Modern civilization has, of course provided enormous material comforts but the Faust-like exploitation of the private ego and its satisfaction by means of financial, military and industrial power has also created some important problems like multiplicity of wants, weakening of moral standards, growing violence, lack of community feeling, emphasis on productivity, throat cutting competition and denial of human capacity to intervene in the social process. Increased production, and technological innovations bring more goods to people but Gandhi sees these successes making societies more impersonal and identities more disjointed. He sees industrialization and the division of labour causing unemployment and poverty.
He sees the breakdown of communities which helped individuals to face problems collectively and people are left to fend for themselves in the modern world. Modern man complicates his life, deploys reason in the service of deception, is trapped by the institutions he creates and worships at the alter of wealth. Gandhi believed that material progress is in inverse proportion to moral progress. He criticized the social and political institutions of modern civilization saying that there was a glaring gap between their claims and their performance.
Modern institutions accentuated rather then attenuated the selfish and baser streaks of human beings. He was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions. He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, ignoring ethics even passes for the new, the progressive, the modern. Echoing sentiments similar to that of Gandhi, C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man:
And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’.
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
(By “chest” he doesn’t mean chest-swelling masculinity, but sentiment. His lament is that modern society makes men without heart, i.e. without traditional morality. Certain objects and situations should elicit certain responses from us. The night sky should elicit a feeling of humility; little children should elicit a feeling of delight; a kind act should elicit a feeling of gratitude. The failure to feel the proper sentiment in the face of a particular stimulus cannot be justified on the basis of mere personal preference. Rather, it must be seen as a deficiency in one’s human make-up.
To those who do not lament what has been lost, it may seem that men without chests are a sign of progress – that they are more evolved, more advanced, more logical and intellectual. But this comforting affirmation is a mirage and an “outrage,” Lewis says. For the chest-less among us do not pursue truth with greater keenness, quite the opposite, since the ardent search for knowledge “cannot be long maintained without the aid of sentiment” — without a bit of passion. In reality then, “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks [the chest-less] out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”)
Gandhi claims that the individual is the one to enjoy supreme consideration but his celebration of freedom is very different from the conventional liberal ones. He encumbers agents with duties, assigning them responsibilities to lead a moral life and attend to the good of their community. Gandhi also holds that freedom should not be taken to mean that individuals should be left alone to make their way in the world. 'Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole society enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.'
But in the modern mechanistic and rationalistic society individual freedom stands for an abstract individualism. Here liberty means absence of every kind of social or traditional restraints. The individual’s happiness is not complementary but contradictory to social development. In Gandhi’s critique of individualism there is no dichotomy between the individual and society. Both liberals and opponents of Gandhi have misinterpreted his argument on self-sufficiency. Gandhi wrote that: “Only a Robinson Crusoe can afford to be all self-sufficient…’. This contradicts the image of absolute self-sufficiency that one finds in Gandhian literature.
Gandhi criticized liberal democracies for being individualistic in the sense of stressing rights rather than duties and self-interest rather than altruism. It lacked moral orientation and turned the state into an arena of conflict between organized groups. This is a version of democracy gone astray. In the short period that Gandhi lived following India's independence, he repeatedly warned that "the first lesson to be learnt is that "Liberty never meant the license to do anything at will. Independence meant voluntary restraint and discipline..." The other side of individualization seems to be the corrosion and slow disintegration of citizenship.
With his usual, inimitable wit Woody Allen unerringly grasps the narrow-mindedness of the present-day individuals when browsing through imaginary advertising leaflets of 'Adult Summer Courses' of the kind which Americans would be eager to attend. The course in Economic Theory includes the item 'Inflation and Depression - how to dress for each'; the course in Ethics entails 'the categorical imperative, and six ways to make it work for you', while the prospectus for Astronomy informs that 'The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planet system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.'
Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
Setting people free may make them indifferent. The individual is the citizen's worst enemy, de Tocqueville suggested. The despot, he observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule — perhaps benevolent, but perhaps not — of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.
PS; As a current example, the article The Fundamental Question of the Pandemic is Shifting, shows that individualism is not the best response in a pandemic.