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.
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.
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