Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by American writer Ray Bradbury, published in 1953. It presents a future society where books are outlawed and "firemen" burn any books that are found. Its key theme is of an authoritarian society distracted by broadcast media. Fahrenheit 451 refers to the temperature at which paper burns. The lead character is a fireman named Montag who initially burns books with gusto but begins to get disillusioned with his job.

Captain Beatty, Montag's fire chief, senses Montag's concerns and recounts how books lost their value. His speech to Montag about the history of the firemen is a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature. Bradbury wrote this at a time when TV was beginning to become popular in the US and he was getting concerned about the effect of simplistic messages being pushed by the mass media. Since India is desperate to copy the US, the speech is illuminating. (I have omitted some conversations and description that occur in-between and retained a substantial portion of Beatty’s speech.)
"Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending."
"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet ...was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: 'now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.' Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more."
"Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"
"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?"
"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place,  following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before."
Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! ...Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.
Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. ...There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals."
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. ...We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world ...there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That's you, Montag, and that's me."
"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren't they? Don't we keep them moving, don't we give them fun? That's all we live for, isn't it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these."
"Coloured people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."
Montag's change of heart happens after he meets a seventeen-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan, who opens his eyes to the emptiness of his life with her penetrating questions and her unusual love of people and nature. Montag finds her unusual perspectives about life intriguing. She makes Montag think of things that he has never thought of before, and she forces him to consider ideas that he has never contemplated. For eg., she informs Montag that once upon a time, a fireman's job was to put out fires, now they start them. A few days later, he hears that Clarisse has been killed by a speeding car. When he asks Beatty about Clarisse, this was the reply:
Clarisse McClellan? We've a record on her family. We've watched them carefully. Heredity and environment are funny things. You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle. We had some false alarms on the McClellans, when they lived in Chicago. Never found a book. Uncle had a mixed record; anti-social. The girl? She was a time bomb. The family had been feeding her subconscious, I'm sure, from what I saw of her school record. She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl's better off dead." 
"Luckily, queer ones like her don't happen, often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early. You can't build a house without nails and wood. If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.  
Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. 

PS: An article in The New Yorker about Amazon and books

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Economist Nobel Prize winners can be useful sometimes

For typing with the neuro-headset, I keep an on-screen keyboard in the top part of the monitor and a notepad/word document in the bottom part of the monitor. As I move my head, the mouse-pointer moves to different parts of the screen. When it is on the on-screen keyboard, the mouse-pointer is seen as an arrow and the key on which it is present is highlighted yellow. Since the auto-type feature of the on-screen keyboard is ON, when the arrow is held on the key for about a second, the letter is automatically typed in the document.

When the mouse-pointer is on the document, it is seen as a thin barely visible vertical line.

It is again seen as an arrow when it is on the icons of the various windows seen at the bottom of the screen.

If I move the arrow a bit upwards and hold it within the small window that opens above the icon, the window opens up covering the whole screen. I can use this feature of Windows 10 to keep track of some scores.

The neuro-headset communicates with a toggle that is connected to the computer. Sometimes the communication snaps and I lose control of the mouse –pointer. At these times, if the mouse-pointer is on the keyboard it will be stuck on a particular key. This will cause the letter on the key to keep getting typed in the document.  My horror scenario is if the mouse-pointer gets stuck on ’Del’ or ‘Backspace’ keys because I will then lose a substantial portion of what I have typed depending on where the cursor is located. If Jaya is around, I will alert her and she will quickly remove the mouse-pointer from the keyboard.

I always tell Jaya to tell the nurses what to do in such a situation but it is quite challenging to make them understand what they are supposed to do. First the nurse will have to be taught how to move the mouse. She will at times move the mouse in the air so she will have to  be be told that it has to be moved on a surface for the pointer to move. Then they will keep the mouse on the table and keep sliding the mouse over a large area with all sorts of contortions of the face and hands but the pointer will move only a short distance. But even after the nurse learns how to move the mouse, the desired results often don't come.

The cause for confusion is the fact that the mouse-pointer has different shapes in different parts of the screen. When the pointer is on the keyboard, it appears as an arrow (with the key it is on being highlighted in yellow); when on the document, it appears as a barely visible, small vertical line and it again appears as an arrow on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Most nurses are not able to understand that these shapes denote the same thing.

I was reading Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when I got an idea. The authors say that in the men's rooms at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, right above the drain, a perfect drawing of a house fly is baked into the porcelain bowl. Why? Apparently, the presence of a fly in a urinal changes human behaviour. In males, there is a deep-seated instinct to aim at targets, and having a fly to aim at reduces  “spillage."

