Remembering Gandhi

                                                                                            Posted on 1-November-2006


"You have to ask whether this unique economic model of the West can be globalized without great wars and destruction of the environment. This is not an abstract issue. China has stopped felling its forests, most of which have disappeared, but some country still has to produce wood for Chinese consumption....

 “Western societies have been on top for the last two centuries and shaped the world with the decisions they made,” he said. “China and India will now play equally crucial roles in the new century. But what will they be? I think it is very important for Chinese and Indian intellectuals not just to imitate the West."

        Wang Hui, quoted by Pankaj Mishra in China's New Leftist  in The New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2006

     In India, the month of October opens with routine tributes paid to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary on 2nd October, a ritual observed as much by the present, fake copy of the original Indian National Congress, which claims proprietary rights to the legacy of Gandhi, as by the Bharatiya Janata Party, some of whose ideological ancestors were indicted for complicity in Gandhi's assassination, all uttering meaningless platitudes about truth, non-violence, justice and the continued relevance of the man's ideas to the modern world. The latest anniversary of Gandhi was also coloured by often mindless discussions of a delightful comedy made by the Bombay film industry in which a hood uses 'Gandhian' tactics to force a former accomplice to vacate a fetching piece of real estate he gets hold of where a girl the hood falls in love with runs an old men's home. Beyond that Gandhi is remembered by a handful of his followers, living simple, ascetic lives , working for some cause or the other, dismissed as oddballs by most.

     This year the beginning of October also coincided with the Hindu festivals of Dussehra and Durga Puja, some people celebrating one, some the other and some both. The former marks the victory of Rama over Ravana and the latter the slaying of the demon Mahisasura by the mother goddess Durga. As both Ravana and Mahisasura are kind of Hindu mythological equivalents of Osama bin Laden, hundreds or thousands of speakers across India perorate that these festivals mark the victory of good over evil. But for the populace, these festivals are simply occasions for fun and merry making. Those with money splurge and those with none spend the little they have on simple things to give them the little joys to enlighten however briefly their miserable lives. With the passage of time, these celebrations, at least in major urban centres, have become more elaborate and expensive, losing some of the character of small local fairs and becoming occasions for different salespeople to promote varieties of gizmos, fashions, loans and other allurements that a modern consumer economy has to offer.

     This is also a season of celebrations for the Indian government and the Indian business community. The economy is forecast to grow by a little more than 8% during the fiscal year ending on 31st March 2007; the index at the largest stock market is at an all time high of 13,000 or thereabouts--some look at this as a kind of race with the Dow Jones industrial average which is only at around 12,000!--and Indian companies are finally demonstrating their machismo by acquiring Western companies making steel, pharmaceuticals or other things. India's Prime Minister has set the 'achievable' target of annual economic growth of 10% by the year 2012. The media has been splashing news about this large business or industrial house or the other entering this new field of economic activity and this other. The procession of businessmen and political leaders accompanied by businessmen from foreign lands on the lookout for opportunities in India, making in passing flattering comments about India's prospects, has been increasing in number. India, many would say, is now firmly set on the path of capitalist growth.

     In the eyes of many not only in India but elsewhere too China for many years has been where India wants to be: annual economic growth of 10%, foreign direct investment of 30 billion American dollars or more  per year, an enormous foreign currency reserve, large enough to help finance the current account deficit of the USA, an enviable foreign trade surplus and a consumer and real estate boom. China's economic growth impresses and puzzles the rest of the world, particularly the West. India's economic growth has begun to attract attention. The West looks upon China alternately as a looming presence with the potential of grabbing an uncomfortably large share of the earth's resources, a land of mouthwatering opportunities for business and investment or a country with many intractable and unresolved economic and social problems. Though India is at present looked upon either as a land of opportunities or as a country facing huge socio-economic problems, if its economy continues to grow at rates at which its political leaders want it to grow, it may start causing in many circles anxieties about its hunger for natural resources of the same kind as China is beginning to cause. But in pursuing ever higher rates of economic growth, China and India are doing nothing more than following the logic of modern capitalism. To put it differently, just as people in rural India and China aspire to achieve the standard of living of the urban middle class, the rich in both the countries have begun to aspire to the same level of prosperity as the rich and prosperous in advanced Western societies. In the process, all are pursuing ever higher levels of consumption, without much thought about where the world may be headed to.

     Britain needed half the world to maintain its standard of living, Gandhi said many years ago, asking how many worlds India would need to achieve the same level. Since then India's population has more than tripled, just as China's, and the standard of living and consumption of the members of the OECD has risen several fold. Gandhi's question can no longer be set aside as that of an utopian. According to ecologists, mankind may already be living at between 125% and 200% of the earth's capacity to produce or renew its resources. Many people say that petroleum production of Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer may already be peaking while Iran has been at that level for some time. With ever increasing demand for petroleum, it is not difficult to see that within a matter of two or three decades other producers will also have peaked. Global warming and its green house effects are no longer the concern of a few wailing Cassandras. The ozone hole over the Antarctica looks like becoming a permanent feature and it looks as if parts of the world including India may by the middle of the present century have to deal with severe shortages of water.

