Among Gandhi's most well-known (as a caricature not its substance) 'non-status quo' positions is his critique of modernity. Gandhi identified India's real enemy as not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He was thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique.
Gandhi was constantly reading Western scholars, albeit those with dissenting views like Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau, unlike Savarkar who was consuming the works in the mainstream, which were at the time dominated by ideas and thoughts that would later lead to Nazism and fascism. Like most educated middle-class people, Savarkar had absolute, uncritical faith in the modern-state system and its secular imperatives, was a die-hard rationalist and advocated mechanization, market-driven economy, strong military and scientific temper. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:
He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state, new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being Eurocentric or anti national...
Gandhi said to Tagore in 1921, a truly memorable statement: "I do not want my house to be walled in all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." He asserted that the very things modern civilization boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading. This condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers who thought he would soon outgrow it. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed these ideas on many occasions afterwards.
Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. His critique of modernity is often taken as a crude attack on the West; his attack on industrial civilization is caricatured as an obscurantist retreat into agricultural primitivism. He was nobody's fool. He knew that the genie of modernity was out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. But he was one of the most relentless and vocal critics of its confident assertions. (Forget Nazi German, he would have been in danger in modern China as the article 'Why Did Liberal Elites Ignore a 21st-Century Genocide?' seems to suggest) What exactly was he trying to say?
It will not do to simply say that he was hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world. Many issues that he raised are also echoed by other thinkers like de Tocqeville, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jaques Ullul etc. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
When Gandhi gazes at most recent scientific and technical accomplishments, he sees many of the same things that Westerners do: increased productivity, efficiency, and greater control over nature. For many, these phenomena are positive goods that mark the progress of the human race.
But Gandhi links them to the worst features of the age: new forms of poverty and inequality, unemployment, a growing alienation and a ceaseless restlessness, and a more destructive form of violence and a readiness to use them.
Akeel Bilgrami says that Gandhi seems to have located a very general instrumentality that he opposes: “How and when did we transform the concept of the “world” as not merely a place to live in but a place to master and control?” In Gandhi’s work, we find that he breaks it down to four different detailed questions: How and when did we transform the concept of nature to the concept of natural resources? How and when did we transform the concept of human beings to the concept of citizens? How and when did we transform the concept of people into the concept of populations? And, how and when did we transform the concept of knowledges (to live by) into the concept of expertise (to rule by)?
Gandhi saw that they all reflect an increasing alienation and disengagement in our outlook on the world — in our understanding of nature, human subjects, and human knowledge. He thought at the time of his writing that India was at the crossroads that Europe was in during the Early Modern period and he was anxious that India not go down what he thought was a lamentable path that Europe had from Early to Late modernity.
There is a view that is widely held among economists, social scientists and intelligentsia that there is some sort of ‘iron laws’ of history and political economy, whereby what happened in Europe in the Early Modern period will happen everywhere else, including Europe’s erstwhile colonies. For eg., Amartya Sen declared that ‘England went through its pain to create its Londons and Manchesters, India will have to do so too’. Gandhi saw that such reasoning that was prevalent in his time was incorrect.
When people who eked out an agrarian life were displaced in England in order to create its cities, they moved to other regions of the world and set up life there as settler colonists. There is nowhere for the poor of various parts of India to go, except to its already glutted metropoles where they have no future but to squat illegally in vast unlivable slums ridden with poverty and disease. This is even more true today in a time when capital can fly out of a nation at the press of a button while national immigration laws severely restrict the mobility of labour.
Gandhi does not deny the benefits that modernity brings but draws attention to the costs that individuals will have to bear in order to get those benefits. He constantly challenges modern assumptions that many take to be certain like the power of reason or the inevitability of progress. In his opinion modern civilization placed the idea of bodily comforts on too high a pedestal. The space that self-interest will occupy in a system where comforts and luxuries are considered not only desirable but the highest achievements of civilization is bound to be rather large.
He felt that modern man is a passive victim of an elaborate humbug that is strengthened by schools, legislatures, armies, churches and hospitals. He thought that ‘life-corroding competition’ had blinded the consciousness of people resulting in their bondage rather than freedom. He said, ‘I maintain that the humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.’ He calls into question uncritical acceptance of Enlightenment values.
Gandhi thinks that modernity does nothing to rein in the dark side of humans which always lurks beneath the surface even in best of human beings and this progressively reduces their ability to take charge of their lives. He continually points out the long-term costs on various social goods when focus is on short-term gains by chasing abstract measures like growth, productivity and efficiency. He does not offer final solutions that are frozen for all time but rather tries to enlarge the debate that many thought was already settled.
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