Thursday, August 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8d

According to the utilitarian philosophy, one should promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”. Happiness is taken to mean material happiness exclusively, that is, economic prosperity. If, in the pursuit of this happiness, moral laws are violated, it does not matter much. Gandhi opposed it on moral grounds. Like Ruskin, he criticized the construction of a “science” of economics on the Newtonain model from which “social affections” had been wholly abstracted. Gandhi challenged the European claim that they alone valued truth and Indians did not. He launched a counter-critique by asserting that the European Enlightenment, by emphasizing pure reason, self-interest and the utilitarian calculus had in fact dethroned truth and morality. 

Gandhi disliked the utilitarian principle because it reduces justice to arithmetic calculations. For eg., it presumes that for the benefit of 51%, the misery of 49% is justified. It will always demand that some minority pays the price of progress. It is illustrative of an objection to modernity that Gandhi had - it reduces wisdom to instrumental rationality thereby reducing morality to self interest. This kind of thinking is shown by a policy-maker of the 1950s in a plan document. He commented that India's 'tribal brethren' were expected to make the necessary sacrifices for the future prosperity and happiness of the country (mentioned in Bonfire of Creeds). 

People just give a superficial reading of his extreme statements and conclude that he was a  Luddite or traditionalist out to preserve dying techniques at any cost. He  recognized that machinery in India was inevitable. He said in 1946, 'Today there is such an onslaught on India of Western machinery that for India to withstand it successfully would be nothing short of a miracle.' He deeply appreciated any machine which eliminated drudgery and enhanced human creativity. 'The saving of labor of the individual should be the object' of the mechanized society. (Young India, Nov. 13, 1924) Machines, he argued, become a problem when they encroach upon a person's individuality and 'cripple the limbs of man'. 

He wrote that he had a problem with the craze behind machines. It mechanized production without any regard for its wider moral and cultural consequences. He argued that it had a tendency to displace labour rather than supplement it or increase its efficiency. Another problem was that it had no internal principle of self-limit and therefore made endless growth seem possible. He could imagine a time when 'machinery' (which stood for 'technology') would 'engulf civilization'. Instead of humans controlling it, it would control humans. Thus 'machinery' was for him both a 'grand' and an 'awful' invention. It all depended on putting limits to its use so that it benefited humanity. 

As long as one's gain is limited by the effort one makes, his desire is limited. If, on the other hand, one's income is not in proportion to one's effort, there are no limitations to one's desires, since their fulfillment is a matter of opportunities offered by certain market situations, and not dependent on one's own capacities. In contrast are  those which are not rooted in bodily needs. Ambition, lust for power, and so on, which are not rooted in physiological needs of the organism have no such self-regulating mechanisms, and that is the reason why they are ever increasing and so dangerous.

Innovations in Silicon Valley trigger mass layoffs elsewhere. Kodak, in the late 1980s had 145,000 people on its payroll. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy, while Instagram – the free online mobile photo service staffed by 13 people at the time – was sold to Facebook for $1 billion. In one sector after another the giants have grown even as the world has shrunk.  Economists call this phenomenon the “winner-take-all society.” It takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.

Over the course of the 20th century, productivity growth and job growth ran more or less parallel. Now, the robots have suddenly picked up the pace. It began around the year 2000, with what two MIT economists called “the great decoupling.” “It’s the great paradox of our era,” said one. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs.”

“We have to save capitalism from the capitalists,” Thomas Pickety wrote. This paradox is neatly summed up by an anecdote from the 1960s that I saw in Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. When Henry Ford’s grandson gave labor union leader Walter Reuther a tour of the company’s new, automated factory, he jokingly asked, “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?” Without missing a beat, Reuther answered, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

Gandhi saw three dangers if the role of technology is not limited in modern economics: 1) The economic exploitation of the technically less advanced nations by the technically more advanced nations. 2) An economy reliant on unrestrained use of modern technology and profit motive would have an adverse effect on the environment. 3) There was a potential threat to human freedom hidden in expanding consumer choice. Instead of promotion of real freedom of choice, unrestrained use of technology was encouraging compulsive consumption of unnecessary goods. A joking US bumper sticker, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’. He says that ‘multiplicity of material wants’ adds to the complexity of modern society. 

Gandhi was not opposed to technology per se, but believed that it should be applied to absorb labour and not produce new unemployment. He believed that the ends, as profitability from technology, cannot justify the means, as unemployment to attain prosperity; he understood that moral values must first triumph, as the ends cannot substantiate disreputable means, no matter how good the ends are. As Kurt Vonnegut says, 'A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.' Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

His responsibility, as he sees it, is to teach [people] to be suspicious of some of the things they sincerely want. By exposing the costs of the new technologies, he hopes to remind his readers what they risk losing and show them that the alternatives they are ready to discard are better defenders of their autonomy.

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