     Technology may and almost certainly will help deal with some of the problems caused to the environment, whether due to the exhaustion of resources or due to pollution. At least partial replacement of the most polluting and the most rapidly depleting fuel, petroleum, looks feasible in the not too distant future: battery and hydrogen cell powered cars for personal transportation and solar, wind, nuclear energy and untapped hydraulic power for electricity generation for both industrial and domestic use; no realistic replacement of petroleum for shipping and aviation seems yet to be in sight. Computers and the internet may sooner rather than later drive paper out of business and for many applications ceramics may replace metals--mercifully clay and sand are more abundant than iron, copper and aluminium. Given time, other technologies to deal with the possible shortage of other resources may be developed, but in many cases it is time that is not available.

     In the present state of technological development--considering energy from atomic fusion and the colonisation of the Moon and Mars as still belonging to dreamworld--and given the seriousness of some of the problems that mankind might have to face due to the exhaustion and abuse of the earth's resources, it should be clear that technology alone cannot solve the problems caused by the rapaciousness of the last two centuries. Solutions will have to be found in radical revisions of the methods and goals of economic development.

     Modern Western capitalism has no doubt brought about unprecedented economic, social, scientific and technological development all over the world in the last two centuries. But there are problems with capitalism too. It is driven by greed--the goal of the manager of any capitalist enterprise is ever greater profits, ever greater accumulation and ever greater growth. Parallelwise, and perhaps as a consequence, endless growth in the GDP is the most important goal for managers of national economies for whom a lack in consumer confidence and less than normal business during Christmas sales can be some of the most nightmarish situations. The pursuit of accumulation and growth obscures the purpose of growth and blinds people to the possibility that limitless growth may either be meaningless or impossible. It is sobering to consider some aspects of affluence in modern society. Personal wealth of any thing in excess of one billion American dollars may not mean much to most people other than figures in a bank ledger, and a feeling of power--there are only so many hundred dollar hamburgers, thousand dollar ice creams, kilograms of beluga caviar, diamond and sapphire watches, Rolls Royces, twenty million dollar trips to the International Space Station and Marilyn Monroe-like mistresses a man can have in one life time. An automobile which accelerates from 0 to 100 km per hour within six seconds or ten may already have no meaning when Singapore and London have already started taxing cars coming to the centre of the town and when on weekends on European or American highways being able to drive at 100 kms. per hour may very often be an unexpected bonus. It is difficult to see what humankind will lose in terms of general happiness if Yves St. Laurent or Chanel and their likes go out of business or if Miss World or Miss Universe contests come to an end. Some people should be worrying that multitasking teenagers may eventually grow up to be a generation of scatterbrain adults.

     There is much to be said for resizing personal as well as national goals from that of ever more and more of material acquisitions and ever higher per capita national income to that of adequacy. In doing so humanity will increase its capacity to deal with the environmental disasters with which it is threatened. Some of what Gandhi said on questions of economic development is of great relevance, no matter how utopian he may sound to many. Wang Hui, quoted at the beginning of this essay seems to be thinking the same thoughts as Gandhi thought many years ago. He is also right to suggest that people in China and India should be giving some thought to alternatives to the model of Western capitalism. Perhaps some people are already giving some thought to alternatives. Perhaps in China such thoughts will find a fertile soil. In India, with its multiple celebrations of the 'achievements' of its 'liberalised' economy, with a government headed by the great 'liberaliser', such voices are almost certain to be drowned and those who speak such thoughts certain to be ostracised or, like Gandhi, apotheosised and ignored.

     Western capitalism is by and large the result of slow, spontaneous development. It was not created through any consciously drawn up blueprint even though its later progress may have been influenced by the ideas of people like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Karl Marx (at least in a negative way) and John Maynard Keynes, to name a few. It was also modified in the twentieth century by the two World Wars and the Great Depression. It is unlikely that its future growth or direction will be significantly affected by thinkers who worry about the long term future of mankind on this planet. The dominant mood in Western capitalist societies, still enjoying the afterglow of the collapse of the Soviet Union, is one of hubristic triumphalism. The USA, the leader of the capitalist world, repeatedly proclaims its desire to spread democracy and free market (for which read Western capitalism). Western societies and others who have adopted capitalism are likely to ignore all wise counsel, shrugging off warnings--"Maldives, you said, has disappeared under the Indian Ocean? What a pity! They were such gentle people. There were in any case so few of them". Collective humanity with its unmeasured capacity for shortsightedness and stupidity will almost certainly move towards man made and natural disasters. And it is those disasters and the paucity of natural resources which, more than the warnings of thinkers, will, if we as a species are lucky, force a modification of capitalism.

     And what about poor old Mahatma Gandhi? His ghost may yet have the last laugh.

Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time



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