Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 10b

According to Gandhi, people who are poverty-stricken, destitute and homeless have to focus on issues of livelihood and cannot be blamed for not taking part in his moral exhortations. He said that people cannot ignore basic biological needs like hunger and sleep and they had to take care of their health. The moral development of people could come only after they had satisfied their basic needs and were not at the mercy of hunger and destitution. He said that for such people 'liberty, God and all such words are merely letters put together without the slightest meaning'. He thus insisted that in a good economy, everyone's basic needs are met first. 

Gandhi made a sharp distinction between the Dharma of the common man or the masses and that of the power elite. He said that although “primary virtues” can be cultivated by “the meanest of the human species,” the more austere ones were to be followed by the elite. The more power a person had the greater the demands that Gandhi made on him which is the opposite of what happens today. He said in Young India on 15-10-1931, 'It is good enough to talk of God whilst we are sitting here after a nice breakfast and looking forward to a nicer luncheon. But how am I to talk of God to the millions who have to go without two meals a day? To them God can only appear as bread and butter.' 

He subscribed to the thesis that power corrupts but he also stressed the fact that powerlessness corrupts even more. He insisted that if political independence is achieved without restructuring the society, it would be an empty prize. 'It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American one.' The voluntary poverty that he adopted was to identify with the way of life of millions who suffered from forced poverty and to serve as a constant reminder to the elites about the existence of these millions. Being a master at communicating through symbols, he used his own person as a symbol. 

He also did not ignore the institutional constraints that prevent people from pursuing their moral choices. He asserted that only choices that an individual makes out of his own free will without any outside pressure has any moral worth. Gandhi finds that in the modern economy individuals increasingly lose control of the productive process. He felt that modernity renders individuals impotent by making them subservient to institutions and unable to act according to the dictates of their conscience. He emphasizes that things are not always what they seem and continually draws attention to what is ignored. 

He recognizes that the costs involved for a person in pursuing his moral principles are often high. Although theoretically it is possible for a person to be fearless and resist domination (as he himself did), he recognized that it is not possible for most people to bear the costs of such resistance. You may be free to pursue pleasures and comforts but  you may not be free to make moral choices as you see fit. You will always be captive to fear and live at the mercy of the powerful. But while institutions often compel people to act dishonestly, he was also not in favour of anyone being forced to perform a good act. He said in Harijan on September 29, 1946:

The mind of a man who is good under compulsion cannot be good; in fact it gets worse. And when compulsion is removed all the defects well up to the surface with even greater force. 

He argues that in any economy, 'the individual is the one supreme consideration'. He fears that when abstract principles like economic growth or the benefit of firms become the focus of attention then people become means for some glittering but elusive end. Keeping the same principle in mind, he rejects machinery when it ceases 'to help the individual and encroaches upon his individuality'. He thought that the drive for power is innate in human beings and the only way to control it was to have it as widely distributed in the society as possible. He considered both modern capitalism and communism inadequate for the task because though they distributed goods differently, they relied on the same productive process. 

Both capitalism and communism share a deep commitment to the centralized, urban industrial model as the the solution to all economic  ills – only the power-wielders change and most people are reduced to being mere cogs in the wheel in both systems. Both result in what Max Weber calls the 'separation of the worker from his means of production' – the worker is dependent upon the implements that the state or a few individuals put at his disposal. In an interview in September, 1940, he said, 'Pandit Nehru wants industrialization because he thinks that, if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them.' 

Gandhi was always concerned about ownership of an asset because power would be in the hands of whoever owned it. To a socialist friend who queried him on his views on electricity he said: 'If we could have electricity in every village home, I should not mind villagers plying their implements and tools with the help of electricity. But then the village communities or the state would own power houses, just as they have their grazing pastures.' All the ongoing well-meaning efforts to generate livelihoods and reduce poverty may be futile without challenging the pyramidlike structure of the economy where power is concentrated in the few at the top who own the productive assets. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 10a

Arundhati Roy says, '. . . it was Gandhi's business to accumulate power, which he did effectively.' What Gandhi accumulated was moral power not executive power. He was president of the Congress for only one year, was not even a primary member of the Congress from the mid 1930s onwards and did not occupy any official position in independent India. His political activities were characterized by what can be described as 'passionate detachment'. It is telling that when his political authority was at its lowest towards the end of his life, his moral power was at its highest. Louis Fischer writes in Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times:

Gandhi had more than influence, he had authority, which is less yet better than power. Power is the attribute of a machine: authority is the attribute of a person. Statesmen are varying combinations of both. The dictator's constant accretion of power, which he must inevitably abuse, steadily robs him of authority. Gandhi's rejection of power enhanced his authority. Power feeds on the blood and tears of its victims. Authority is fed by service, sympathy and affection.

