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.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8b

 Among Gandhi's most well-known (as a caricature not its substance) 'non-status quo' positions is his critique of modernity. Gandhi identified India's real enemy as not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He was thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. 

Gandhi was constantly reading Western scholars, albeit those with dissenting views like Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau, unlike Savarkar who was consuming the works in the mainstream, which were at the time dominated by ideas and thoughts that would later lead to Nazism and fascism. Like most educated middle-class people, Savarkar had absolute, uncritical faith in the modern-state system and its secular imperatives, was a die-hard rationalist and advocated mechanization, market-driven economy, strong military and scientific temper. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:

He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state,  new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being Eurocentric or anti national... 

Gandhi said to Tagore in 1921, a truly memorable statement: "I do not want my house to be walled in all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." He asserted that the very things modern civilization boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading. This condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers who thought he would soon outgrow it. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed these ideas on many occasions afterwards. 

Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. His critique of modernity is often taken as a crude attack on the West; his attack on industrial civilization is caricatured as an obscurantist retreat into agricultural primitivism. He was nobody's fool. He knew that the genie of modernity was out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. But he was one of the most relentless and vocal critics of its confident assertions. (Forget Nazi German, he would have been in danger in modern China as the article 'Why Did Liberal Elites Ignore a 21st-Century Genocide?' seems to suggest) What exactly was he trying to say? 

It will not do  to simply say that he was hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world. Many issues that he raised are also echoed by other thinkers like de Tocqeville, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jaques Ullul etc. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

When Gandhi gazes at most recent scientific and technical accomplishments, he sees many of the same things that Westerners do: increased productivity, efficiency, and greater control over nature. For many, these phenomena are positive goods that mark the progress of the human race. 

But Gandhi links them to the worst features of the age: new forms of poverty and inequality, unemployment, a growing alienation and a ceaseless restlessness, and a more destructive form of violence and a readiness to use them. 

Akeel Bilgrami  says that Gandhi seems to have located a very general instrumentality that he opposes: “How and when did we transform the concept of the “world” as not merely a place to live in but a place to master and control?” In Gandhi’s work, we find that he breaks it down to four different detailed questions: How and when did we transform the concept of nature to the concept of natural resources? How and when did we transform the concept of human beings to the concept of citizens? How and when did we transform the concept of people into the concept of populations? And, how and when did we transform the concept of knowledges (to live by) into the concept of expertise (to rule by)? 

Gandhi saw that they all reflect an increasing alienation and disengagement in our outlook on the world — in our understanding of nature, human subjects, and human knowledge. He thought at the time of his writing that India was at the crossroads that Europe was in during the Early Modern period and he was anxious that India not go down what he thought was a lamentable path that Europe had from Early to Late modernity. 

There is a view that is widely held among economists, social scientists and intelligentsia that there is  some sort of ‘iron laws’ of history and political economy, whereby what happened in Europe in the Early Modern period will happen everywhere else, including Europe’s erstwhile colonies. For eg., Amartya Sen declared that ‘England went through its pain to create its Londons and Manchesters, India will have to do so too’. Gandhi saw that such reasoning that was prevalent in his time was incorrect. 

When people who eked out an agrarian life were displaced in England in order to create its cities, they moved to other regions of the world and set up life there as settler colonists. There is nowhere for the poor of various parts of India to go, except to its already glutted metropoles where they have no future but to squat illegally in vast unlivable slums ridden with poverty and disease. This is even more true today in a time when capital can fly out of a nation at the press of a button while national immigration laws severely restrict the mobility of labour. 

Gandhi does not deny the benefits that modernity brings but draws attention to the costs that individuals will have to bear in order to get those benefits. He constantly challenges modern assumptions that many take to be certain like the power of reason or the inevitability of progress. In  his opinion modern civilization placed the idea of bodily comforts on too high a pedestal. The space that self-interest will occupy in a system where comforts and luxuries are considered not only desirable but the highest achievements of civilization is bound to be rather large.

He felt that modern man is a passive victim of an elaborate humbug that is strengthened by schools, legislatures, armies, churches and hospitals. He thought that ‘life-corroding competition’ had blinded the consciousness of people resulting in their bondage rather than freedom. He said, ‘I maintain that the humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.’ He calls into question uncritical acceptance of Enlightenment values. 

