Thursday, October 14, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8i

Gandhi thinks that the history written in the modern world is a narrative about continuing progress carrying the ring of objective truth. Their stories are organized around 'great' events - inventors, explorers and heroes who bring enlightenment to places of ignorance. It gives readers the impression that what is recorded is important and what is omitted is irrelevant. When they look back in time readers get a sense of uninterrupted progress which blinds them to the costs of this change. They mistake power over nature for wisdom.  

He sees modernity presenting itself as the highest form of historical development belittling other ways of living. But, as Neil Postman says in an article Science and the Story that We Need about the technology-god that rules us today: ‘. . . each day receive confirmation of it, that this is a false god. It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.’

Another implication of Gandhi’s thought concerns ecology and the preservation of the earth and the life on it. Gandhi has emphasized opposite values to those of the consumer society: the reduction of individual wants, the return to direct production of foodstuffs and clothing, and self-sufficiency rather than growing dependency. As the limits of growth and the inherent scarcity of resources broke upon the world in the 1960’s, the Gandhian idea of restraint suddenly made sense. E.F. Schumacher, author of the influential Small Is Beautiful, regarded Gandhi as the great pioneer in insisting that the rampant growth of capitalist industrialism is incompatible with a sustainable world ecosystem. He was a meticulous practitioner of recycling long before the idea came to the West. 

It is increasingly clear that the world’s dominant economic model is profoundly dangerous: not only is it corroding our political processes it is also altering the planet’s atmosphere in catastrophic ways. Corporations make big profits by looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay. We have to accept that the fundamental premise of modernity – that everything will always get better and better – is no longer credible. In building the new industrial machine, man became trapped inside it.

The most wide-ranging document on fighting climate change was produced not by scientists, technocrats or economists but by a religious leader - Pope Francis’s climate-change encyclical, “Laudato Si’. If anything, he has underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade. His critique is Gandhian in spirit, pointing out the mindsets in modernity that have led to the problems - rampant individualism, self-centered culture of instant gratification, a politics concerned with immediate results which is supported by consumerist sectors of the population which results in biodiversity being considered as at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation.

Pope Francis insists that politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.  But the twenty-first century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political. He notes that ‘the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures’. He says that ‘the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history’. 

There is ‘a Promethean vision of mastery over the world’ without an appreciation of limits. When human beings give absolute priority to immediate convenience then, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, people begin to see everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. When the human person is considered as simply the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. ‘Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.’ Pope Francis writes:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected . . . 

The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

The Pope’s critique illustrates Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, a book written in 1967, which is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. The spectacle is the image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". 

Debord says that the spectator has been drugged by spectacular images. The Spectacle embraces economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed "scientific" – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance is made before the gods who will confer growth. In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Our social formations and political practices are constructed and sustained by the logics of spectacle and render us as homo spectaculum or 'beings of the spectacle'.  

The Spectacle is "affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance". The purpose of advertisements is to make us dissatisfied with what we already have. Advertisements don’t tell about the products, they tell about the people who buy those products. Each new lie of the advertising industry is an admission of its previous lie. Debord says, ‘Waves of enthusiasm for particular products are propagated by all the communications media. A film sparks a fashion craze; a magazine publicizes night spots, which in turn spin off different lines of products. . . . All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.’

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Getting used to this pattern of life, they convince themselves that conformity is both reasonable and just and that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. You are encouraged to ignore the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s dictum: ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ People become blind to the fact that the really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Rutger Bregman writes in Utopia for Realists

Our fear of moralizing in any form has made morality a taboo in the public debate. The public arena should be “neutral,” after all – yet never before has it been so paternalistic. On every street corner we’re baited to booze, binge, borrow, buy, toil, stress, and swindle. Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that can pay for prime-time advertising.

[SNIP]

The food industry supplies us with cheap garbage loaded with salt, sugar, and fat, putting us on the fast track to the doctor and dietitian. Advancing technologies are laying waste to ever more jobs, sending us back again to the job coach. And the ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we can go cry on our therapist’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we are living in today.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8h

Gandhi is often described as being against science. And, no doubt, his own rhetoric sometimes suggests this. But that is most misleading. If Gandhi’s life is studied in entirety, a nuanced picture emerges of a man who was not anti-science. Nowhere, for instance, did Gandhi dispute Newton’s laws and other such claims and propositions of science. He would have thought it impertinent to do so and, more relevantly, quite unnecessary. 

