • Digital prophet - attempts to predict trends
  • Chief curator - chooses which items to be featured on homepage 
  • Head of global trends and futuring – progressive strategist 
  • Chief Amazement Officer - founder 
  • President and TeaEO - CEO of a tea company
  • Director of First Impressions - receptionist 
  • Security Executive - A watchman  
  • Chief Hygiene Officer - a cleaner 
  • Chief Talent Acquisition Officer - An HR executive 
  • Vice President of Miscellaneous Stuff - in charge of everything nobody else is in charge of. 
  • Chief Cheerleader - ensures the morale of employees gets a regular boost

PS: — Bill Hicks comedy routine:

Boss: How come you’re not working? 

Worker: There’s nothing to do.

Boss: Well, you’re supposed to pretend like you’re working.

Worker: Hey, I got a better idea. Why don’t you pretend like I’m working?  You get paid more than me.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Bullshit jobs - I

In 2013, the late anthropologist, David Graeber published an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (which he later expanded into a book called Bullshit jobs). Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? Yet virtually no one talks about it. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. 

The essay went viral almost immediately. Within weeks, it had been translated into German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Czech, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Latvian, Polish, Greek, Estonian, Catalan, and Korean, and was reprinted in newspapers from Switzerland to Australia. Blogs sprouted. Comments sections filled up with confessions from white-collar professionals. People wrote to him asking for guidance or to tell him that he had inspired them to quit their jobs to find something more meaningful. 

Graeber defines a bullshit job as a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence. He distinguishes between jobs that are pointless (bullshit jobs) and jobs that are merely bad (shit jobs). The two are often confused but might almost be considered opposites. If you mention the notion of bullshit jobs to someone who hasn’t heard the term before, that person may assume you’re really talking about shit jobs.

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly. In shit jobs, people are generally treated with arbitrariness and disrespect. Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. 

Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers — as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Hardly anyone would trade in a pointless middle-management position for a job as a ditchdigger, even if they knew that the ditches really did need to be dug. 

Graeber had thought that the percentage of bullshit jobs was probably around 20 percent but it turned out to be much higher. A poll of Britons was conducted using language taken directly from the essay: for example, Does your job “make a meaningful contribution to the world”? Astonishingly, more than a third — 37 percent — said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain). (But only 33 percent of workers found it unfulfilling which meant that at least 4 percent of the working population feel their jobs are pointless but enjoy them anyway.) A poll in Holland came up with almost exactly the same results: in fact, a little higher, as 40 percent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist. Graeber writes:

How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, . . . to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. 

For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? 

Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. 

It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might improve markedly.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. 

It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteachers and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. 

It’s as if they are being told “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 12b

 Oscar Wilde said, “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.” Attempts have always been made to consign Gandhi to the dustbin of history. While everybody likes the idea of nonviolence, few believe it can be an effective policy in statecraft today. I read that the department of education in Odisha published a booklet reportedly stating that “Gandhi died because of an accidental sequence of events.” Apparently in a school in Gujarat 15-year-old children were asked how “Gandhi committed suicide” as part of an exam. 

Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the “real” Gandhi, the Gandhi that “no one knows,” the Gandhi who was patriarchal, bourgeois, casteist, a sexual puritan, contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of progress and development, even a “friend of Hitler’. (Gandhi authored two short letters to Hitler, urging him to renounce violence, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient.) Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear. He is everywhere, a spectral presence who is likely to haunt even more. 

Few of Gandhi’s ideals survive today in India, and thus we cannot but declare him a failure. But he tried, he believed, and he lived by what he preached (by and large). This makes him a success, for, as the Gita says, you should do your duty without seeking a reward. Indian movie directors keep alive the ghost of Gandhi. (I know of Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi films.) When some unethical act takes place - politicians planning a riot, prisoner beaten by policemen, officials accepting bribes etc., there will be a  photo of Gandhi hanging on the wall behind. 

In The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, Makarand Paranjape writes that killing the Father “is not the same as eliminating his influence or presence”. However much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi continues to surface in the most unexpected ways. He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of India’s most significant ecological movements, from the Chipko agitation to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval. 

When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s, they talked of Lech Walesa as their Gandhi, a curious description of the Vodka-guzzling trade-union leader. When Benito Aquino of Philippines was assassinated, the same chant was raised by the crowd,  `Benito, our Gandhi'. Protesting crowds often hold posters of Gandhi and Che Guevara together, two leaders whose world-views were diametrically opposite to each other. The crowd would not even know who these people are.  As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi, 'For above all, this Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice, while trying to retain their humanity even when faced with unqualified inhumanity.'

