Gandhi’s ideas were rooted in a wide experience of a freshly globalized world. Born in 1869 in a backwater Indian town, he came of age on a continent pathetically subject to the West, intellectually as well as materially. Europeans backed by garrisons and gunboats were free to transport millions of Asian laborers to far-off colonies (Indians to South Africa, Chinese to the Caribbean), to exact raw materials and commodities from Asian economies, and to flood local markets with their manufactured products. Europeans, convinced of their moral superiority, also sought to impose profound social and cultural reforms upon Asia. Even a liberal figure like John Stuart Mill assumed that Indians had to first grow up under British tutelage before they could absorb the good things—democracy, economic freedom, science—that the West had to offer. The result was widespread displacement: many Asians in their immemorial villages and market towns were forced to abandon a life defined by religion, family, and tradition amid rumors of powerful white men fervently reshaping the world, by means of compact and cohesive nation-states, the profit motive, and superior weaponry.
Dignity, even survival, for many uprooted Asians seemed to lie in careful imitation of their Western conquerors. Gandhi, brought out of his semirural setting and given a Western-style education, initially attempted to become more English than the English. He studied law in London and, on his return to India, in 1891, tried to set up first as a lawyer, then as a schoolteacher. But a series of racial humiliations during the following decade awakened him to his real position in the world. Moving to South Africa in 1893 to work for an Indian trading firm, he was exposed to the dramatic transformation wrought by the tools of Western modernity: printing presses, steamships, railways, and machine guns. In Africa and Asia, a large part of the world’s population was being incorporated into, and made subject to the demands of, the international capitalist economy. Gandhi keenly registered the moral and psychological effects of this worldwide destruction of old ways and life styles and the ascendancy of Western cultural, political, and economic norms.
He was not alone. By the early twentieth century, modern Chinese and Muslim intellectuals were also turning away from Europe’s universalist ideals of the Enlightenment, which they saw as a moral cover for unjust racial hierarchies..."
--Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, May 2, 2011
Mishra is reviewing a new book on Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India." In the book Lelyveld contends that the real Gandhi was much different than the myth created in the Hollywood movie -- and that Gandhi's actual political program was much bigger and more radical than we usually understand.
Gandhi’s indictment of modern civilization went further. According to him, the industrial revolution, by turning human labor into a source of power, profit, and capital, had made economic prosperity the central goal of politics, enthroning machinery over men and relegating religion and ethics to irrelevance. As Gandhi saw it, Western political philosophy obediently validated the world of industrial capitalism. If liberalism vindicated the preoccupation with economic growth at home, liberal imperialism abroad made British rule over India appear beneficial for Indians—a view many Indians themselves subscribed to. Europeans who saw civilization as their unique possession denigrated the traditional virtues of Indians—simplicity, patience, frugality, otherworldliness—as backwardness.
Gandhi never ceased trying to overturn these prejudices of Western modernity. He dressed as an Indian peasant and rejected all outward signs of being a modern intellectual or politician. True civilization, he insisted, was about moral self-knowledge and spiritual strength rather than bodily well-being, material comforts, or great art and architecture. He upheld the self-sufficient rural community over the heavily armed and centralized nation-state, cottage industries over big factories, and manual labor over machines. He also encouraged satyagrahis to feel empathy for their political opponents and to abjure violence against the British. For, whatever their claims to civilization, the British, too, were victims of the immemorial forces of human greed and violence that had received an unprecedented moral sanction in the political, scientific, and economic systems of the modern world. Satyagraha might awaken in them an awareness of the profound evil of industrial civilization.
There are two points I want to make about this article and the above quotes:
1. This is the first time in my life that I've ever seen the Enlightenment challenged in print. And the critique feels exactly right. I feel like I've been circling around this idea for a year now and finally someone put their finger right on it -- which is this: many of the enlightenment philosophies that we celebrate in the West: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism; and classical liberalism -- are really just elaborate justifications for racial hierarchy, colonialism, neocolonialism, and hegemonic dominance of capital over people. (Neoliberal economic theory as practiced by Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago consists of taking the racist, colonial, hegemonic theories of Bentham (and Hayek) and expressing them through calculus and graphs.)
2. One of the things that people don't understand about Gandhi is that for him -- satyagraha was about liberating the British from the violence of CAPITALISM. For Gandhi, British rule, capitalism, and violence were all one in the same, and liberation, economic simplicity, and nonviolence were all one in the same. Modern progressive Americans want to hold up the nonviolence piece but they don't recognize that they are missing the larger context -- that violence is a symptom of capitalism and nonviolence necessarily also requires the rejection of capitalism. I think that's really quite profound.