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 .’

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