Thursday, August 22, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- VII

The good of the few that depended on the degradation of the many that appalled Gandhi also animated Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition, she highlights the paradox she finds in the economy of ancient Athens. At the time she finds Athenian citizens (who form only a small part of the population) most advanced and creative, they make women and slaves do all the work to produce all the items that are required for daily life.  She feels that even though slavery has now been abolished, it is delusional to think that the same conditions do not exist today. According to her, the burden of household consumption that the ancient slaves had is now transferred to the labourers of the industrial economy who ‘produce for society at large’. As Ambedkar says in Annihilation of Caste:
. . . slavery does not merely mean a legalized form of subjection. It means a state of society in which some men are forced to accept from others the purposes which control their conduct. This condition obtains even where there is no slavery in the legal sense. It is found where, as in the caste system, some persons are compelled to carry on certain prescribed callings which are not of their choice.
In The Origins of Non-violence: Tolstoy and Gandhi in Their Historical Settings, Martin Green says, ‘Socrates called abstinence the first virtue; but nowadays we think we can and must develop our passions, and so become dependent on hundreds of habits.’ Workers are seduced into slavery by the artificially increased needs that they feel forced to adopt because they feel the need to conform with the habits of the majority in their group. Arendt thinks that 'our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to sudden catastrophic end.' She further writes:
The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, "tranquilized," functional type of behavior. 
Einstein believed that capitalism was incompatible with individualism, because of the stress it places on students preparing to enter the workforce. His 1949 Monthly Review article “Why Socialism?” he wrote, “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” But he had more faith than Gandhi did that Socialism would be able to solve this problem.

Gandhi viewed both modern capitalism and the various varieties of communism as twin children of modernity that will ultimately produce a pyramidal structure where a few at the top will live on the labor of many at the bottom. It has turned out that efficiency has grown more important in the working world than freedom. As Herbert Marcuse says, ‘The enslavement of man by the instruments of his labor continues in a highly rationalized and vastly efficient and promising form.‘ The price that one-dimensional man pays for satisfaction is to surrender the ability to dissent and to control one's own destiny.'  Aldous Huxley says in Brave New World Revisited:
. . . the progress of technology has led and is still leading to just such a concentration and centralization of power. As the machinery of mass production is made more efficient it tends to become more complex and more expensive -- and so less available to the enterprise of limited means. Moreover, mass production cannot work without mass distribution; but mass distribution raises problems which only the largest producers can satisfactorily solve. 
In a world of mass production and mass distribution the Little Man, with his inadequate stock of working capital, is at a grave disadvantage. In competition with the Big Man, he loses his money and finally his very existence as an independent producer; the Big Man has gobbled him up. As the Little Men disappear, more and more economic power comes to be wielded by fewer and fewer people. Under a dictatorship the Big Business, made possible by advancing technology and the consequent ruin of Little Business, is controlled by the State -- that is to say, by a small group of party leaders and the soldiers, police­men and civil servants who carry out their orders. 
In a capitalist democracy, such as the United States, it is controlled by what Professor C. Wright Mills has called the Power Elite. This Power Elite directly employs several millions of the country's working force in its factories, offices and stores, controls many millions more by lending them the money to buy its products, and, through its ownership of the media of mass communication, influences the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually everybody. To parody the words of Winston Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by so few. 
It is claimed that modernization reduces dependence on traditional tyrannies. Ironically, trapped in the endless chain of production and consumption, people become more dependant on distant, unseen actors to whom they are not bound by community ties.  Gandhi is concerned that in modern life people develop a tendency to value the goods they buy only in economic terms and not in social terms. He emphasises that individuals should be in-charge of their lives and this is possible only in cooperative, participatory lives.

An example is the mining of cobalt which is an essential input for making smart phones, and firms like Apple are scrambling to secure supplies. It is found in only a few places in the world and most of the known supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of the mines there are controlled by warlords, being mined, in many cases, by young children working in horrific conditions. Even if you know this reality, you are not likely to spend much time thinking about it since they are distant people with whom you have no emotional connect.

In personal life, the increasing dependence on others is apparent from personal experience. Till about the age of 20, whenever I was in Kerala, I used a home-made, coarse, black powder called 'mukkeri' to clean my teeth. It was a daily ritual: a group of us would walk towards a nearby river or temple pond for a bath, all the while chatting and cleaning our teeth with 'mukkeri' using a finger. Towards the late 80's / early 90's, 'mukkeri' disappeared and was replaced by toothpaste and toothbrush. Now people became more dependent on manufacturers, distributors and shops. The same may be the case with the neem twig used in North India for cleaning teeth.

The same increase in dependency on other people and things can be seen in other activities like cooking or washing and ironing one's clothes.  People in cities now go to hotels more often or order food home using various delivery services. This dependency increases your need for money to procure the necessary services which makes you more dependent on your job. This increases your vulnerability to external shocks which forces you to be more compliant to orders.  These are again examples of developments that are good for the GDP but bad for the individual.  They indicate the surface gloss of modernity which Gandhi was afraid would seduce people and make them blind to the costs which will remain invisible.

