Sunday, October 24, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8j

Gandhi held that the negative effects of modernization like new forms of inequality and the trampling of the basic rights of people are not unfortunate side effects but it's basic features. This observation holds true even today. The threats of nuclear and ecological disasters, mass migrations, technological innovations that dehumanized man and created a civilization of human robots,  etc. are symptoms of modern civilization's tendency to gloat over short-term gains while ignoring the long-term costs.  As they say in the IT world, they are features not bugs of the system and tinkering with better technology will not solve them. Then why are these ideas so dominant? Gandhi provides the answer in Hind Swaraj:

The answer is very simple. We rarely find people arguing against themselves. Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man whilst he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep. 

A man laboring under the bane of civilization is like a dreaming man. What we usually read are the works of defenders of modern civilization, which undoubtedly claims among its votaries very brilliant and even some very good men. Their writings hypnotize us. And so, one by one, we are drawn into the vortex.

 The developing world is convinced that its future is the present of the developed world. By the time they arrive at this promised future, they find that the developed world has moved on. It arrives to find that the world it had been promised is no longer in fashion, that many aspects of industrialization and development that it had tried to copy (eg. dams, coal fired power plants) are now criticized as wasteful, environmentally destructive and socially unsound. The developed nations seem to be saying to developing nations, "The world cannot afford your modernization; ours has wrung it dry!" So international climate negotiations have become arguments between early polluters and late polluters without the realization that it is a shared predicament. 

H.L. Mencken said, "It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting". Gandhi succeeded, along with the efforts of many others, to throw the British out of India. But he failed in the project that was closer to his heart - that of preventing India from emulating the all-devouring economic model of the modern West. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh says that Asia has played the role of a simpleton who has performed an empirical test that lays bare the secret of the modern project. He writes: 

. . . the results are counter-intuitive and they contradict all the tenets on which our lives, thoughts and actions have been based for almost a century. What we have learned from the experiment is that the pattern of life that  modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world's population. 

I have no hesitation in saying that whenever economics is taught, if there is no discussion of why Gandhi had reservations about industrial civilization and unbridled consumerism, it is being economical with the truth. It privileges one view of the truth and peddles this partial truth as the full truth (which makes MBA a dishonest course). As the British conservative Michael Joseph Oakeshott said, 'Education is ... the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.' Gandhi, it is safe too say, was far more perceptive than the politicians, economists, businessmen, and technologists who run the world today. 

They are apologists for the status quo and many of their decisions seem, what Amitav Ghosh indicates in the above-mentioned book, complete derangement. They seem to be trapped in a losing game from which they can't escape like Abhimanyu trapped in the Chakravyuha. Many of the problems which accompany industrial modernization are intimately connected with an arrogant disregard for nature and the illusion that the costs of unlimited growth can be ignored or magically evaded. Many treat religion as an irrelevant hangover from the past which will disappear in the course of social progress. 

Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.' Gandhi urged us to remain conscious of the dark side of modernity; one that was all about consumerism, racism, competitive nationalism and imperialism. The seductions of the market and technology (the aspirations and false needs it creates) make people unconsciously play to their tunes creating an anxious and angry population. As Eric Fromm said, 'the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.'

Commenting on the future of poetry and art in a democratic society, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that he was not worried about a lapse into safe realism so much as a flight into unanchored fantasy. "I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret the world of reality." We are surrounded now by the realization of Tocqueville's predictions. And this ‘deep longing for the seductions of fake' as Naomi Klien calls them is promoted by those who run the world today - economists, engineers, businessmen and politicians. 

Eric Fromm compares the plight of the modern man to a chess game. At the beginning of the game, both players have equal chances of going for a win. After a few moves, one player is already at a disadvantage but he still has enough freedom to plot a win. After a few more moves, one player is definitely trapped although the game has not formally ended. At this point, a good player, being able to see a few moves into the future and knowing that he cannot escape, will resign. A bad player will continue to play till his king is captured. Human beings now are now in the position of the bad player. Moral delusion is institutionalized in the structures of society.

There have been extraordinary strides in human well-being over the past 60 years as shown by various developmental data.  Meanwhile, the world has become extraordinarily unequal along with an impending climate disaster that will affect most badly those who have degraded the planet the least. A Chinese politician said in the 1970s when asked about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. ‘It’s a little too soon to say. Maybe the same applies to industrial civilization. Is it a good idea? Too soon to say? In its current mode, I don't think so.

Western nations got rich by being irresponsible and they have convinced the rest of the world to act in the same way. A race has thus been set up whereby competitive irresponsibility is the only route to success. It is a recipe for collective suicide. The global economy seems like a giant Ponzi scheme in comparison to which Bernie Madoff's fraud seems like chicken feed. Lewis Mumford, whose views were similar to that of Eric Fromm, once said in an interview, 'I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, "This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!" I would be happy too. Hope remains in Pandora’s box, but how do you reenclose the bad guys?

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