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. . .

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