Gandhi thinks that modernity does nothing to rein in the dark side of humans which always lurks beneath the surface even in best of human beings and this progressively reduces their ability to take charge of their lives. He continually points out the long-term costs on various social goods when focus is on short-term gains by chasing abstract measures like growth, productivity and efficiency. He does not offer final solutions that are frozen for all time but rather tries to enlarge the debate that many thought was already settled. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8a

Arundhati Roy calls Gandhi 'Saint of the Status Quo'. She seems to have a limited idea of what 'status quo' means. I would have had similar views till some years ago. Reading zombie-like during the impressionable childhood and teenage years is different from reading it in your fifties (or at least, it should be). Gandhi's seemingly bizarre comments on various aspects of modernity can be seen as a window and a mirror. Far from being a utopian writer, Gandhi’s economic realism comes from his frequent reminders of what is neglected or discarded in the modern economy. As somebody said, 'The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.' 

Ms. Roy seems to think that 'revolution' can only mean 'violent revolution'. Gandhi had rejected many of the pet notions and prevailing trends of the time. He advocated non-violence when key thinkers everywhere were advocating transformation through violence. Nehru once declared he wanted revolution and Gandhi replied: “When your exuberance has subsided and your lungs are exhausted, you will come to me, if you are really serious about making a revolution.” In conditions wherein wickedness seemed to predominate in humans, Gandhi repeatedly affirmed the essential goodness of humans. (As a counter to received wisdom, see Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.)

In a period of ethical relativism, he pleaded for certain ethical norms as permanent and fundamental for human conduct. In an age of materialism and craze for a higher and higher standard of living he preached wantlessness, self imposed simplicity and austerity in living. While the modern world was taking to more and more gadgets and was advancing towards a computer civilization, he rejected modern industrialism and advocated the cause of village industries. Amidst the increasing urbanization and the growth of metropolitan cities, he preached the values of a rural civilization.

 In a world where distances were being annihilated, he stood for economic self-sufficiency at the village or regional level. While the world trend is towards political centralization and increase in state functions, he pleaded for decentralization of political power and held that, 'that government is best which governs the least.' In an age of increasing armament and violence, he stood for disarmament and non-violence. Though a staunch advocate of economic equality, he rejected nationalization and expropriation, advocating "trusteeship". To a world that has come to look down upon physical labour as an evil to be avoided as much as possible, he insisted that physical labour should be a part of Basic Education. 

Gandhi challenges much that has been taken for granted both in India and the West and shows the hidden costs of modernity to community and individual freedom. He criticizes the celebration of the power of reason, the promise of science, the benefits of economic growth, and the inevitability of progress. He insists that just because society is losing its simplicity, there is no reason for it to lose its standards. He reminds people that they can be the reason for allowing their weaker selves to dominate by becoming seduced by the glamour of modern civilization. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

As a problematizer, Gandhi continually questions many of the principles we take as good and many of the 'facts' or theories we take as true. In raising the questions he does, he tries to show that we will never be able to address, much less challenge, the dangerous sides of our truisms if we unreflectively accept them.
 He rejected any authority ‘if it is in conflict with sober reason or the dictates of the heart’ adding that ‘authority sustains and ennobles the weak’ only when it is ‘the handiwork of reason’, for when it supplants reason, it serves only to degrade. He held that untouchables were as capable of exercising responsible office as the brahmins. He had no argument in favor of the retention of untouchability and he had ‘no hesitation’ in ‘rejecting scriptural authority of a doubtful character’ if it supported a ‘sinful institution’. All these statements would have scandalized the orthodox. 

Most political and social thinkers have concentrated on the many different and competing ends that people may desire and then thought that any practical means may be pursued to achieve them. Gandhi stands almost alone in his firm rejection of the almost universally held dichotomy between means and ends. He kept insisting that means rather than ends provide the standard of reference. It is not as though violence and non-violence are different means for achieving the same end. As they have different moral content, they will necessarily produce different results. Gandhi wrote the following in Young India: “Means are after all everything. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between the means and the end.”

His searching questions on many moral, philosophical and religious matters accounts for his continuing admiration by some and hostility by others. The central message of Hind Swaraj is Gandhi’s warning not to engage with the British on their own terms and he offered his own modes of engagement in the political economic and social spheres. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:   

Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation ... He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.

Gandhi was the sole major dissenter of the view that rapid large-scale industrialization was necessary for India. He was not an economist but he intuitively understood the socio-economic problems of India and challenged many basic assumptions of economists. He recognized the importance of the huge number of small, self-employed producers who produced for their own basic requirements and not for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. They form a separate social category different from medieval surfs, Marxists proletariats or the self-centered individuals of Capitalist theory.

He maintained that rural unemployment was not due to lack of aggregate demand but was structural in nature. He suggested dispersal of industries in the villages. He did not assess economic growth merely in terms of per capita income. For him growth was measured not only in material terms but also in moral and spiritual terms. He did not accept a morally neutral economics. The Indian intelligentsia laughed at his theories and saw no alternative to rapid industrialization and treading the same road as the West i.e. to maintain the status quo. 

