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

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