'My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest', said Sarojini Naidu in her broadcast on All India Radio on February 1, 1948, after Gandhi's assassination. "I am not going to keep quiet even after I die”, Gandhi had once declared. The character of Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munnabhai says, ‘I was shot down many years ago but my ideas will not die by three bullets, my thoughts will create a chemical imbalance in some mind or the other. Either you put me inside a frame and hang me up on your wall or think over my thoughts.’ After the assassination of Martin Luther King, a cartoon appeared in an American newspaper where Gandhi says to King in heaven:

 


Gandhi strived to live a life in politics which promoted moral values that transcended self-interest and political arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that democracy, like any other aspect of social and political life, would not function in the framework of a meaningless civilization with no sense of ethics and spirituality. His view was that a satyagrahi should wrestle with ’the coil of the snake’ of politics without being bitten by the lust for power. In Gandhi's Theory of Society and Our Times, A. K. Saran says:

. . . if Gandhi was not just a colonial leader who happened to achieve some kind of world fame, but, on the contrary, is a universal figure with relentless and steadfast concern with the destiny of man, then the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work, is the question of its relevance to our times and this is nothing else or no less than this: Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?

Gandhi’s critical attitude toward modern civilization is an effort in asking the right questions at the right time about the whole inherited ideas on thought and action. He recognized that the advance of modernity coincides with the banishment of the small man to the sidelines. His ideas are a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail. All subtle ideas can be trivialized by portrayal in uncompromising and absolute terms. Don’t underestimate the power of steady misrepresentation.

Gandhi's challenging and fundamental questions discomfit many which makes him inspirational as well as annoying to different sections. The latter group is much larger especially in India and it is even more so because his ideas demand more attention, not less, since his death. He set a bar for ethical action in politics which is unlikely to be ever met in the future and certainly is well beyond the comprehension of the present breed of Indian politicians. They have managed to create a society in which someone like Gandhi would be at a huge disadvantage. That is the tragedy of our times. 

While information and knowledge lies ahead of us and is made more easily accessible by technology, all wisdom seems to be already behind us. As Antonio Gramsci succinctly puts it, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born -- now is the time of monsters.” Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance and non-violence is much more relevant today amidst the religious turmoil and political divisiveness around the world. The quality of his thought has sometimes been lost because of the other images Gandhi has - a shrewd politician and a deeply spiritual figure.  

A group of scholars, thinkers and writers gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram to once again reflect on Gandhi's death as absence and memory. Speaking of Gandhi’s Death brings together these reflections. In it, Ashis Nandy is quoted as saying:

Today, there is an all-round attempt to make Gandhi respectable. I see a lot of young faces in front of me. I hope you will avoid the temptation of seeing Gandhi as someone respectable, as somebody that your parents would like you to be like. 

I would rather want you to see Gandhi as disreputable, unpredictable, at the margins of sanity, and at the margins of everyday life; someone who dares to ask you to look even at your everyday life and your public life, and ask, is it possible for us to envision, to re-visualize or imagine a different kind of public or private life? Is it possible to live everyday life and yet look beyond its everydayness, and is it possible to contaminate your everyday life or the life of the people around you with that vision?”

PS: One of the best tennis quotes of all time was made by Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost 16 matches in a row to Bjorn Borg. He finally won his 17th match and growled at the press conference held later, 'Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.' After reading 37 posts in a row about Gandhi (I had planned over 50 posts!), I can imagine at least one of the two of you still reading these posts,  muttering darkly, 'Nobody makes me read 38 posts in a row about Gandhi.' Have no fear. I have decided to end this series with this post. 

PPS: Some have generously observed over the years that I am intellectually reasonably competent. After reading about my admiration for Gandhi, you may be convinced that such observations are grossly exaggerated. Daniel Kahneman has some words for you In Thinking, Fast and Slow that will make you exclaim, 'I told you so.' 

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among collage undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility. 


Monday, March 14, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 12a

Stories persuade. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote, the persuasive power of stories distinguished homo sapiens in the animal kingdom. “Much of history,” he said, “revolves around this question: How does one persuade millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.” Whether it was joining forces to fend off a predator or to sail across oceans, the early sapiens persuaded and flourished by telling stories. The most important things in the world exist only in our imagination. But, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. 

It is common to imagine that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators like Gandhi understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in people to inspire them to do the right thing. Kurt Vonnegut says about one woman, 'She was asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80 percent could be moved in either direction.' Both Gandhi and Hitler seemed to pull similar strings but told stories that pulled their people in opposite directions. In John Dewey’s words, 

“a renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general, and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than a demonstration of material success or a devout worship of special legal and political forms.”  

