Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VII

There was a paradox underlying Gandhi’s goal of winning freedom: he had a very low assessment of the role state power should play in human affairs. He was very apprehensive about arming the government with too much power even in what purported to be a welfare state. He believed that the citizens in such a state pay for their dependence with a proportionate loss of their liberty. He was apprehensive about the use of power anywhere, which might prove dangerous for egalitarian growth and individual initiative. He was of the considered view that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. As Blake says in his poem Auguries of Innocence ‘The Strongest Poison ever known / Came from Caesar's Laurel Crown’. His fears about the concentration of power are expressed in some observations:
  • Young India, Nov. 1924 - 'There is no freedom for India so long as one man, no matter how highly placed he may be, holds in the hollow of his hands the life, property and honour of millions of human beings. It is an artificial, unnatural and uncivilized institution. The end of it is an essential preliminary to swaraj.'
  • Young India, Jan 1925 -  ‘…real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words; swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence. '
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.’  
  • Harijan, (November. 1936).  - '...a nation that runs its affairs smoothly and effectively without much State interference is truly democratic. Where such a condition is absent, the form of government is democratic in name [only].'   
So while Gandhi opposed the colonial power, he also inherited this suspicion of the power of the state. Once independence was achieved, however, the Congress went from being the party of the nation to being the party of the nation-state. Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar wanted a centralized, top-down state, each for different reasons, but it was opposite to Gandhi's desire for a minimalist state. The former had a state-centric mindset; the latter had a civil society-centric mindset. Gandhi hoped for a progressively decreasing State but what happened was the opposite. As David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours, 'Far from there being any devolution of power, the state assumed increasingly authoritarian powers.'

The nation-state is a formal system with a well-defined constitution, strict criteria for citizenship and a monopoly over violence. It has a limited capacity to be flexible and therefore performs poorly when faced with diverse populace that does not agree on the basic rules of co-existence. The resultant dissent is often viewed as an existential threat and it responds with ruthlessness and systematic oppression.  There is thus constant tension between a nation-state's tendency to homogenize and Ambedkar's exhortation to disadvantaged sections to 'educate, agitate, organise'. While Gandhi did not deny an important role for the government in some areas, he resisted any solution that made people depend more on the government.

Gandhi thought of the state as ‘a game of chess’ between rival parties who use people as ‘pawns’ to further their own ends. The judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police and the army of independent India are all descendants of their colonial predecessors. The sedition law is akin to the blasphemy laws in operation in some Muslim countries. There is a term called 'lawfare' which is similar to 'warfare' - it involves using the legal system against people, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory. As Arundhati Roy said about justice in India, 'Punishment is not after due process, due process is the punishment.'

There were Gandhians whose views were opposite to that of Gandhi. For eg. Vinobha Bhave supported the emergency, calling it an era of discipline that would be good for the health of the nation. The type and extent of the disciplining can be guaged from the fact that  when there was a murderous assault on Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency, he said that he had not witnessed such state terror in all his years of public life, including during colonial rule. Freud said that the state forbids the individual to do wrong, not because it wishes to do away with wrongdoing but because it wishes to monopolize it.

I remember reading that of the 200 million or so people killed by violence in the last century around 2/3 were killed by their own state. Gandhi knew that a centralized, bureaucratic state will result in decisions affecting a community being taken by someone else far away. He thought that it was important to encourage the creation of political spaces that were not part of state power and which would act as a constant check on state power. In thinking thus, he was very different from other political activists of his day or after his time. But the nature of the nation-state is to impose its ideas on the rest of the population. Hence the regular attacks on educational institutions, NGOs and other civil society groups that challenge government views.

