Arundhati Roy calls Gandhi 'Saint of the Status Quo'. She seems to have a limited idea of what 'status quo' means. I would have had similar views till some years ago. Reading zombie-like during the impressionable childhood and teenage years is different from reading it in your fifties (or at least, it should be). Gandhi's seemingly bizarre comments on various aspects of modernity can be seen as a window and a mirror. Far from being a utopian writer, Gandhi’s economic realism comes from his frequent reminders of what is neglected or discarded in the modern economy. As somebody said, 'The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.'
Ms. Roy seems to think that 'revolution' can only mean 'violent revolution'. Gandhi had rejected many of the pet notions and prevailing trends of the time. He advocated non-violence when key thinkers everywhere were advocating transformation through violence. Nehru once declared he wanted revolution and Gandhi replied: “When your exuberance has subsided and your lungs are exhausted, you will come to me, if you are really serious about making a revolution.” In conditions wherein wickedness seemed to predominate in humans, Gandhi repeatedly affirmed the essential goodness of humans. (As a counter to received wisdom, see Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.)
In a period of ethical relativism, he pleaded for certain ethical norms as permanent and fundamental for human conduct. In an age of materialism and craze for a higher and higher standard of living he preached wantlessness, self imposed simplicity and austerity in living. While the modern world was taking to more and more gadgets and was advancing towards a computer civilization, he rejected modern industrialism and advocated the cause of village industries. Amidst the increasing urbanization and the growth of metropolitan cities, he preached the values of a rural civilization.
In a world where distances were being annihilated, he stood for economic self-sufficiency at the village or regional level. While the world trend is towards political centralization and increase in state functions, he pleaded for decentralization of political power and held that, 'that government is best which governs the least.' In an age of increasing armament and violence, he stood for disarmament and non-violence. Though a staunch advocate of economic equality, he rejected nationalization and expropriation, advocating "trusteeship". To a world that has come to look down upon physical labour as an evil to be avoided as much as possible, he insisted that physical labour should be a part of Basic Education.
Gandhi challenges much that has been taken for granted both in India and the West and shows the hidden costs of modernity to community and individual freedom. He criticizes the celebration of the power of reason, the promise of science, the benefits of economic growth, and the inevitability of progress. He insists that just because society is losing its simplicity, there is no reason for it to lose its standards. He reminds people that they can be the reason for allowing their weaker selves to dominate by becoming seduced by the glamour of modern civilization. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
As a problematizer, Gandhi continually questions many of the principles we take as good and many of the 'facts' or theories we take as true. In raising the questions he does, he tries to show that we will never be able to address, much less challenge, the dangerous sides of our truisms if we unreflectively accept them.He rejected any authority ‘if it is in conflict with sober reason or the dictates of the heart’ adding that ‘authority sustains and ennobles the weak’ only when it is ‘the handiwork of reason’, for when it supplants reason, it serves only to degrade. He held that untouchables were as capable of exercising responsible office as the brahmins. He had no argument in favor of the retention of untouchability and he had ‘no hesitation’ in ‘rejecting scriptural authority of a doubtful character’ if it supported a ‘sinful institution’. All these statements would have scandalized the orthodox.
Most political and social thinkers have concentrated on the many different and competing ends that people may desire and then thought that any practical means may be pursued to achieve them. Gandhi stands almost alone in his firm rejection of the almost universally held dichotomy between means and ends. He kept insisting that means rather than ends provide the standard of reference. It is not as though violence and non-violence are different means for achieving the same end. As they have different moral content, they will necessarily produce different results. Gandhi wrote the following in Young India: “Means are after all everything. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between the means and the end.”
His searching questions on many moral, philosophical and religious matters accounts for his continuing admiration by some and hostility by others. The central message of Hind Swaraj is Gandhi’s warning not to engage with the British on their own terms and he offered his own modes of engagement in the political economic and social spheres. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:
Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation ... He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.
Gandhi was the sole major dissenter of the view that rapid large-scale industrialization was necessary for India. He was not an economist but he intuitively understood the socio-economic problems of India and challenged many basic assumptions of economists. He recognized the importance of the huge number of small, self-employed producers who produced for their own basic requirements and not for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. They form a separate social category different from medieval surfs, Marxists proletariats or the self-centered individuals of Capitalist theory.
He maintained that rural unemployment was not due to lack of aggregate demand but was structural in nature. He suggested dispersal of industries in the villages. He did not assess economic growth merely in terms of per capita income. For him growth was measured not only in material terms but also in moral and spiritual terms. He did not accept a morally neutral economics. The Indian intelligentsia laughed at his theories and saw no alternative to rapid industrialization and treading the same road as the West i.e. to maintain the status quo.
The Russian-British social and political theorist, Isaiah Berlin, considered Tolstoy both a fox, which knows many things, and a hedgehog, which knows one big thing. Similar but also different, Gandhi and Tolstoy were united in their moral and political dreams of changing humanity. As a dreamer who looked for a harmonious universe, Gandhi was a hedgehog, but as a pragmatist who had a devastating sense of reality, he was a fox who knew many things about the insane world of human beings filled with hatred, revenge, greed for power and violence. He would have agreed with Jaques Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development:
[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.