Thursday, June 20, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- III

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. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- II

Modernity  is characterized by such features as rationalism, secularization, industrialization, the scientific culture, individualism, technological mastery of nature and the drive towards globalization. Gandhi thought that modern civilization did the opposite of what a proper civilization is supposed to do. Instead of producing people who have self-determination, autonomy, self-knowledge, self-discipline and social cooperation, modern civilization did the opposite. By encouraging people to subject their powers to large organizations run by experts, it rendered men passive, helpless and heteronomous.

The impersonal institutions of modernity make some actions costly and others more welcome. They thus direct people towards certain choices but all the while pretend that people are free to make any choice they want. With their inducements to rivalry and ambition modern society forces men to put on a mask to hide the contradiction in their actions between their deepest convictions and the considerations upon which these institutions are founded and maintained. Instead of treating humans as autonomous agents, humans are treated as programmed robots who cannot deviate from the instruction of their operating systems.

What makes modernity especially dangerous according to Gandhi is that this constraining of available choices comes with a surface gloss which makes people blind to the costs that they are obliged to pay.  The modern industrial economy is engaged in an endless process of  producing  cheap consumer goods and maximizing profit. He argued that modern economic life reduced men to its helpless and passive victim and represented a new form of slavery, more comfortable and invidious and hence more dangerous than the earlier ones.  (To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov describes the lives of such 'over-sized ants' who are content to let institutions automate virtues for them.)

Gandhi resisted the idea that those who subscribe to these norms felt it their duty to impose these views on the the rest of the world. He attacked the idea that every technological and scientific advance implied ‘progress’. That doesn’t mean that he was anti-science.  He said in 1925, ‘I think that we cannot live without science, as long as we keep it within its limits.’ For Gandhi, ‘its limits’ were to keep it within his ethical norms and to ensure that its fruits are not enjoyed only by a minority. When the fruits of science are confined to a minority, they tend to dominate others and erode their autonomy.

It is not that he only criticized modernity and left traditions untouched. With traditions the problem was in ancient texts which people followed blindly and with  modernity the problem was its focus on production and efficiency. The problem was not about choosing one or the other but about taming the excesses of each. He said in Harijan, January 13, 1940, 'There is nothing to prevent me from profiting by the light that may come from the West. Only I must take care that I am not overpowered by the glamour of the West. I must not mistake the glamour for true light. The latter gives life, the former brings death.'

It is true that we do not have any definite philosophical scheme evolved by Gandhi which can be described as Gandhian Philosophy. He had his general philosophy of life; they are reflected in his writings and speeches, mixed up with other related topics. They have to be discerned more in his actions, which must be viewed in their entirety not merely in an isolated way. He lived day in and day out open to public view and none in history has left behind so much of documentation and direct evidence concerning everything he thought and did. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
If Gandhi is to have a voice in the twenty-first century, then not all of his texts can be approached literally. Texts do not entirely speak for themselves, particularly those that teach and admonish, often by reaching to practises, problems and opportunities whose original home is much different than that of later readers. . . Anyone in the late modern world who is interested in addressing the issues Gandhi raises about autonomy and non-violence needs to interrogate him to understand how his commitments are transported to a different world and translated into their own idiom. 
The ideal society about which Gandhi is discussing is the society where the individual is of supreme consideration and all the other aspects of the society, either machine, industry, production or distribution, revolve around him. For him, an action had moral worth only if it was voluntary, was a product of one’s own thought and not done because of some external force. So if an individual loses his freedom, as happens inexorably in the above-mentioned products of human ingenuity, the person becomes an automaton, an ‘over-sized ant’.

Gandhi's defence of individual autonomy is due to his conviction that every human being has only a partial conception of the truth. For him, any conception of the truth will include a commitment to autonomy.  He rejects all claims to certainty and does not accept the contention that it is ok to inflict pain on a person for some future good. Compelling a person to live by the moral standards determined by others implies believing in one’s infallibility which was not acceptable to him. He said on 17-4-1924, 'I have repeatedly observed that no school of thought can claim a monopoly of right judgment. We are all liable to err and are often obliged to revise our judgments.'

For Gandhi the case for freedom was simple and the same as that for truthfulness. Respect for truth implied respect for human beings as they were constituted at a given point in time. It ruled out all attempts to ‘force them to be free’ or sacrifice them at the altar of an abstract and impersonal ideal. For him a person is not moral if he is good because of the fear of getting caught. As he understands it, one can only have a good society if all individuals in it are free.

If any group dominates the other, the society cannot be good. He said in Harijan on September 29, 1946, ‘The mind of a man who is good   under compulsion cannot be good; in fact it gets worse. And when compulsion is removed all the defects well up to the surface with even greater force. ‘ Although theoretically it is possible for a person to be fearless and resist domination (as he himself did), he recognized that it is not possible for most people to bear the costs of such resistance.