Thursday, October 14, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8i

Gandhi thinks that the history written in the modern world is a narrative about continuing progress carrying the ring of objective truth. Their stories are organized around 'great' events - inventors, explorers and heroes who bring enlightenment to places of ignorance. It gives readers the impression that what is recorded is important and what is omitted is irrelevant. When they look back in time readers get a sense of uninterrupted progress which blinds them to the costs of this change. They mistake power over nature for wisdom.  

He sees modernity presenting itself as the highest form of historical development belittling other ways of living. But, as Neil Postman says in an article Science and the Story that We Need about the technology-god that rules us today: ‘. . . each day receive confirmation of it, that this is a false god. It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.’

Another implication of Gandhi’s thought concerns ecology and the preservation of the earth and the life on it. Gandhi has emphasized opposite values to those of the consumer society: the reduction of individual wants, the return to direct production of foodstuffs and clothing, and self-sufficiency rather than growing dependency. As the limits of growth and the inherent scarcity of resources broke upon the world in the 1960’s, the Gandhian idea of restraint suddenly made sense. E.F. Schumacher, author of the influential Small Is Beautiful, regarded Gandhi as the great pioneer in insisting that the rampant growth of capitalist industrialism is incompatible with a sustainable world ecosystem. He was a meticulous practitioner of recycling long before the idea came to the West. 

It is increasingly clear that the world’s dominant economic model is profoundly dangerous: not only is it corroding our political processes it is also altering the planet’s atmosphere in catastrophic ways. Corporations make big profits by looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay. We have to accept that the fundamental premise of modernity – that everything will always get better and better – is no longer credible. In building the new industrial machine, man became trapped inside it.

The most wide-ranging document on fighting climate change was produced not by scientists, technocrats or economists but by a religious leader - Pope Francis’s climate-change encyclical, “Laudato Si’. If anything, he has underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade. His critique is Gandhian in spirit, pointing out the mindsets in modernity that have led to the problems - rampant individualism, self-centered culture of instant gratification, a politics concerned with immediate results which is supported by consumerist sectors of the population which results in biodiversity being considered as at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation.

Pope Francis insists that politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.  But the twenty-first century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political. He notes that ‘the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures’. He says that ‘the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history’. 

There is ‘a Promethean vision of mastery over the world’ without an appreciation of limits. When human beings give absolute priority to immediate convenience then, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, people begin to see everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. When the human person is considered as simply the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. ‘Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.’ Pope Francis writes:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected . . . 

The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

The Pope’s critique illustrates Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, a book written in 1967, which is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. The spectacle is the image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". 

Debord says that the spectator has been drugged by spectacular images. The Spectacle embraces economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed "scientific" – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance is made before the gods who will confer growth. In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Our social formations and political practices are constructed and sustained by the logics of spectacle and render us as homo spectaculum or 'beings of the spectacle'.  

The Spectacle is "affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance". The purpose of advertisements is to make us dissatisfied with what we already have. Advertisements don’t tell about the products, they tell about the people who buy those products. Each new lie of the advertising industry is an admission of its previous lie. Debord says, ‘Waves of enthusiasm for particular products are propagated by all the communications media. A film sparks a fashion craze; a magazine publicizes night spots, which in turn spin off different lines of products. . . . All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.’

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Getting used to this pattern of life, they convince themselves that conformity is both reasonable and just and that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. You are encouraged to ignore the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s dictum: ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ People become blind to the fact that the really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Rutger Bregman writes in Utopia for Realists

Our fear of moralizing in any form has made morality a taboo in the public debate. The public arena should be “neutral,” after all – yet never before has it been so paternalistic. On every street corner we’re baited to booze, binge, borrow, buy, toil, stress, and swindle. Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that can pay for prime-time advertising.

[SNIP]

The food industry supplies us with cheap garbage loaded with salt, sugar, and fat, putting us on the fast track to the doctor and dietitian. Advancing technologies are laying waste to ever more jobs, sending us back again to the job coach. And the ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we can go cry on our therapist’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we are living in today.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8h

Gandhi is often described as being against science. And, no doubt, his own rhetoric sometimes suggests this. But that is most misleading. If Gandhi’s life is studied in entirety, a nuanced picture emerges of a man who was not anti-science. Nowhere, for instance, did Gandhi dispute Newton’s laws and other such claims and propositions of science. He would have thought it impertinent to do so and, more relevantly, quite unnecessary. 