The Russian-British social and political theorist, Isaiah Berlin, considered Tolstoy both a fox, which knows many things, and a hedgehog, which knows one big thing. Similar but also different, Gandhi and Tolstoy were united in their moral and political dreams of changing humanity. As a dreamer who looked for a harmonious universe, Gandhi was a hedgehog, but as a pragmatist who had a devastating sense of reality, he was a fox who knew many things about the insane world of human beings filled with hatred, revenge, greed for power and violence. He would have agreed with Jaques Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development:

[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7h

 The world excessively and misguidedly respects leaders who are loud and aggressive. We make them our bosses and our political leaders. We foolishly admire their self-help books, such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. Previously people extolled character. Nowadays it's personality. We tend to think that aggressive leaders are self-assured, but in fact they're comparatively narcissistic and unthoughtful and we're committing a grave error structuring our society around their pompous claims. Give me calm good sense over showy lecturing any day.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain tells of a famous study by the influential management theorist Jim Collins. He found that many of the best-performing companies of the late twentieth century were run by  CEOs who were known not for their flash or charisma but for extreme humility coupled with intense professional will. When he analyzed what the highest-performing companies had in common, he found that every single one of them was led by an unassuming man who was described by his colleagues with the following words: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. The lesson, says Collins, is clear. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run. 

I came across an interesting statistic. Countries with female leaders like Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan etc. have managed the coronavirus crisis better than their male counterparts. Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility – regarded as feminine characteristics that are not suited for statecraft - are mentioned as common features of the success of these women leaders. These are distinct from the characteristics associated with the exercise of traditional managerial, supervisory and controlling power.  Studies suggest that men are likely to lead in a “task-oriented” style and women in an “interpersonally-oriented” manner. Women, therefore, tend to adopt a more democratic and participative style and tend to have better communications skills. 

Violent masculinity exacerbates social conflict and is incompatible with democracy. Democracies are meant to encourage the not-so-masculine values of consultation, negotiation, discussion, compromise; to accept that we might not get all that we want. The strength, firmness, and courage required in such a situation is very different from self-obsession, obstinacy and bullying. The main feature of hyper-masculinity is domination which is incompatible with a peaceful, well-functioning democracy. But  as a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable. 

Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders but they are adjectives that increase a leader’s popularity. The masculine qualities of a ‘real’ man like aggression, hyper-competitiveness, ambition and ruthlessness when combined with political power inevitably lead to violence in society. The instinct of violence has tremendous appeal to the average person’s consciousness. This can be called the 'Age of Anger' when anger keeps erupting in the home, on the street, in schools, at work, during games, between races and religions. 

Films are filled with angry characters and violent behaviors. If you spend any time on social media, you might have a sense that we are locked in a state of perpetual outrage where echo chambers accuse each other of being in an echo chamber. The values that Gandhi had used as basic elements of his vision of India’s future faced relentless conflicts during his lifetime and they have continued up to now. Many Hindu males nurture a sense of humiliated masculinity. They think that for centuries they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors due to  their tolerant, accommodating nature. 

They turn to history to revive memories of Hindu leaders who are known for the masculine virtue of violence against their oppressors. They are determined to take back the country from 'foreigners' and Make Hindu India Great Again. They identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of the Hindu traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection.  Gandhi strongly resisted this Protestentization of Hinduism. 

The valorization of the masculine is seen in the promotion of the more war-like Krishna of the Mahabharata (Gandhi's interpretation was very different) and repudiation of the more playful Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure. This “Hindu rage” is likely to persist for the foreseeable future and is far from being irrational; rather, it is a manifestation of the pathology of (instrumental) rationality. For this category of people, Gandhi was the villain, Godse the hero. Lewis Mumford says in Technics and Civilization:

As for the sense of self-esteem the soldier achieves through his willingness to face death, one cannot deny that it has a perverse life-enhancing quality, but it is common to the gunman and the bandit, as well as to the hero: and there is no ground for the soldier’s belief that the battlefield is the only breeder of it. 

The mine, the ship, the blast furnace, the iron skeleton of bridge or skyscraper, the hospital ward, the childbed bring out the same gallant response: indeed, it is a far more common affair here than it is in the life of a soldier, who may spend his best years in empty drill, having faced no more serious threat of death than that from boredom. 

An imperviousness to life-values other than those clustered around the soldier’s underlying death-wish, is one of the most sinister effects of the military discipline.