The coersiveness of the state has only been increasing. Each crisis will be used as a new means of tightening the screws and further reducing the degrees of freedom available to citizens. The threat of terrorism is actually beneficial for the state because it is a convenient excuse for keeping on tightening the screws on citizens with their consent even though far greater number of people die in road accidents. You are told that  there is no right to privacy, that you don't have absolute right over your own body (when the SC quashed every contention of the government, it smoothly changed its stand), a person being subjected to an IT raid cannot ask for the reason for the raid...(See talk: 'The Databased Citizen' by Usha Ramanathan.)

The Aadhaar card was said to be optional when it was first introduced. Now it is slowly being made compulsory for a range of services. If a service agent asks for Aadhaar mandatorily, then citizens have no option but to get an Aadhaar number. Saying that Aadhaar is voluntary is like saying that breathing is voluntary. Ordinary people are reqired to be transparent to the state and leave a digital trail of their transactions using Aadhaar even though the biggest scams in the country have been perpetrated by politicians and businessmen. The side that is forced to become more transparent (citizens) is required to give data to the areas that are becoming more opaque (government and corporates - the distinction is becoming more blurred with time) This is problematic - you can't know what is being done with the data. As Frank Pasquale says in The Black Box Society:
An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular danger, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny.  That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behavior.
There is a consistency in the views of whoever is in power at the center. The BJP shouted itself hoarse demanding CBI autonomy when it was in the opposition but now there is not one word about it. BJP opposed GST for years, now it is called the most important tax reform since independence. 'On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Q's on security threat it can  pose.  There is no vision, only political gimmick'. Who tweeted that? Narendra Modi, 8th April 2014. Now it is the flagship program of the government. As an old adage says, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VI

For Gandhi, no economic model was worth implementing unless it aimed towards the general well-being of mankind. For him, man is not a purely economic being, he has many more interests and motives such as spiritual, intellectual, religious and ethical (an idea that present-day leaders refuse to learn). Unlike Marx, Gandhi did not accept the view that merely changing the ownership of capital while leaving the mode of production untouched would improve matters. He was the first to see clearly the similarity between capitalism and communism i.e. he saw communism as state capitalism.

He realized that the important question was not about whether the market or the State allocated goods but about how the goods were produced in the first place. Both capitalism and communism share a deep commitment to the centralized, urban industrial model as the the solution to all economic  ills – only the power-wielders change and most people are reduced to being mere cogs in the wheel in both systems. Both result in what Max Weber calls the 'separation of the worker from his means of production' – the worker is dependent upon the implements that the state or a few individuals put at his disposal.

Industrialization is based on the division of labour which no doubt increases the productivity but the work loses its variety, initiative and colour. The famous illustration of Adam Smith that a pin has to pass through ninety hands before it is completely manufactured illustrates the point. In Gandhi’s view the exploitation of one’s fellow human beings was built into the very structure of modern civilization. As one wag had put it, ‘Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; socialism is the reverse.’ Large-scale industrialism leads to the centralization of political power in a few hands or in an institution like the state. Then there will always be the likelihood of its misuse. Moreover, the more the centralization the less will be people’s participation. This leads to strict limitations on the non-economic aspects of life for most people, ultimately resulting in corruption and fraud.

A technique which tends to make man a robot, robs his independence and makes an all-out invasion on his political, economic and social liberties (like Chaplin in Modern Times) was not acceptable to Gandhi. In an interview in September, 1940, he said, 'Pandit Nehru wants industrialization because he thinks that, if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them.' This led him to propose a decentralized mode of production which seemed to be the only way to preserve individual autonomy while promoting social and economic justice. His dissent stood out against the sea of conformity. Does this mean that Gandhi was against the use of machinery?

Gandhi's views on machinery evolved over time. Criticizing Gandhi by saying that he was a Luddite who was against industrialization by quoting his book Hind Swaraj written in 1909 makes little sense. He had accepted many of the modern technological inventions not as a compromise but as a necessity.  He traveled on trains, buses, and ships and used loudspeakers and printing machines. He said in Young India in 1925, '"What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.....". He welcomed machinery that served people (like what is described in  Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E F Schumacher) but not ones that enslaved them in deadening mechanical jobs.