Gradually, Gandhi’s opinion evolved and sharpened into a criticism of what he thought were the misplaced priorities of science, rather than science itself. What he opposed was the elevation of science to a kind of centrality in culture that science in the modern period, especially after Newton, came to have in the modern West. There was also the practice of linking of science to profit and worldly gain and hierarchy that Gandhi opposed. 

He thought that science had a tendency to move beyond the articulation of its laws to generating a ‘mentality’ of treating all things as resources and commodities, including nature and humanity itself. He had similar – and related – things to say about its mentality towards the law, the body and medicine, transportation, the feeding of agricultural surpluses into the creation of cities, the centralizing of power in a new form of state, and so on.

Gandhi's critique of science emanates from his dissatisfaction with the divorce of science and progress from morality. He often quoted the scientist Alfred Wallace to argue that people's moral sense had in no way improved as a result of scientific discoveries. Gandhi remained aware that one could not live without science, provided that it was kept in its right place. He had seen the misuse of science in his travels round the world and believed that there were limitations even to scientific search. 

The practice of vivisection for Gandhi was a shining example of the need for limitation in modern scientific research. Based on a mechanistic notion of the body and the universe, it enabled the justification of the subjugation of the inferior non-human creation by and for the human. This to Gandhi was ethically unacceptable. (Gandhi did not adopt an obstinate intolerance of dissection. When a follower, who was a biology teacher, wanted to dissect a frog, he listened to both sides of the argument and ruled that the dissection could continue as it had scientific value.) 

Gandhi's fears materialized years later as vivisectory practice was carried out in the concentration camps of Hitler and the bombing of Hiroshima during the second world war. The bombings were not required to defeat Japan but to send a message to the Soviet Union. If colossal death, destruction and suffering was the price to be paid, it was considered ok. The scholarship that provided the ideas and justified the Nazi slaughters were by university professors, as detailed by Robert Procter in Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (giving the lie to the liberal shibboleth that education helps you to distinguish between right and wrong).

Physicians claimed that if they disobeyed orders under the Nazi regime, they would be victimized but the few who refused don’t seem to have suffered. Various medical experiments were carried out in concentration camps which were carried out by trained medical professionals, the results presented at prestigious conferences and scientific academies. Results were published in scientific books and articles. German industry also profited from these experiments. For eg. Bayer used concentration camp prisoners and performed experiments on this ‘captive population’. Medical journals used the expression 'life not worth living' to describe those who were sterilized or those killed in concentration camps. 

Gandhi also sought to reconstitute the relations between fact and value, science and religion in his method. He made it clear that he was not interested in mere technical solutions to a problem. Unlike many reformers and secular scientists, Gandhi did not see science as outside of religion. On the contrary, he tried updating religion to include science and science too to include faith. But unlike the Vedantists, for Gandhi to be scientific was to practice one's dharma. Ronald Terchek says in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

Gandhi rejects the premise that science and ethics are separate, that ethics only has something to say when something goes wrong. He fears that such reasoning assigns science the superior position, and absolves people of responsibility. For Gandhi, the primary issue is not how we 'take charge of the world' but how we live with nature and take control of ourselves. 

The objective impersonal pursuit of knowledge about nature and society that science encourages produces  a psychological process called ‘isolation’. This is the dangerous ability of people to separate ideas from feelings and to pursue ideas without being burdened by feelings. It is a psychological defense mechanism that enables scientists to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their inventions. According to the psychologist Otto Fenichel ‘. . . the process of logical thinking . . . actually consists of the continued elimination of affective association in the interest of objectivity’. This quote is in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy. 

We need sometimes to think whether we should even develop a particular line in research. But scientists rarely accept limits to their research on the grounds that it might have dangerous or immoral outcomes. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci suppressed research into inventing the submarine because he thought we humans were too devilish to be trusted with such a dangerous invention. In the 20th century Enrico Fermi, one of the scientists who set out on the atomic bomb project, said, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all the thing is beautiful physics.”