In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse defines finite games as the structures in our life – societies, nations, war, dating, careers – that have a clear beginning and end, willing participants, boundaries, opponents, winners and losers, and competition for titles or possessions. The purpose of finite play is to bring the game to a conclusion. It is competing for a ranking or status: to be the best lawyer or the best yogi. They are the familiar contests of everyday life, the games we play in business and politics, at home and in competitive sports.

This is in contrast to ‘infinite games’ which Carse describes as games played with the intention of continuing play (rather than ending it to declare a winner). The purpose of infinite play is to allow the game to go on and bring as many other people as possible into the game. Infinite players recognize that most of social hierarchy is a form of play (drama, performance, roles). “The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.” The prevailing wisdom is to encourage finite play. Gandhi was the consummate infinite player. Carse writes that 

‘Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.’

Arundhati Roy makes a pertinent observation:

Gandhi always said that he wanted to live like the poorest of the poor. The question is, can poverty be simulated? Poverty, after all, is not just a question of having no money or no possessions.  Poverty is about having no power. As a politician, it was Gandhi's business to accumulate power, which he did effectively. . . If you are powerful, you can live simply, but you cannot be poor. In South Africa, it took a lot of farmland and organic fruit trees to keep Gandhi in poverty. 

Arndhhati Roy is seriously under-estimating Gandhi if she thinks that he was not aware of the unequal distribution of power in Indian society and modern societies in general (the loss of individual autonomy lay at the center of his criticisms of modernity with its worship of rationality and science.) His notion of swaraj was far more expansive than that of Congress or other Indian elites because of his concern about the unequal distribution of power in society. 

Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with the cunning and amoral use of power, wrote 500 years ago that “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearance, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are”. Gandhi knew very well that those in power try to seduce others into conformity by forcing particular interpretations of the world down others’ throats. He contended that most modern systems of power are dependent on hierarchy and deception. 

Gandhi is not satisfied with conventional definitions of power which tend to concentrate on political power. Even here he sees political power hiding deceptively behind elaborate ceremonies and becomes visible only when power is abused. Gandhi saw power resting not only in the authority of the state but also in ideology (eg. the power of modernity), social practices (eg. Untouchability) and the structure of the economy. He saw democracy reducing but not eliminating the problem of power. He thinks that terms like efficiency, order, productivity, growth etc. erode the autonomy of people and he means to rob them of their self-importance. 

He insisted that merely overthrowing British rule and replacing it with an all-Indian government was not going to bring swaraj. It would only result in replacing white sahibs with brown sahibs. It would have to be a society where existing forms of domination like untouchability and the forces of modernity and modernization (which he believed caused large-scale unemployment) would have to go. According to Gandhi, complete Indian independence 'means the consciousness in the average villager that he is the maker of his own destiny'. That was why he spent a lot of time on social work and reviving village industries which the Congress considered a distraction from the main task of winning political freedom.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9f

 The mandate to resist violence by non-violence is a general mandate, and, like all general mandates, it admits of exceptions depending on persons, circumstances, time and place. 'The fact is that the path of duty [dharma] is not always easy to discern amidst claims seeming to conflict with the other.' Gandhi  was called a 'practical idealist'; the 'practical' part should not be forgotten. The British conservative Michael Joseph Oakeshott said, 'Political action involves mental vulgarity, not merely because it entails the occurrence and support of those who are mentally vulgar, but because of the simplification of human life implied in even the best of its purposes.' 

We live in times when hyper-masculine nationalism preaches the ideas of violent masculinity among the youth. Gandhian politics of trust seems like a farfetched dream. The increasing demand for machismo placed on the young population by the current discourse on nationalism leads to lack of any regard for the affective coexistence and it breeds mistrust and competition as the way of life. Mistrust leads to fear of the ‘other’- the unknown. This fear leads to violence against the religious minorities, refugees, migrants and ‘others’ who cannot be trusted. 

