Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ravana mode of development – V

The ‘modern’ which Gandhi critiqued was a process by which knowledge, science and economics were removed from their ethical and spiritual underpinnings and were pursued separately from moral philosophy. He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics. This resulted in his seemingly weird criticism of doctors and lawyers – modernity had ‘freed’ these professions from the restraints imposed by morality. For eg., he says in Hind Swaraj about the practises of lawyers (all of which are practised more brazenly today and rationalized as 'normal business practice'):
...the profession teaches immorality; it is exposed to temptation from which few are saved... The [lawyer's] duty is to side with their clients and to find out ways and arguments in favour of the clients to which they (the clients) are often strangers. If they do not do so they will be considered to have degraded their profession. The lawyers, therefore, will, as a rule, advance quarrels instead of repressing them. Moreover, men take up that profession, not in order to help others out of their miseries, but to enrich themselves. It is one of the avenues of becoming wealthy and their interest exists in multiplying disputes. It is within my knowledge that they are glad when men have disputes. Petty pleaders actually manufacture them. 
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. His objection to modern civilization was that it does not provide any 'inducement to morality'. It had always been known that there was a dark side to human nature that didn’t need much encouragement to show itself. There was recognition that there was some chance of keeping this unpleasant side in check only by over-weighting the moral aspects of social interactions. It can be said that over time, the balance had tilted too much against politics and economics in the Indian context and Gandhi was trying to correct this imbalance but to remove the checks altogether was asking for trouble. Modernity came in a beautiful garb but it had huge hidden costs and made people morally numb. This was the crux of Gandhi’s concern about it.

This moral degeneration is illustrated by the statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes that “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” (It is fantastic to assume that after a century of internalizing this norm, society will magically revert to one populated by do-gooders.) The notion that private vices resulted in public good was opposed by Gandhi who believed that private morality had public consequences. His philosophical framework challenged the divorce of issues of justice and equity from business and economics. Gandhi wrote in 1937: “True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics to be worth its name must at the same time be also good economics.'

Gandhi observed that the fallacious assumption that informs modernity is the idea that 'might is right'. This was coupled with Spencer's unfortunate description of evolution as 'survival of the fittest' which was deemed to be a law of nature. This led to the 'greed is good' culture resulting in huge inequalities. This mind-set can be seen all the time - for example, compromises on human rights and environmental standards are justified because dominance in the global marketplace is given primary importance.  In the modern world, morality and politics are determined by economics. Economic advancement is a good servant but a bad master.
Gandhi rejected the worship of material advancement as an end in itself - a claim made by both capitalists and communists. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure)(See Gandhi : Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.) Gandhi places the greatest importance on the means that are employed to attain a goal. He believed that only fair means can produce a fair end.

He accepted that some are more talented than others at producing the material goods of life but in his world-view, greater talent was always accompanied by greater responsibility. (The loss of the capacity to feel guilty and the consequent loss of a sense of responsibility may be the biggest problems facing the world today.) He said that education had made a 'fetish' of the knowledge of letters and ignored completely the ethical dimension, cultivating instead 'the pretension of learning many sciences'. He felt that science and technology were aimed more towards luxury than towards the discovery of truth. Truth for Gandhi was moral and experiential while science regarded Truth as a cognitive model of the world.

Gandhi was suspicious of the scientific world-view because it encouraged a psychological split - the dissociation of actions from feelings and ethics which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by these emotions. The person cuts himself off emotionally from the subject of his manipulations. This promotes a focus on the universal and thereby the ignoring of the particular, a disease of modernity that concerned Gandhi. As Stalin said, 'One death is a story, a million deaths is a statistic.' (Although he didn't seem to care either way.) This split is the direct cause of immorality in politics and violence in society. Gandhi's view is echoed by Einstein's observation that 'before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed...all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.'

This problem that Gandhi foresaw was apparent during demonetization when it was said that there will be 'some pain' in the short run but big benefits in the long run. If 'some pain' referred to people like me, it was understandable but people lower down the social and economic ladder were in danger of losing their livelihoods. That  is not 'some pain'. This was also visible during discussions about GST. There were hardly any discussions about the likely problems for the small trader who has never used a computer or traders in villages that have little or no electricity.