Despite his radical criticism of the anthropomorphism of modern medicine inherent in the practice of vivisection, Gandhi was deeply appreciative of modern scientists' humility and spirit of inquiry, a spirit that he felt traditional people lacked. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Unani, Gandhi felt, had unlike western science, maintained a relation between science and religion, body and soul, but had not inculcated the spirit of research that fired modern science and gave it contemporary relevance. 

But the praise was qualified. In 1921, inaugurating the Tibbia College at Delhi, Gandhi said, 'I would like to pay my humble tribute to the spirit of research that fires the modern scientists. My quarrel is not against that spirit. My complaint is against the direction that the spirit had taken. It has chiefly concerned itself with the exploration of laws and methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele.'  Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind about the huge advances in science and the prevailing feeling that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise choices:

We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. 

We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8g

It is said that modern civilization is a rational civilization and this is the most important aspect of the modern scientific society.  In modernity, reason is taken as the basis of knowledge and the rational self is taken as the final arbiter of truth. For Gandhi, truth was moral and could only be found in the experience of one's life. It could never be correctly expressed by rational theoretical discourse. Day by day the importance of rationality has become so prominent that it is over-shadowing all other aspects of life. Gandhi had a problem with this domineering rational tendency of modernity. He said in 1939 (quoted in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy by Ronald Terchek): 

Rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of rock and stone believing it to be God. I plead not for the suppression of reason but [an appreciation of its inherent limits].

In some areas of human experience such as morality and politics, reason was inherently inadequate and needed to be guided by wisdom, tradition, conscience, intuition, and moral insight. He argued that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize. For him, love, generosity, trust etc. do not flow from reason (for some rationalists, such feelings are unnecessary complications that spoil their beautiful equations). He sees these dispositions and actions that flow from outside reason embodying the best in human beings. He knew that the opposite of these feelings is not always reason. When love and trust is involved, the choice is not invariably between them and reason but between love and hate or trust and suspicion. 

To assume that reason should always be the arbiter is to misunderstand both its strengths and limitations. Reason can speak to an impulse to love, for example, but after a while reason is exhausted and has nothing more to say. Gandhi would constantly critique faith to ascertain whether it was meaningful and reasonable in terms of basic human values. He demands of reason adherence to these values as well. Gandhi was not against reason or rationality at all but his was a critique of the domineering nature of modern instrumental rationality. 

Rationalism also valued only one form of knowledge, namely the scientific, and only one form of life, namely the secular, individualist, and competitive, based on the mastery of nature. Further, for the rationalist, human life was transparent, fully knowable if not today then tomorrow, and whatever could not be scientifically known either did not exist or was not worth knowing. Rationalism therefore bred the arrogant and irrational belief that human beings could shape the world in whatever way they liked. 

For Gandhi, a watertight compartmentalization is not at all possible between the mind and heart, rationality and morality. In fact, an individual’s comprehensive personality depends on both rationality and intuition. Thus, we should not accept only one aspect as a whole, as that would be a partial perspective. In Gandhi’s words, 'I have come to the conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more important to the head.' He realized that truth can be reached through a complex dialogue in which reason alone is not sufficient; therefore, he suggested that the arguments need to be reinforced with "emotional and political pressure." In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh writes:

Like the rationalists, he stressed the importance of rational discussion; unlike them, however, he realized that what passed as rational discussion was often little more than alternative monologues or a public relations exercise, and that sticking to it under such circumstances was an act of irrationality. 

Even as Gandhi was aware of the limits of rationality, he was acutely conscious of the dangers of violence. He knew that narrow rationalism and violence tended to feed off each other, and that the failure of rationality rendered violence morally respectable. 

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is linked to the basic tenets of capitalism and her popularity supposedly keeps growing. She conceived of rationality as man’s basic virtue, the source of all other virtues. The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. She argues for a conception of self-interest grounded not in desires (or emotions) but in facts and reason. We are often told that the reason is the area of the mind, working at its peak, most purely logical level. Emotions are found in the lowly area of the body, busy with its chaotic, irrational passions. 