Many people in Gandhi's time and now (especially educated, city-dwelling folk) find his spartan requirements, his vegetarian diet, his preference for natural methods of healing, celibacy, etc.hard to understand. In the first half of the 20th century, communism had a lot of appeal among many educated people. These people saw Gandhi as an obscurantist because of his use of religious metaphors for communication rather than a secular-scientific one, because he preached a moderation of rather than giving-in to one's desires, and strict insistence on non-violence rather than on more manly (to them) violent revolutionary methods. Zygmunt Bauman writes in  Globalization: The Human Consequences:

Not asking certain questions is pregnant with more dangers than failing to answer the questions already on the official agenda; while asking the wrong kind of questions all too often helps to avert eyes from the truly important issues. 

The price of silence is paid in the hard currency of human suffering. . . Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of the services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.

Gandhi questioned what had been taken as settled. He had a positive view of human nature. He was fond of quoting the Mohammedan saying adam khuda nahin lekin khuda ka noor adam se juda nahin (Man is not God but neither is he different from the spark of God). He often said that human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to become human it had to cease to be bestial or brutal. He was convinced that without the attainment of the virtue of non-violence, we will share the qualities of ‘our remote reputed ancestor the orangutan’. He was of the view that human beings will stop growing when they cease distinguishing between virtue and vice.

An aspect of Gandhi’s thought which is relevant today is his understanding of the relation between the great world faiths. ’The time is now passed,’ he said, ’when the followers of one religion can stand and say, ours is the only true religion and all others are false’ (Indian Opinion, August 26, 1905). He was particularly influenced by a Jain, Raychandbhai, who introduced him to the idea of the many-sidedness of reality (anekantavada), so that many different views may all be valid. And this includes religious views. Gandhi shared the ancient Hindu assumption that ’Religions are different roads converging at the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?' 

He regarded it as pointless, because impossible, to grade the great world faiths in relation to each other. ’No one faith is perfect. All faiths are equally dear to their respective votaries. What is wanted, therefore, is a living friendly contact among the followers of the great religions of the world and not a clash among them in the fruitless attempt on the part of each community to show the superiority of its own faith over the rest. His ’doctrine of the Equality of Religions’, as it has been called, did not move towards a single global religion, but enjoins us all to become better expressions of our own faith, being enriched in the process by influences from other faiths. 

The day after Gandhi was assassinated, a foreign journalist was in South India and witnessed millions of people torn by grief. He had never seen something like this before and asked somebody to explain the phenomenon. The person said, 'Gandhi held up a mirror which showed us the best we could possibly be. Now we fear that the mirror has been shattered.' In Gandhi in His Time and Ours, David Hardiman writes that there have been great moral activists like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc. (some of whom do not endorse Gandhi's policy of adhering to non-violence at all times) whose quality of leadership parallels that of Gandhi. He writes:

The moral activist puts her or his life on the line by challenging the 'system' to do its worst. Too often, the challenge is taken up, and the activist has been murdered. Each such violent and premature death has been a tragic setback. There is however hope, for people of such ethical power have again and again emerged to pose the question in new ways and to suggest new answers. They have not been perfect beings - they have had their human weaknesses and sometimes made great mistakes. 

Their personal family lives have often been sad, even tragic. But still, they are people who in their fierce and uncompromising moral commitment have soared above those around them. They stand for a human spirit that refuses to be crushed by the leviathan of the modern 'system' of violence, oppression and exploitation, and which aspires for a better, more equitable and non-violent future. In this, they inspire huge numbers. In them, Gandhi - their model - still lives.


Sunday, February 27, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 11

 Arundhati Roy says that Gandhi often talked about Ram Rajya but does not say how it is different from the Ram Rajya mentioned by the Hindu Right thereby giving the impression that both are same. That Gandhi’s Ram, by his own admission, had no relation to the Ram worshipped by many Hindus is of no consequence. Modi’s alleged adherence to Gandhi’s ideal of ‘Ram Rajya’ is mentioned by critics, some of whom have long thought of Gandhi as a Hindu chauvinist. This was hardly the case.