Gandhi knew that the overwhelming majority were opposed to his view of industrialization but he was prepared to wage a lone struggle. He believed that when a person was convinced of his views, he should act in his small way without waiting for the rest of the world to adopt his views. On 28-1-1939, Harijan published an interview with Maurice Frydman in which Gandhi was asked, 'What attitude should I, as a realist, adopt with regard to the tide of industrialization that is sweeping over the world?. . . Is it not waste of energy merely to oppose it? Would it not be better to try to change its direction?' He replied:
You are an engineer. You will therefore appreciate an illustration from mechanics. You know the parallelogram of forces. There the forces do not neutralize each other. Each force acts freely along its own line and we get the resultant which indicates the final direction of motion. It is the same with the problem you have mentioned. As I look at Russia where the apotheosis of industrialization has been reached, the life there does not appeal to me. To use the language of the Bible, “What shall it avail a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  
In modern terms, it is beneath human dignity to lose one’s individuality and become a mere cog in the machine. I want every individual to become a full-blooded, fully developed member of society. . .I work with all my being for my conviction. The process of adjustment goes on all the time. I do not know what the outcome of it will be. But whatever it is, it will be to the good.
Gandhi was an eternal optimist who was not fazed by any situation so he could say 'whatever it is, it will be to the good'. But I wonder. . .

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- VI

Gandhi divided human needs into those which are natural, though they keep changing, and others whom only social relations and social preferences determine. There is equality in the former and inequality in the latter. Unless you are able to have control over the socially created needs, no matter what the structure of society, it will lead towards inequality. In the words of Lewis Mumford,  " We have reached a point in history where man has become his most dangerous enemy.......Today it is man's higher functions that have become automatic and constricted and his lower ones that have become spontaneous and irrepressible."

For Gandhi, people have to wage two types of struggle to gain autonomy - one external and one internal. The external struggle is waged against institutional practises which lead to their degradation. The internal struggle is against one's own senses and passions. For Gandhi, people who always give in to temptations are not autonomous. He thinks that we can be slaves to our own passions and desires and not just to other people. He distinguishes between liberty and licence with the latter representing for him a lack of discipline and self-awareness. He felt that modernity increased the difficulty of both struggles. Gandhi's internal autonomy was what made him a problematic opponent as Gilbert Murray recognized in an essay, The Soul As It Is, And How To Deal With It:
Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy – because his body, which you can always conquer, gives you so little purchase upon his soul.
Gandhi said in Young India on June 2, 1927, 'The distinguishing characteristic of modern civilization is an infinite multiplicity of human wants.' According to him, modern civilization was controlled by ‘a few capitalist owners’ who had only one aim, to make profit, and only one means to do so, to produce goods that satisfied people’s wants. They had a vital vested interest in constantly whetting jaded appetites, planting new wants and creating a moral climate in which not to want the goods daily pumped into the market and to keep pace with the latest fashions was to be abnormal and archaic. The hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state.

Gandhi observes that modernity brings its own forms of degradation and enslavement. He said in Hind Swaraj, 'We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become.' And elsewhere in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.' He believed that they who have failed to attain swaraj within themselves must lose it in the outside world too. This is is not an empty statement. For example, take the changing attitude towards debt. When I was young, all elders used to caution against borrowing.  Now not to postpone the satisfaction of any desire has became the main tendency. All material consumption and borrowing is encouraged.

The leveraging trends reflect the aspirational lifestyles of consumers who are accessing cheap loans to buy products. In 2017-18, household debt almost doubled. Lenders push pre-approved credit cards and short-term loans. They promise fast disbursal and minimal paperwork. Customers having more than one credit card whose bills are still outstanding are digging themselves even deeper in the debt trap. Many are unable to postpone gratification even when they know that many private firms employ goondas (euphemistically called ‘collection agents’) to collect dues. All this is great for the GDP but not for the individual. The pressure to pay off the debt makes it more important for people to cling to their jobs which makes them more pliant and more vulnerable to illegal inducements.

In One-dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse distinguishes between true and false needs. True needs are the basic, biological needs that are required for a person to live. "False” are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs. He says that social control is anchored in the new needs which the society has produced. He writes:
Here, the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste; the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefaction; the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets . . . liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. 
The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. . . Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear . . . And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls. 
In Gandhi's view, many diseases arise because of  indulgence. He says,'I overeat, I have indigestion, I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine. I am cured. I overeat again, I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me and I would not have overeaten again. The doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself. My body thereby certainly felt more at ease; but my mind was weakened. A continuance of a course of medicine must, therefore, result in loss of control over the mind.'

He tolerated hospitals as a 'necessary evil'; 'necessary' because they did some good things for people, 'evil' because their presence encouraged people to over-indulge. Gandhi feels that people think now that they can buy what once required self-discipline viz good health. It is another instance of certain actions being good for GDP but bad for the individual. Shiv Visvanathan says in his essay Reinventing Gandhi, ‘He returned the responsibility of the body back to the victim showing how it was uncontrolled desire that allowed the invasion of the disease and the expert that followed .’