Antonio Damasio shows in his acclaimed book, Descartes' Error, that the brain, the body, reason, as well as emotions are inseparably connected together into a seamless whole. Pure reason, reason uninfluenced by emotion, seems to occur only in pathological states that are characterized by impairment of day-to-day decision-making and social interaction. Says Damasio, “Certain aspects of the process of emotion and feeling are indispensable for rationality.” To think otherwise was Descartes’ error. 

Damasio writes of patients with damage to the frontal regions of the brain which leaves them incapable of feeling emotions that a normal person would. When such patients are presented with a slide show that includes graphic pictures of sex or violence, for instance, they can identify them and describe their horrible details normally, but they show none of the emotional responses that are always present in normal people. As Damasio points out, these patients are the very epitome of the cool-headed, passionless thinkers philosophy has typically encouraged as the ideal, and yet that very lack of emotional reactions renders them incapable of real world time-pressured decision-making.

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, says that we were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. 

Haidt views morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. Moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong. Moral judgment comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition. 

He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert M . Sapolsky writes:

The synergistic advantages of combining reasoning with intuition raise an important point. If you’re a fan of moral intuitions, you’d frame them as being foundational and primordial. If you don’t like them, you’d present them as simplistic, reflexive, and primitive. 

But as emphasized by Woodward and Allman, our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end products of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic, as implicit as riding a bicycle or reciting the days of the week forward rather than backward. 

In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that sure didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognizably different. Our guts learn their intuitions.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8f

Gandhi's seemingly bizarre statements on the railways can be read as related to the unintended consequences of modern technology. People look at only the benefits that a new technology can provide and eagerly adopt it without considering its negatives. In the case of railways, people see how it provides a quick and cheap means of traveling long distances but they don't see its effects on various social goods. 

He is concerned that people tend to think of the goods and services they buy only in economic and not in social terms. The railways spreading bubonic plague sounds bizarre till you realize that he was talking about long-distance travel causing long-distance disease transmission. The latest instance of it is the coronavirus scare. It isn't the first, it won't be the last. From a Gandhian perspective, the vast amount of environmental harm caused by the blind application of modern technology shows how their unintended consequences can lead to heavy costs. 

Mobile phones were thought of only as instruments to help improve communication. It was not realized that it improves communication only with people who are far away; it reduces communication with people around you. Nobody thought that it would become an aid to control with employers who expect staff members to be available 24/7. It helps in stimulating  our emotional insecurities, requiring us to see what others are doing, 24/7. 

Gandhi’s critique is directed at a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends. The ultimate result is that people become concerned only with what is, as distinct from what ought to be with the consequent erosion in moral values. We might dismiss Gandhi’s concerns about the moral impact of the technological and scientific advances in his time as excessive, but the underlying principle of them is still highly relevant. He was in effect saying that we shouldn’t be led by the nose by science and technology. We should stop to think about the price we pay for adopting them, so that we don’t misuse or overuse them. 

Gandhi said, 'Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants.' He finds that the consumer products of the new economy become new needs that exhaust people leaving them too tired to perform other duties. He observes that modernity brings its own forms of degradation and enslavement. He said in Hind Swaraj, 'We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become.' And elsewhere in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.' 

The market has a vital vested interest in constantly whetting jaded appetites, planting new wants and creating a moral climate in which not to want the goods daily pumped into the market and to keep pace with the latest fashions was to be abnormal and archaic. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of created needs which force people to continue working where it is no longer a real necessity.  In a letter to Henry Pollack on Oct. 14, 1909, Gandhi says that when he looks at Britain, he is 'disillusioned'. He sees people who 'seem half-crazy. They spend their days in luxury or on making a bare living and retire at night thoroughly exhausted.' They have nothing else in life but work and consumption. 

Gandhi thought that modern civilization had a depressing air of ‘futility’ and ‘madness’ about it. He sees people numbed into accepting catastrophic consequences produced by modern science. 'The ceaseless rush in which we are living does not leave any time for contemplating the the full results of these new technologies. After a brief period of mourning following a disaster from a new technology 'the dead will soon be forgotten, and in a very short time' people will get back to their 'usual gaiety as if nothing whatsoever had happened.' (Indian Opinion, Aug. 20 1903). 