Like many other successful leaders, who were great communicators, Gandhi explored the common Indian’s belief system, his awareness of his myths, his strong religious orientation, etc. to make his experience and thoughts readily intelligible to the masses. Among the many insights that he bequeathed is the insight that the most effective strategies for achieving change are, in the long run, those that employ reconstructions of a tradition's inherited symbols rather than strategies that discard those symbols for alien ones. But he did not use traditional symbols blindly. ‘It is good to swim in the waters of tradition but to sink in them is suicide.’ He used traditional Indian symbols to promote novel values and thereby convey a contemporary socio-political message. 

He clothed revolutionary ideas with familiar terms so that they were readily adopted and used for perusing revolutionary ends. Merely dismissing him as a Hindu revivalist because of his use of traditional terms like swaraj, ramrajya, tapasya, Panchayati Raj, etc. is a superficial reading. He infused these familiar terms with considerations that are reminiscent of the rational, humanist tradition of the West and which were unavailable in Indian tradition. Again and again we see Gandhi use phrases emerging out of established ways and familiar institutions to transmit newly created values. In like manner, he used the term Ramrajya to communicate with a largely illiterate population that was intimately familiar with India’s epic lore. 

To orthodox Muslims, this aroused a fear that he intended Hindu rule. But he clarified that Ram and Rahim were the same and he acknowledged ‘no other God but the God of truth and righteousness’. He felt that 'Ram Rajya' came closest to what Christians meant by 'the kingdom of God' and what Muslims meant by 'Khudai Raj' (God's reign). Hindu, Christian and Muslim traditions were trying to promote the idea of perfect justice and he  felt that not to use the term for the sake of appearing to be politically correct would have been 'self-suppression and hypocrisy'. His ideal of Ram Rajya had nothing to do with theocracy of any kind. 

The term Ramarajya figuratively expresses "the reign of ideal justice, perfect democracy or the reign of self-imposed law of moral restraint." Above all, the Gandhian state was purely a secular state and he made it transparently clear. In the Amrit Bazar Patrika of August 2, 1934, he said: “Ramayana of my dreams ensures equal rights to both prince and pauper.” Gandhi’s vision of the ideal society is that of a non-violent and democratic social order in which there is a just balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. Such a reign can never be realized in the institutions of society and has to be seen as an ideal that one has to strive for.

While the current government pushes for 'Ram, Ramayan and Ramrajya' it is pertinent to note that Gandhi had dismissed the idea of Ramrajya when India was on the verge of Independence. Writing in the Harijan on June 1, 1947, just two months before Independence, Gandhi lamented that “there can be no Ram Rajya in the present state of iniquitous inequalities in which a few roll in riches and the masses do not get even enough to eat!” 

Both the Hindu Right and Gandhi used phrases and precepts found in Hindu scriptures. But it was the manner in which each used the traditional and the familiar which set them at opposite poles. Gandhi's religious inclinations did not prevent him from being reasonable or to accept the results of empirical tests. The eclectic element in Gandhi's religious thought resulted in a denial of dogma while the typical slogan of extreme Hindu groups is 'Hinduize all politics and militarize Hinduism'. 

After Gandhi's removal from the political scene (much to the relief of who Ashis Nandy calls the 'moderns', who were wedded to secular statecraft), the intelligentia abandoned the field of religion as something that the poor, illiterate villagers pursued. The innovations he brought about had no effective champion and the meanings of many traditionally terms reverted to that of the Hindu Right. The separation of religion and politics has not kept religion out of politics. It has only resulted in the more unacceptable and anti-democratic forms of religion to gain more power and visibility. When we abandon symbols of religious tolerance, others appropriate them, which is what has now happened with Gandhi's legacy.  

In his essay An Anti-secularist Manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes about these regressive forces: ‘Instead of making religious use of politics, they make political use of religion, turning it into an instrument of political mobilization within a psephocratic model – a model in which elections and elected ‘kings’ dominate the system.’ Instead of being a means of expressing cultural values, religion has become a legitimate instrument for perusing personal and group self-interest. Instead of private faith and public agnosticism, what has become dominant is public faith and private agnosticism. Gandhi once said that 'religions are only as good or as bad as their professors make them out to be'. 

The original Preamble to the Constitution described India as a “sovereign democratic republic”. The framers of the Constitution felt confident enough in India as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual civilization that they did not have to insert “secular” into the Preamble.  They did not think of secularism as a mechanical separation of ‘church’ from ‘state’ but looked both to India’s syncretic past and to everyday practices of inter-faith communities to shape their view of a secular state. They took their cue from Gandhi who derived his secularism from being a devout Hindu, just as Maulana Azad derived it from being a devout Muslim. That Mrs. Gandhi had to explicitly affirm the “secular” nature of India in 1976 suggests that the rot had already set in.