Gandhi’s explanation for why history is not a good guide to human behavior is interesting. He writes in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' If people are sitting in a hall enjoying a musical performance, as happens all the time, it will not be recorded in history. But if a person throws a bomb inside the hall and kills 50 people, it will enter the history books. Gandhi says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption ‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

In Indian epics, there is no total demarcation between good and evil. There is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. The question is, which combination of characteristics do you choose? In Traditions, Tyranny and Utopia, Ashis Nandy writes, ‘The Ramayana did not reject Ravana intuitively, mechanically or purely ethically. He was considered, given due respect and then rejected as an unacceptable design of a person.’ This was how Gandhi rejected certain dominant features of modernity - it encouraged 'an unacceptable design of a person’ by incentivising the Hyde rather than the Jekyll within. His  action was never a total rejection. It was the much milder non-acceptance.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ravana mode of development – IV

Gandhi disliked the utilitarian principle of ‘greatest good for greatest number’ which 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). Gandhi said in Young India in Dec. 1926:
Judged by the standard of non-violence the late War was wholly wrong. Judged by the utilitarian standard each party has justified it according to its idea of utility. Even the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was justified by its perpetrators on the grounds of utility. And precisely on the same ground the anarchist justifies his assassinations. But none of these acts can possibly be justified on the greatest-good-of-all principle. 
In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. He writes, ‘At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, people with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.’ This was what made Gandhi say in Hind Swaraj, ‘That we should obey laws whether good or bad is a newfangled notion. There was no such thing in former days. The people disregarded those laws they did not like and suffered the penalties for their breach…. So long as the superstition that men should obey unjust laws exists, so long will their slavery exist.’

He was not saying that one should break all laws. As a matter of fact, he was a stickler for following laws. He only advocated breaking those laws that unjustly discriminated against a population and his conscience rebelled against following them. In this principle, he was at one with Thoreau, the difference being that while Thoreau advocated individual civil disobedience, Gandhi expanded its scope to mass civil disobedience. He realized that oppressors can succeed only with the cooperation of the oppressed. But he was careful to stress that you have earned the right to break an unjust law only if you have first learned to observe laws consistently even if they cause inconvenience, not by those who used every problem as an occasion to display their conscience. He insisted on the strict condition that satyagraha cannot be initiated for personal reasons but only for the good of others.

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.

The grand schemes of the 1950s and 1960s like Bhakra, Hirakud, Tungabhadra etc. were built with the villagers who were displaced being told that it was in the 'national interest'. It took two decades for this 'national interest' to be revealed as the interests of the urban-industrial elite. This is the case with all big development projects: they will ride roughshod over the basic needs of the local population while whoever is the beneficiary will never pay the costs. The same thing used to happen during colonial rule – the depredations in India used to enrich Britain. Covert colonization is worse than overt colonization because it passes unnoticed.

Apparently, Adivasis are worse off in independent India than during the colonial period. They are caught between the violence of the naxalites and the violence of the state and have nowhere to turn. They seem to be in the same position as the fool in King Lear, ‘They want to whip me for telling the truth, you want to whip me for lying, and sometimes I’m even whipped for keeping quiet.’ As Benedict Anderson said, “No one can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling ashamed if his or her state or government commits crimes including those against their fellow citizens”. If Gandhi had lived after Jan. 1948, the Congress would have found him their most formidable critic. Godse did them a favour.

J.C. Kumarappa (who was known as the Gandhian economist), after being thoroughly disillusioned with the Congress regime after independence, said that India will ‘out-British the British’. He had observed that colonialism was not due to the venality of particular countries but was the necessary corollary of an economic model that advocated unbridled consumerism. It is not much noticed that India is buying agricultural land cheaply in Africa  while indulging in environmental damage and exporting the food for the Indian market at the cost of the locals, practises which are astoundingly similar to what India used to blame rich western countries for. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between India in Africa and the English in India regarding the exploitation of local resources for the home market.

The distance between the central planner and the person at the local level  caused by increasing centralization promotes the dissociation between reason and feeling.  The lack of regular social interaction between the decision makers and the victims of their decisions gives the former the illusion that their abstract theories, spreadsheets and statistics are sound, rational, responsible ways of making decisions but instead it makes others abstract items. The authors of Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays write, 'Silencing and patronizing the countryside reflects the modern state's pursuit of centralized power and rationalized power at the expense of efforts by ordinary citizens to govern themselves locally.'

The difference in perspectives between the distant central planners and their increasingly voiceless objects of manipulation is shown by an anecdote in The idea of India by Sunil Khilnani. This was 1950s when imposing dams, power and steel plants embodied for ‘those who imagined them into existance’ a spectacular vision of the modernity to which India had committed itself. Nehru asked a worker who labored at the site of the Bhakra Nangal dam, ‘Why are you doing this work?’ The worker replied, ‘Sahib Bahadur, that man tells me to take these stones over there. At the end of the week he gives me money. That is why I do it.’ Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds:
Many political economists...have drawn attention to the fact - uncomfortable to the Third World elites and intellectuals - that the Third World usually maintain within their borders exactly the same violent, exploitative, ethnocidal systems which they confront in the larger world: the same centre and periphery, the same myth that the sacrifices made by people in the short run will lead to the beatitude of development and scientific advancement in the long run, the same story of over-consuming elites fattening themselves to early death at the centre and starvation, victimhood, and slow death at the periphery. Because of this, the demands of the Third World for more equitable and just terms in North-South exchanges often sound dishonest or hollow.