He condemned the blind adoption of whatever technological breakthrough happened to be the latest and most sophisticated. He once said, “I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time to increase animal appetites and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction.” He might well remind India and indeed the rest of the world of words said by Krishna in the Gita, “Enveloped by wisdom is this insatiable fire of desire which is the constant foe of the wise.”

As Oscar Wilde warned, “nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old fashioned quite suddenly”. As modernity proceeds, increasingly trivial items are marketed as items that are essential for leading a happy life. People spend more and more time in front of the mirror, keep buying beauty products whose names I had not heard earlier, there are 'beauty bloggers', 'selfie surgeries' etc. Before my stroke, there were no beauty parlors in this area but now there seem to be several of them. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition attacks Marx's view that the emancipated man will reach for 'higher' activities - that free time eventually will emancipate men from necessity and make the animal laborans productive. She writes that we find:

. . . the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites. That these appetites become more sophisticated, so that consumption is no longer restricted to the necessities but, on the contrary, mainly concentrates on the superfluities of life . . . 

In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent writes about Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations.” Bernays was Sigmund Freud's nephew and used his uncle's insights into the subconscious to develop his new method of influencing consumer behavior. “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays's business partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man's desires must overshadow his needs.” 

In 1928, Bernays proudly described how his techniques for mental manipulation had permitted a small elite to control the minds of the American population: 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of . . . In almost every act of our daily lives . . . we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who pull the wires which control the public mind.'

The following year, a presidential report gave credit to the mind control espoused by Bernays for helping to create a limitless future of American consumption, explaining it had “proved conclusively . . . that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied . . . by advertising and other promotional devices.”

In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity,  Zygmunt Bauman has a definition of marketing which you will not find taught to MBAs: ‘Marketing is dedicated to the discovery or invention of questions to which the recently introduced products can be seen as providing the answers, and then to inducing the largest numbers of potential clients to ask those questions with ever growing frequency.‘ Thus temptation and seduction move to the top of marketing concerns. Products soon tend to succumb to the pressure of ‘new and improved’ products with additional bells and whistles well before the working capacity of a product meets its preordained end.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warns that a democracy can fall into despotism by succumbing to an excessive passion for material well being.” He observes that democracy engenders an “ardent” interest in acquiring material comforts. According to him, “what attaches the heart most keenly” to material well-being “is not the peaceful possession of a precious object, but the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess it and the incessant fear of losing it.” If the democratic taste for material comforts goes unchecked, Tocqueville warns, democratic citizens will begin to view the duties of political participation as a burden because they take time and energy away from private economic activity.

According to Tocqueville, there is “no need to tear from such citizens the rights they possess; they themselves willingly let them escape. The exercise of their political duties appears to them a distressing contretemps that distracts them from their industry.” Neglecting these duties, they leave a kind of vacuum in the political realm, a political void that may be filled by despotism. If “an ambitious, able man comes to take possession of power” under such circumstances, he will find “the way open to every usurpation.” And if he chooses the path of usurpation, the citizens will surrender their freedom and submit to his rule.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8e

Modernity has a rhetoric of justice and equality but its basic dynamic ensures that these things cannot be achieved. On the contrary, its primary commitment to money through control of the market (‘Money is their God’) ensures that large numbers of people are kept in poverty. The English ‘hold whatever dominions they have for the sake of their commerce…. They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods’. In the long run, the traits of the conqueror are inherited by the conquered.

In an article in Young India in Dec 1928, Gandhi had pointed out the unsustainability of the Western model of economic development. ‘God forbid, he wrote, ‘that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’.

Two years earlier in Oct.1926, Gandhi had written in Young India that 'to make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation’. As it appeared 'that the Western nations have divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover’, he asked: ‘What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?’ . He was not saying that all amenities should not be provided to people. He was saying that if these amenities are provided by using the same economic model as the modern West, then colonization of some group of people is inevitable. 

And of course that is exactly what has transpired. Without the access to resources and markets that the West had when it began its march towards modernity, India has had no choice, once it decided to "ape the West", but to rely on the exploitation of its own people and environment. For eg., it has been estimated that twenty million Indians (a conservative estimate) have been uprooted by steel mills, dams etc. 

