Gandhi insisted that in any economic arrangement, safeguarding individual autonomy was paramount. He therefore wanted the control of the productive process to be in the hands of the individual because whoever controlled the productive process had the power. 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.
Gandhi viewed the process of modernization as increasing unemployment and reducing the autonomy of people. For him, any economic activity has to be for the benefit of human beings and not for the benefit of firms. When abstract quantities like 'economic growth' become the obsession of governments, people become expendable means for achieving some glorious end which remains elusive. Spokesmen of modernization view this as expendable costs to be paid for securing its benefits. This was unacceptable to Gandhi who viewed people as ends in themselves and not as means to some future end.
His greatest fear in the modern economy is not that goods are becoming obsolete but that people are becoming obsolete in a society where the good is judged in terms of its economic contribution. The present-day worker has to work hard for his living, and the desire for an increasingly higher standard of living makes his work harder and harder in spite of his abhorrence for his work. This feeling is further increased by the fact that work and routine are controlled by others who pay them wages. It is sometimes helpful to focus on what is right or wrong and not just on what is most efficient.
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.' He realized that the drive for power is innate in people and that power corrupts. So the only way to tame power seemed to be to have it distributed as widely as possible in the society . As Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World Revisited:
. . . the nature of power is such that even those who have not sought it, but have had it forced upon them, tend to acquire a taste for more. "Lead us not into temptation," we pray -- and with good reason; for when human beings are tempted too enticingly or too long, they generally yield. A democratic constitution is a device for preventing the local rulers from yielding to those particularly dangerous temptations that arise when too much power is concentrated in too few hands.This led Gandhi to propose a decentralized mode of production which seemed to be the only way to preserve individual autonomy while promoting social and economic justice. But this did not mean that villages have to produce everything. He said in Harijan., 30-11-1935 (in Industrialize and Perish), 'My idea of self-sufficiency is that villages must be self-sufficient in regard to food, cloth and other basic necessities. But even this can be overdone.. . Self-sufficiency does not mean narrowness. To be self-sufficient is not to be altogether self-contained. In no circumstances would we be able to produce all the things we need.'
It was hoped the new technologies of modernity would free people from drudgery and monotonous work. However what has replaced it is a compulsive consumerist society which is dehumanizing in new ways. Gandhi’s critique was a condemnation of the ethic of the profit motive which brings about such dehumanization. Moreover, technology has its own intrinsic logic that instrumentalises our world and inevitably leads to a disenchantment that bring us to the ‘iron cage’, as Weber warned long ago. Robert Jungk says in Tomorrow is Already Here:
Every specialist tends to overvalue his own significance in the joint undertaking. In a period which drives the individual back into the role of a little wheel among a million little wheels a person is apt to ascribe to himself the role of the decisive little wheel, on whose right functioning the fate of the whole machinery hangs. This feeling of the importance of his personal function is to many a man a substitute for his lost freedom.Weber wrote that the "iron cage" traps individuals in systems based on rational calculation, efficiency and bureaucratic control. If you are born into a society organized this way, with the division of labor and hierarchical social structure that comes with it, you can't help but live within this system. One's life and worldview are shaped by it to such an extent that one probably can't even imagine what an alternative way of life would look like. Goethe says, 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.’
The celebration of the mundane and the routine that he thought central to modern culture, Weber believed, stemmed from the expectations and hopes of the Enlightenment thinkers who felt that science and rationality helped mankind to climb up the ladder of history towards what was assumed to be greater wisdom, more freedom and emancipation. But Weber realized that this was an illusion that trapped individuals in actions more based on rationality than being based on their values. Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
Weber finds that the freedom from tradition promised by the modernized economy turns hollow as it replaces old forms of dominance and drudgery with new ones. The new order requires its own forms of discipline, predictability and routinization, and Weber sees this producing bureaucrats, "men who need order and nothing but order". The great danger is that "the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones".
For Weber,"the central question is . . . what we can oppose to this machinery, in order to keep a portion of humanity free from this parcelling out of the soul, from this total dominance of the bureaucratic ideal of life". Gandhi takes it as one of his principal tasks to resist such an "iron cage" and encouraged the struggle that Weber later takes to be essential for freedom. But Gandhi goes further than Weber and seeks autonomy, not for "a portion of humanity" but for humanity at large.