I thought that  I will give the nurses a target to aim the mouse-pointer at. Maybe this will help the nurse to keep the mouse-pointer in a safe area on the screen. I told Jaya to tell the nurse to keep the mouse-pointer on one of the windows at the bottom of the screen where it appears as an arrow. (I will specify the window so that the nurse had something concrete to aim at.) This tactic has worked with the last couple of nurses so it is probably a workable option.

A Nobel prize-winning economist would not have imagined that his book would offer a clue that will help a patient  on the other side of the world who had suffered a brain-stem stroke. God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Ravana mode of development – X

'The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook', said William James. Gandhi's views on modernity seem odd at first glance but when examined carefully in the light of subsequent developments, he seems to have noticed the crucial issues that others had ignored. The factors that made him wary of modernity - the split between cognition and feeling, the tendency to divorce means from ends, concentration of power in the hands of a few, the coercive nature of the state, the naivety of thinking that institutions can always check unethical individuals, internalizing the word-view of the colonizer leading to internal colonization, violence feeding on itself - can be seen all the time. Among long-term predictions, it is Gandhi's warnings that seem to have come closest to reality.

Gandhi was right: colonialism continues in the minds of the colonized long after the foreign ruler has left. It replaces, as he had observed in Hind Swaraj, 'English rule without Englishmen'. He had expressed a fear that Indians wanted the tiger’s nature without the tiger’s skin i.e. they wanted to retain the language, concepts and world-view of the colonial power after getting rid of them. He had warned against thinking that the mere substitution of Indians for the English, without any substantive alterations in the structures of British rule, would be a mistaken idea of independence. Unlike most Indian nationalists, he knew very well that ‘self-government’ did not mean ’good government’. Gandhi had the mental sharpness to escape colonization of mind under British rule but most Indian leaders and elites fell into its trap.

Even Britain has repealed the law on sedition but India still retains in its statute books the colonial law that was used to charge Tilak and Gandhi. When protesting civilians are fired upon by security forces, the excuse often given is that they were just doing their duty to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. This is the same excuse that was given by General Dyer for his action in Jallianwallah Bagh. This is what nationalism does to you – a crime that is committed by others is condemned but if the same crime is committed by ‘our’ side, it is justified. After reading Gandhi, it is apparent that India never got rid of colonialism. Only the color of the rulers had changed. As Joseph Brodsky writes in Less Than One about post-independence India:
From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.
Gandhi knew whereof he was speaking. It would be fallacious to think that he was not well-read. He had read Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, William James, Goethe, Adam Smith, Marx, Bentham, Carlyle, Huxley, Bacon, Gibbon, Shaw, Kipling, Wells among others including books on Common Law, Roman Law and religion. He even learned enough Latin to read Justinian in the original. Often when he says, 'I am ignorant about...', it is better to treat it as Socratic ignorance. Importantly, he was a critical reader and did not accept unquestioningly what others wrote. As Ashis Nandy writes about Gandhi in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias, 'He was one of the few non-Westerners who had carefully read and digested the relevant Western experience and he was one of the very few among the third world's nationalist leaders to see the full implications of the West's Faustian compact with modernity.'

In an interview  in 1936, Gandhi was asked what he most despaired of. He replied, ‘The hardheartedness of the educated’. What was true then is also true now. It is a symptom of the pathology of rationality. The super-rich are living on their own planet and seem oblivious of how funny they sometimes sound. I once heard an interview with Nita Ambani where she spoke of the time when she was in Rio to watch the football World Cup and found herself in the midst of many people who were cheering for their respective national sides. She said that she had tears in her eyes thinking of how nice it would have been if India also had a football team that she could cheer. Poor thing, my heart went out to her. Life can be unbelievably cruel!

In this talk, I heard that in his book Rebooting India (a title  like this makes me cautious), Nandan Nilekani says that it only takes 100 people to solve all of India's problems! You can live in a techno-utopia and come up with such arrogant and astonishingly dim-witted statements only if you are highly educated. Too much education makes you think that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is and you think that real world situations resemble the simplified problems in textbooks. Planning and development become like scientific formulae. Your head is buried in your chosen silo of knowledge and you are unaware of anything that lies outside it. If you give a man a hammer, every problem will look like a nail to him.

In this talk, Ashis Nandy says that IITs produce brilliant students but they are like primary schoolchildren when it comes to knowledge about society. That statement by Nilekani is a very good illustration of this observation. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, ‘People who are ‘cognitively busy’ are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.’ What Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj seems ever relevant, 'Those in whose name we speak we do not know, nor do they know us.' The white man’s burden has become the brown man’s burden.