He asserted, “I do not draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and, therefore, sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral…". If you thought that colonialism ended more than 50 years ago, you are mistaken. It is covert now rather than overt as in the past which makes it more dangerous because it passes unnoticed. Gandhi saw more clearly than anyone else that modern Western civilization must inevitably result in colonialism. 

Colonialism is not so much the relationship between two countries as an attitude of exploitation – it is the control of a nation’s resources, and not necessarily its other affairs, by and for some other power and not for its own people. The idea of colonialism is kept alive by systematic development – or ‘underdevelopment’ – of poorer nations as cheap sources of raw materials and vast markets for finished goods. Corporations are much more than purveyors of the products we all want; they are also the most powerful political forces of our time. 

The methods by which global corporations control land, labour and raw materials are a lot like the methods of the colonial government. Current multinationals differ only in their inability to marshal their own armies. It would be na├»ve to believe that Western consumers haven't continued profiting from these methods. It is said that the Third World has always existed for the comfort of the First. It was true in the time of colonialism and it is true now. 

This is seen in the unbranded points of origin of brand-name goods. The manufacturers of Nike sneakers have been traced back to the sweatshops of Vietnam, Barbie's little outfits back to the child labourers of Sumatra, Starbucks' lattes to the coffee fields of Guatemala. Many governments in the developing world protect lucrative investments by multinationals — mines, dams, oil fields, power plants and export processing zones — by deliberately turning a blind eye to rights violations by them. 

Foreign corporations were found to be soliciting, even directly contracting, the local police and military to perform such unsavory tasks as evicting peasants and tribes people from their land; cracking down on striking factory workers; and arresting and killing peaceful protestors. All this would be done in the name of safeguarding the smooth flow of trade. 

The developed countries, where these corporations are based, are unwilling to risk their own global competitiveness for some other country's problems. Corporations, in other words, were stunting human development, rather than contributing to it. The result is that in parts of Asia, Central and South America and Africa, the promise that investment would bring greater freedom and democracy is starting to look like a cruel hoax. Rather than improved human rights flowing from increased trade, governments ignore human rights in favour of perceived trade advantages. 

In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh points out that carbon emissions had always been correlated to power in all its aspects. British imperial officials understood perfectly well that maintenance of military dominance was of great importance to the empire. In all the long sorry annals of national hubris and imperial greed, it was military dominance that enabled Western capital to prevail over indigenous commerce. Ghosh writes:

The Opium War of 1839-42 was the first important conflict to be fought in the name of free trade and unfettered markets, yet, ironically, the most obvious lesson of this period is that capitalist trade and industry cannot thrive without access to military and political power.

Martha Nussbaum has talked about “leaching away sovereignty” of smaller nations in the modern world. Suppose a poor nation, country A, wishes to provide a certain level of labor support for the working poor and a certain level of environmental protection for all. But a rich nation comes along and says that they want to set up a factory in that nation but the protections are too expensive and if they are not relaxed, they will move to country B which has more lax regulations. The resultant forced changes will be called 'improving the investment climate'. So the rich nation dictates the choices and rights of the poor nation. The latter is free in name only. 

Western values like democracy, freedom, free speech, human rights, etc. are just glossy masks for corruption, intimidation and violence. (Ironically, the leaders who have rediscovered this truth and have realized that the West can be bought are Putin and Xi.) That 'free markets' are actually based on brute force is shown in a passage from The Lotus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman, who is a cheerleader of the American economic model (quoted in The Web of Freedom: J. C. Kumarappa and Gandhi’s Struggle for Economic Justice):

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist . . . McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.


Thursday, August 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8d

According to the utilitarian philosophy, one should promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”. Happiness is taken to mean material happiness exclusively, that is, economic prosperity. If, in the pursuit of this happiness, moral laws are violated, it does not matter much. Gandhi opposed it on moral grounds. Like Ruskin, he criticized the construction of a “science” of economics on the Newtonain model from which “social affections” had been wholly abstracted. Gandhi challenged the European claim that they alone valued truth and Indians did not. He launched a counter-critique by asserting that the European Enlightenment, by emphasizing pure reason, self-interest and the utilitarian calculus had in fact dethroned truth and morality. 