Gradually, Gandhi’s opinion evolved and sharpened into a criticism of what he thought were the misplaced priorities of science, rather than science itself. What he opposed was the elevation of science to a kind of centrality in culture that science in the modern period, especially after Newton, came to have in the modern West. There was also the practice of linking of science to profit and worldly gain and hierarchy that Gandhi opposed. 

He thought that science had a tendency to move beyond the articulation of its laws to generating a ‘mentality’ of treating all things as resources and commodities, including nature and humanity itself. He had similar – and related – things to say about its mentality towards the law, the body and medicine, transportation, the feeding of agricultural surpluses into the creation of cities, the centralizing of power in a new form of state, and so on.

Gandhi's critique of science emanates from his dissatisfaction with the divorce of science and progress from morality. He often quoted the scientist Alfred Wallace to argue that people's moral sense had in no way improved as a result of scientific discoveries. Gandhi remained aware that one could not live without science, provided that it was kept in its right place. He had seen the misuse of science in his travels round the world and believed that there were limitations even to scientific search. 

The practice of vivisection for Gandhi was a shining example of the need for limitation in modern scientific research. Based on a mechanistic notion of the body and the universe, it enabled the justification of the subjugation of the inferior non-human creation by and for the human. This to Gandhi was ethically unacceptable. (Gandhi did not adopt an obstinate intolerance of dissection. When a follower, who was a biology teacher, wanted to dissect a frog, he listened to both sides of the argument and ruled that the dissection could continue as it had scientific value.) 

Gandhi's fears materialized years later as vivisectory practice was carried out in the concentration camps of Hitler and the bombing of Hiroshima during the second world war. The bombings were not required to defeat Japan but to send a message to the Soviet Union. If colossal death, destruction and suffering was the price to be paid, it was considered ok. The scholarship that provided the ideas and justified the Nazi slaughters were by university professors, as detailed by Robert Procter in Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (giving the lie to the liberal shibboleth that education helps you to distinguish between right and wrong).

Physicians claimed that if they disobeyed orders under the Nazi regime, they would be victimized but the few who refused don’t seem to have suffered. Various medical experiments were carried out in concentration camps which were carried out by trained medical professionals, the results presented at prestigious conferences and scientific academies. Results were published in scientific books and articles. German industry also profited from these experiments. For eg. Bayer used concentration camp prisoners and performed experiments on this ‘captive population’. Medical journals used the expression 'life not worth living' to describe those who were sterilized or those killed in concentration camps. 

Gandhi also sought to reconstitute the relations between fact and value, science and religion in his method. He made it clear that he was not interested in mere technical solutions to a problem. Unlike many reformers and secular scientists, Gandhi did not see science as outside of religion. On the contrary, he tried updating religion to include science and science too to include faith. But unlike the Vedantists, for Gandhi to be scientific was to practice one's dharma. Ronald Terchek says in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

Gandhi rejects the premise that science and ethics are separate, that ethics only has something to say when something goes wrong. He fears that such reasoning assigns science the superior position, and absolves people of responsibility. For Gandhi, the primary issue is not how we 'take charge of the world' but how we live with nature and take control of ourselves. 

The objective impersonal pursuit of knowledge about nature and society that science encourages produces  a psychological process called ‘isolation’. This is the dangerous ability of people to separate ideas from feelings and to pursue ideas without being burdened by feelings. It is a psychological defense mechanism that enables scientists to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their inventions. According to the psychologist Otto Fenichel ‘. . . the process of logical thinking . . . actually consists of the continued elimination of affective association in the interest of objectivity’. This quote is in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy. 

We need sometimes to think whether we should even develop a particular line in research. But scientists rarely accept limits to their research on the grounds that it might have dangerous or immoral outcomes. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci suppressed research into inventing the submarine because he thought we humans were too devilish to be trusted with such a dangerous invention. In the 20th century Enrico Fermi, one of the scientists who set out on the atomic bomb project, said, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all the thing is beautiful physics.”

Despite his radical criticism of the anthropomorphism of modern medicine inherent in the practice of vivisection, Gandhi was deeply appreciative of modern scientists' humility and spirit of inquiry, a spirit that he felt traditional people lacked. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Unani, Gandhi felt, had unlike western science, maintained a relation between science and religion, body and soul, but had not inculcated the spirit of research that fired modern science and gave it contemporary relevance. 

But the praise was qualified. In 1921, inaugurating the Tibbia College at Delhi, Gandhi said, 'I would like to pay my humble tribute to the spirit of research that fires the modern scientists. My quarrel is not against that spirit. My complaint is against the direction that the spirit had taken. It has chiefly concerned itself with the exploration of laws and methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele.'  Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind about the huge advances in science and the prevailing feeling that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise choices:

We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. 

We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?