We live in a world and a culture that celebrates and is constantly normalizing brutality by moralizing, legalizing, and popularizing violence. The political climate brings more violence to the forefront, as aggression has been continuously explained away and even celebrated. The narratives of importance of national security and glorification of warrior figures of the past normalizes militarism. Dehumanizing propaganda spread by planners of genocide help in violence. Almost every movie shows that violence is the best and final solution to every problem. Officially sanctioned murder is hidden under bland terms like 'collateral damage' or 'neutralized' the enemy. 

Every video game I am shown is about shooting and killing. There is a celebration of police encounters and military weapon displays and the militarization of the consciousness. From militarism to aggressive/hyper-competitive sports carnivals, we see the sanctification of violence. The divorce between producers and consumers in the modern economy aids in the social production of moral indifference. Our moral capacities have not been able to keep up with the rapid expansion of our cognitive skills. Anthony Parel says in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony:

The factual presence of violence in social life forced Gandhi to adjust the scope of his ethics to that reality. Hence the goal of Gandhian non-violence was not the total elimination of violence from social life, for that was impossible . . . but the gradual reduction of its intensity and frequency. It would be utopian to think of the total elimination of violence. But to think of reducing its volume and extent would be realistic. 

With Gandhi, the notion of nonviolence attained a special status. He made us understand that the philosophy of nonviolence is not a weapon of the weak; it is a weapon, which can be tried by all. Nonviolence was not Gandhi's invention. He is however called the father of nonviolence because he was probably the first in human history to extend the principle of nonviolence from the individual to the social and political planes.

Antoinette Tuff was working in the front office of an Atlanta School when a 20-year-old gunman stormed in with an AK-47 assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.  Rational actors say that ‘the only rational response to terrorism is police action’ and that negotiation is ‘fainthearted’. I came across one of these rational actors say, ‘Survival is impossible without police action in times of crisis, and the tacit threat of it at all times. This is the price we pay for civilization.’ Fortunately, Mrs. Tuff was not a devotee of such a ‘lifeboat ethics’ view of civilization. 

When Tuff met the gunman, she told him that she was also a troubled soul like him. She told him about her life struggles: how her marriage had fallen apart after over 30 years and her struggles with opening her own business. Tuff's response was very different from whatever response he had expected and he was not sure how to react. She convinced the gunman to put his weapons aside and allow the police come in to take him to the hospital, since he’d told her that he had not been taking some of the medication he needed to and that he was not mentally stable.

More than 800 students and 100 employees were at the school that day; not one was injured after the gunman surrendered peacefully to the police. In an interview, she said that she saw ‘someone that was hurting, and did not need me to judge or pass judgment on them, show anger or be frustrated or mad at him. But I seen [sic] a young man in an unstable condition mind needing me to show him love.’ There were two security systems in place that day: one was the expected, expensive, violent 'rational response' that failed and the other was a quiet old nonviolent lady who succeeded. (Of course, the incident was reported a lot less breathlessly than would have been the case if there had been a massacre.)

It has always been assumed that nonviolence is a wonderful ideal, but that if one wants to achieve results, violence is the means to choose. Nonviolence, it is said, is the weapon of the weak, to be employed only when violent options seem totally out of reach. In Why Civil Resistance Works : The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth assembled a comprehensive data set of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006 and their findings challenge this conventional wisdom.  They found that nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as were violent campaigns and that the advantage for nonviolent campaigns held even when controlling for the authoritarianism of the regime. 

Nonviolent campaigns turned out to be more effective for both regime change and resistance to foreign occupation. The only purpose for which nonviolent campaigns were not more successful than violent ones was political secession. A campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance by presenting fewer obstacles to moral and physical involvement and commitment.  The higher levels of participation contribute to enhanced resilience, greater opportunities for tactical innovation and civic disruption (and therefore less incentive for a regime to maintain its status quo).

They cause shifts in loyalty among opponents' erstwhile supporters, including members of the military establishment. Whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime. Nonviolent resistance campaigns appear to be more open to negotiation and bargaining because they do not threaten the lives or well-being of members of the target regime. Given a credible alternative, the public is more likely to support a nonviolent campaign. Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. As Lewis Mumford says in Technics And Civilization:

Physical power is a rough substitute for patience and intelligence and cooperative effort in the governance of men: if used as a normal accompaniment of action instead of a last resort it is a sign of extreme social weakness.