Gandhi disliked the utilitarian principle because it reduces justice to arithmetic calculations. For eg., it presumes that for the benefit of 51%, the misery of 49% is justified. It will always demand that some minority pays the price of progress. It is illustrative of an objection to modernity that Gandhi had - it reduces wisdom to instrumental rationality thereby reducing morality to self interest. This kind of thinking is shown by a policy-maker of the 1950s in a plan document. He commented that India's 'tribal brethren' were expected to make the necessary sacrifices for the future prosperity and happiness of the country (mentioned in Bonfire of Creeds). 

People just give a superficial reading of his extreme statements and conclude that he was a  Luddite or traditionalist out to preserve dying techniques at any cost. He  recognized that machinery in India was inevitable. He said in 1946, 'Today there is such an onslaught on India of Western machinery that for India to withstand it successfully would be nothing short of a miracle.' He deeply appreciated any machine which eliminated drudgery and enhanced human creativity. 'The saving of labor of the individual should be the object' of the mechanized society. (Young India, Nov. 13, 1924) Machines, he argued, become a problem when they encroach upon a person's individuality and 'cripple the limbs of man'. 

He wrote that he had a problem with the craze behind machines. It mechanized production without any regard for its wider moral and cultural consequences. He argued that it had a tendency to displace labour rather than supplement it or increase its efficiency. Another problem was that it had no internal principle of self-limit and therefore made endless growth seem possible. He could imagine a time when 'machinery' (which stood for 'technology') would 'engulf civilization'. Instead of humans controlling it, it would control humans. Thus 'machinery' was for him both a 'grand' and an 'awful' invention. It all depended on putting limits to its use so that it benefited humanity. 

As long as one's gain is limited by the effort one makes, his desire is limited. If, on the other hand, one's income is not in proportion to one's effort, there are no limitations to one's desires, since their fulfillment is a matter of opportunities offered by certain market situations, and not dependent on one's own capacities. In contrast are  those which are not rooted in bodily needs. Ambition, lust for power, and so on, which are not rooted in physiological needs of the organism have no such self-regulating mechanisms, and that is the reason why they are ever increasing and so dangerous.

Innovations in Silicon Valley trigger mass layoffs elsewhere. Kodak, in the late 1980s had 145,000 people on its payroll. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy, while Instagram – the free online mobile photo service staffed by 13 people at the time – was sold to Facebook for $1 billion. In one sector after another the giants have grown even as the world has shrunk.  Economists call this phenomenon the “winner-take-all society.” It takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.

Over the course of the 20th century, productivity growth and job growth ran more or less parallel. Now, the robots have suddenly picked up the pace. It began around the year 2000, with what two MIT economists called “the great decoupling.” “It’s the great paradox of our era,” said one. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs.”

“We have to save capitalism from the capitalists,” Thomas Pickety wrote. This paradox is neatly summed up by an anecdote from the 1960s that I saw in Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. When Henry Ford’s grandson gave labor union leader Walter Reuther a tour of the company’s new, automated factory, he jokingly asked, “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?” Without missing a beat, Reuther answered, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

Gandhi saw three dangers if the role of technology is not limited in modern economics: 1) The economic exploitation of the technically less advanced nations by the technically more advanced nations. 2) An economy reliant on unrestrained use of modern technology and profit motive would have an adverse effect on the environment. 3) There was a potential threat to human freedom hidden in expanding consumer choice. Instead of promotion of real freedom of choice, unrestrained use of technology was encouraging compulsive consumption of unnecessary goods. A joking US bumper sticker, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’. He says that ‘multiplicity of material wants’ adds to the complexity of modern society. 

Gandhi was not opposed to technology per se, but believed that it should be applied to absorb labour and not produce new unemployment. He believed that the ends, as profitability from technology, cannot justify the means, as unemployment to attain prosperity; he understood that moral values must first triumph, as the ends cannot substantiate disreputable means, no matter how good the ends are. As Kurt Vonnegut says, 'A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.' Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

His responsibility, as he sees it, is to teach [people] to be suspicious of some of the things they sincerely want. By exposing the costs of the new technologies, he hopes to remind his readers what they risk losing and show them that the alternatives they are ready to discard are better defenders of their autonomy.