While he was for decentralized production, he was prepared to compromise where necessary. In a letter to Nehru in October, 1945, he said, '...I can still envisage a number of things that will have to be organized on a large scale. Perhaps there will even be railways and also post and telegraph offices. I do not know what things there will be or will not be. Nor am I bothered about it. If I can make sure of the essential thing, other things will follow in due course. But if I give up the essential thing, I give up everything.' (The 'essential thing' was individual autonomy which is discussed in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy.) He also 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.'

In the rush to modernize and be counted in the modern jungle of nation-states, it was not a surprise that India adopted the large-scale, centralized mode of production. It was the easier, quicker and therefore more tempting route to modernity. Perhaps another alternative was not possible. But as often happens, it is the easier option that requires more caution. It has turned out that the consequences were the ones that Gandhi had pointed out: concentration of power in a few individuals and modern-day slavery (better known as ‘working hard’) for the majority. Such a large–scale, centralized production structure necessarily produces a system that is coercive and exploitative. Villagers are faced with a Hobson’s choice – continue living in the village and lead a life of relative dignity but face regular prospects of starvation or migrate to the city and get better wages but lead a life of drudgery in an urban slum.

In a far-sighted essay, You and the atomic bomb, George Orwell said, '...ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance...A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.' So the atom bomb, which is very expensive and requires  a lot of industrial effort, favours the long-term trend of favouring the few against many. He  says that for a long time 'every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialized country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power.'

As with weapons, so with machines - the bigger, more complicated and more expensive machines become, the more will be the concentration of power in a few hands. Skilling India is actually a process of de-skilling - skilled artisans become bricklayers. As Orwell says in the above-mentioned essay regarding weapons, '...looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity.' (But a general breakdown is quite possible now because of environmental concerns which were not so pressing during Orwell's time.)

All the ongoing well-meaning efforts to generate livelihoods and reduce poverty may be futile without challenging the pyramid-like structure of the economy. Gandhi’s civilizational vision posed precisely this challenge that cannot be addressed by either capitalism or state-communism. Both these systems assume that accumulation of assets and productive resources must necessarily take the form of a pyramid – with a few at the top holding the bulk of assets, a middle class, and the ‘masses’ at the bottom with the resultant dehumanizing tendency of over-organizing and centralised control. The systems that promised freedom for humans end up producing the modern version of slavery for the majority of humans. Nelson Mandela writes:
Gandhi remains today the only complete critique of advanced industrial society. Others have criticized its totalitarianism but not its productive apparatus. He is not against science and technology, but he places priority on the right to work and opposes mechanization to the extent that it usurps this right. Large-scale machinery, he holds, concentrates wealth in the hands of one man who tyrannizes the rest. He favors the small machine; he seeks to keep the individual in control of his tools, to maintain an interdependent love relation between the two, as a cricketer with his bat or Krishna with his flute. Above all, he seeks to liberate the individual from his alienation to the machine and restore morality to the productive process. 
As we find ourselves in jobless economies, societies in which small minorities consume while the masses starve, we find ourselves forced to rethink the rationale of our current globalization and to ponder the Gandhian alternative.
The problem with considering the Gandhian alternative is that it can only be theoretical at this stage. The present development path is a one-way street and cannot be reversed as and when you feel like it. (Perhaps the alternative was not possible even in 1947.) Most people will continue to think rich and live poor. Inequalities will continue to rise and power will continue to get concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, irrespective of which party is in power. More industries will not produce more nett jobs due to increasing automation. The economy will consist of thousands of kings and millions of slaves. Occasional landmark judgments like the one on right to privacy will help keep the powerful from crushing the weak (or at least to slow them down).

PS: For a Gandhian perspective on economic issues see The Web of Freedom: J. C. Kumarappa and Gandhi’s Struggle for Economic Justice