Gandhi had a deep and abiding commitment to preserving individual autonomy. This factor is central to his views about the state, economy, society and individual – about modernity in general. For Gandhi, the major economic issue is whether people control the process of production or are controlled by it. He is surprised by claims that modern technologies give people more control over their lives than earlier ones. He finds both capitalism and socialism adopting the same blind worship of technology without bothering about their social and ethical consequences. In Liquid Modernity, Zigmunt Bowman looks at how individual autonomy has been eroded in the modern economy.
In the initial stage of industrialization, capital, management and labor all had to stay in one another's company. They were tied down by the combination of huge factory buildings, heavy machinery and massive labor forces. This invisible chain riveting the workers to their working places and arresting their mobility was, in the words of the Sorbonne economist Daniel Cohen, 'the heart of Fordism. This chain has now been broken.' Who starts a career in Microsoft', observes Cohen, 'has no idea where it is going to end. Starting with Ford or Renault, entailed on the contrary the near certitude that the career would run its course in the same place. '
Cohen said that Henry Ford decided one day to 'double' the wages of his workers with the (publicly) declared reason being ‘I want my workers to be paid well enough to buy my cars'. But the workers' purchases formed a small fraction of his sales, while their wages made a much greater part of his costs. The real reason to raise the wages was the huge turnover of the labor force. Ford decided to give the workers a raise in order to fix them to the chain. He wanted to make the money invested in their training and drill pay for the duration of the working lives of his workers.
During this period of industrialization, labor and capital had to stay in same place. Workers depended on being hired for their livelihood; capital depended on hiring them for its reproduction and growth. That requirement brought capital and labor face to face which resulted in much conflict, but also a lot of mutual accommodation. But now labour and capital are no longer interdependent. Capital, which means power, can move with the speed of the electronic signal and so it can move its essential ingredients instantaneously. Labour, on the other hand, remains as immobilized as it was in the past .
The mobility of capital has become the paramount source of uncertainty for all the rest. A 'short-term' mentality has come to replace the 'long-term' one. The reproduction and growth of capital, profits and dividends and the satisfaction of stockholders have all become largely independent from the duration of any particular local engagement. No more do the partners expect to stay long in each other's company. 'Flexibility' is the slogan of the day and it means the advent of work on short-term contracts, rolling contracts or no contracts, positions with no in-built security but with the 'until further notice' clause. Working life is saturated with uncertainty.
It is the people who cannot move quickly, people who cannot at will leave their place at all, who are ruled. There are a large number of workers tied to the assembly line or to the computer networks and electronic automated devices like check-out points. Nowadays, they tend to be the most expendable parts of the economic system. Neither particular skills, nor the art of social interaction with clients are listed in their job requirements - and so they are easiest to replace. Nor are there many skills which, once acquired, would guarantee secure employment.
No one can reasonably assume to be insured against the next round of 'downsizing', 'streamlining' or 'rationalizing', against erratic shifts of market demand and whimsical yet irresistible pressures of 'competitiveness', 'productivity' and 'effectiveness' Even the most privileged position may prove to be vulnerable. Most people in the modern economy know that they are disposable, and so they see little point in developing attachment or commitment to their jobs.
The uncertainty is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of 'common interests' loses all pragmatic value. Once the employment of labour has become short-term and precarious there is little chance for mutual loyalty and commitment to develop. This results in the falling apart of effective agencies of collective action and this state of affairs helps power-holders to consolidate power.
The mobility of capital has made the modern state powerless. While all the agencies of political life stay within the boundaries of the state, power flows well beyond their reach and thus outside citizens’ control. Capital has acquired enough mobility in most cases to blackmail territory-bound political agencies into submission to its demand. The threat of cutting local ties and moving elsewhere slows down capacities of local powers.
A government has little choice but to implore and cajole capital to fly in by 'creating better conditions for free enterprise', which means, using all the regulating power at the government's disposal for deregulation, of dismantling and scrapping the existing 'enterprise constraining' laws and statutes. This means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a 'flexible labour market'. More generally, it means a docile population, unable and unwilling to put up an organized resistance to whatever decision the capital might yet take.
Paradoxically, governments can hope to keep capital in place only by convincing it beyond reasonable doubt that it is free to move away. Governments that don't play ball incur severe costs, generally economic. They may be refused loans or denied reduction of their debts; local currencies would be speculated against and pressed to devalue; local stocks would fall on the global exchanges; the country may face economic sanctions; global investors would withdraw their assets. As Zigmunt Bowman says in Liquid Modernity:
For that reason they [the local population] are exposed, armless, to the inscrutable whims of mysterious 'investors' and 'shareholders', and even more bewildering 'market forces', 'terms of trade' and 'demands of competition'.
Readers like to say that they have ‘really grasped’ the intended meanings of dead authors, whose texts belong to a context. It’s important to recognize that the act of reading past texts is always an exercise in selection. There are no ‘true’ and ‘faithful’ readings of what others have written. They push beyond familiar horizons, towards ‘wild’ perspectives that force us to rethink things that we have so far taken for granted.
A literal reading of Gandhi's writings would be misleading. His specific solutions of spinning or adopting village life are inapplicable in today's context. It is more important to look at the concerns which led him to adopt his specific solutions. Gandhi viewed modern society as one in which efficacies overwhelm individuals and traditions are under siege. He viewed with concern the growth of centralized political and economic power and the resulting attenuation of human liberty.
Gandhi is not bothered about lists of ‘human rights’ prepared by somebody, but how institutional arrangements result in people being treated. Are they humiliated or dominated? Are there asymmetrical distributions of power which constrain people’s choices? Are people free to make moral decisions on their own or are they forced towards choices of a particular sort? He knew that when people think they know the good, they assume that this gives them the license to impose it on others regardless of the costs it imposes on the latter.
He finds that in the modern industrial economy, those in power are willing to use other human beings as means to achieve their own ends. He continually works to design institutional arrangements that lessen the costs to ordinary people of meeting their moral responsibilities. He recognizes that when honesty is severely penalized by institutions, it invites harm not only for the person but also for the people who depend on him. He wants to build an ideal society in which people follow the good without having to undergo huge personal sacrifices. He thought when people want to be honest but cannot be so because of institutional constraints, hypocrisy will increase.
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