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8c

Modern civilization has, of course provided enormous material comforts but the Faust-like exploitation of the private ego and its satisfaction by means of financial, military and industrial power has also created some important problems like multiplicity of wants, weakening of moral standards, growing violence, lack of community feeling, emphasis on productivity, throat cutting competition and denial of human capacity to intervene in the social process. Increased production, and technological innovations bring more goods to people but Gandhi sees these successes making societies more impersonal and identities more disjointed. He sees industrialization and the division of labour causing unemployment and poverty. 

He sees the breakdown of communities which helped individuals to face problems collectively and people are left to fend for themselves in the modern world.  Modern man complicates his life, deploys reason in the service of deception, is trapped by the institutions he creates and worships at the alter of wealth. Gandhi believed that material progress is in inverse proportion to moral progress. He criticized the social and political institutions of modern civilization saying that there was a glaring gap between their claims and their performance. 

Modern institutions accentuated rather then attenuated the selfish and baser streaks of human beings. He was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions. He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, ignoring ethics even passes for the new, the progressive, the modern. Echoing sentiments similar to that of Gandhi, C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man:

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. 

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

(By “chest” he doesn’t mean chest-swelling masculinity, but sentiment. His lament is that modern society makes men without heart, i.e. without traditional morality. Certain objects and situations should elicit certain responses from us. The night sky should elicit a feeling of humility; little children should elicit a feeling of delight; a kind act should elicit a feeling of gratitude. The failure to feel the proper sentiment in the face of a particular stimulus cannot be justified on the basis of mere personal preference. Rather, it must be seen as a deficiency in one’s human make-up. 

To those who do not lament what has been lost, it may seem that men without chests are a sign of progress – that they are more evolved, more advanced, more logical and intellectual. But this comforting affirmation is a mirage and an “outrage,” Lewis says. For the chest-less among us do not pursue truth with greater keenness, quite the opposite, since the ardent search for knowledge “cannot be long maintained without the aid of sentiment” — without a bit of passion. In reality then, “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks [the chest-less] out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”)

Gandhi claims that the individual is the one to enjoy supreme consideration but his celebration of freedom is very different from the conventional liberal ones. He encumbers agents with duties, assigning them responsibilities to lead a moral life and attend to the good of their community. Gandhi also holds that freedom should not be taken to mean that individuals should be left alone to make their way in the world. 'Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole society enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.'

But in the modern mechanistic and rationalistic society individual freedom stands for an abstract individualism. Here liberty means absence of every kind of social or traditional restraints. The individual’s happiness is not complementary but contradictory to social development. In Gandhi’s critique of individualism there is no dichotomy between the individual and society. Both liberals and opponents of Gandhi have misinterpreted his argument on self-sufficiency. Gandhi wrote that: “Only a Robinson Crusoe can afford to be all self-sufficient…’. This contradicts the image of absolute self-sufficiency that one finds in Gandhian literature.

Gandhi criticized liberal democracies for being individualistic in the sense of stressing rights rather than duties and self-interest rather than altruism. It lacked moral orientation and turned the state into an arena of conflict between organized groups. This is a version of democracy gone astray. In the short period that Gandhi lived following India's independence, he repeatedly warned that "the first lesson to be learnt is that "Liberty never meant the license to do anything at will. Independence meant voluntary restraint and discipline..." The other side of individualization seems to be  the corrosion and slow disintegration of citizenship. 

With his usual, inimitable wit Woody Allen unerringly grasps the narrow-mindedness of the present-day individuals  when browsing through imaginary advertising leaflets of 'Adult Summer Courses' of the kind which Americans would be eager to attend. The course in Economic Theory includes the item 'Inflation and Depression - how to dress for each'; the course in Ethics entails 'the categorical imperative, and six ways to make it work for you', while the prospectus for Astronomy informs that 'The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planet system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.'

Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de  Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Setting people free may make them indifferent. The individual is the citizen's worst enemy, de Tocqueville suggested. The despot, he observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule — perhaps benevolent, but perhaps not — of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.

PS; As a current example, the article The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic is Shifting, shows that individualism is not the best response in a pandemic.