During demonetization there was a debate about the people who died. It is not about the exact number of people who died or about how and where they died or about whether the cause of their death can be determined with certainty… A society where discourse about a person’s death is reduced to an accounting language is a society not worth having. As Orwell says in his essay The Prevention of Literature, ‘When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness…. They appear to think that the destruction of liberty is of no importance so long as their own line of work is for the moment unaffected. ‘

Gandhi’s vision of the ideal society was one in which there is a just balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. His practise at times had to necessarily fall short of his ideal as it met real-world constraints in the pursuit of an egalitarian, just society. (About his compromises see Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony Parel.) There are, however, some basic principles that do not alter as, for instance, truth and non-violence or his exposition of the value of means in any struggle for ends. Abert Camus once said that “through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.” Despite the pretense in global diplomacy, it is non-violence not violence that has to be justified. As Rajni Kothari says in her essay, Civilizational Gandhi (pdf):
Above all, the future may depend on addressing a fundamental question – how do we decide what is priceless? Gandhi’s ideal of a civilized society offers markers which help us to process this question. This vision acknowledges that greed and the will to grab power are part of the human condition. But these are not necessarily our most dominant traits. Human behaviour, like water, fills the spaces created by the rules we frame. So why not frame the rules on the basis of a more holistic view of the human condition?
If thinking that human behaviour is like water that takes the shape of its container sounds utopian, consider the case of the Pathans. They are known to settle disputes violently and have a weakness for religion-based terror. It is the culture that has produced the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden. Now go back to almost a century ago. The Pathans were a symbol of militant non-violence under the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. According to Gandhi, they were the best examples of militant non-violence directed against the colonial regime in the 1930s. The non-violence of the Pathans proved ineffective in the new nation-state of Pakistan with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan spending more time in Pakistani jails than in British jails. Gandhi was also killed by an educated, rational, upper-caste Hindu in independent India not in British India.

This raises an obvious question: is the modern jungle of nation-states inherently inhospitable to non-violence? When told that his thought is utopian, Gandhi said, 'It is almost like Euclid's line which exists only in imagination, never capable of being physically drawn. It is nevertheless an important definition in geometry yielding great result.' (In fact, the world is ruled by fictions having their own utopias and die-hard subscribers - religions, histories, myths, nations, corporations, politics, capitalism, communism, economics...) As Einstein said, 'The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.'  Gandhi had stressed that his general ideas are far more important than his specific solutions which are contextual.

Gandhi's far-sighted ideas were interred with his bones. In Bapu Kuti, a late professor at IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur, C.V. Seshadri is quoted as saying, 'In 1945 I wondered how and why the German intelligentsia kept quiet about the concentration camps but now I ask the same question about our intelligentsia here, which quietly and easily allowed Gandhi to be rejected.’ He is now reduced to the role of a sanitation inspector. The cluelessness of those people (and myself) is dawning on me only now. In his essay The Final Encounter: The politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi), Ashis Nandy writes that many elites were intellectually complicit in the assassination because they sensed that Gandhian politics was pushing them from the centre to the periphery of the social structure. Many of them thought that he was a back number and were secretly glad to see him go even though they shed tears in public.

Another reason why Gandhi is not taken seriously is because he did not leave any easy solutions. All Gandhian attempts at reform began at the level of the individual. Without individual reform, institutional reform is futile. But reforming oneself is hard. It is easier to point out faults in others or to shoot the messenger. (As a verse by Kabir says, Dos paraye dekhi kari, chala hasanth hasanth / apne yaad na aavai, jinka aadi na anth.- People laugh at others’ faults but fail to remember their own endless list of faults.) Another reason for confusion was Gandhi's Janus nature - he was a devout Hindu who was called more Christian than Christians, a nationalist who had reservations about the idea of a nation-state, a Congress head who wanted to disband the Congress, a traditionalist who chose the modernist Nehru as his successors...

If you thought Gandhi was just a shrewd bania with weird ideas, you are far off the mark. Many criticisms of Gandhi seem as if the person is bravely grappling with the ant while studiously ignoring the elephant in the room. He was an original practitioner-thinker whose ideas should be carefully examined rather than being deified or dismissed.  He was the one who dared to question long-held certainties. Others appear like parrots. (An important book explaining Gandhi's ideas is The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi by Raghavan Iyer). India has paid a big and probably irreversible price for ignoring Gandhi. As A.K. Saran says in this article, the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work and ultimate failure is this: 'Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Ravana mode of development – IX

Gandhi emphatically rejected modern ideas of instrumental rationality and alone among Indian politicians rejected the external trappings of power. He eschewed security all his life even when a bomb was thrown at him 10 days before his eventual assassination, refusing to be intimidated by 'a mere bomb' and once said that being surrounded by security was 'living death'. The 'effeminate' Gandhi seems to have been far more courageous than today's 'masculine' politicians who measure their power and prestige by the number of gun-toting commandos around them.

Over the last couple of decades, the privileged have opted out of many public services. So for eg., many use courier services, use expensive private hospitals instead of government hospitals, stay in exclusive residential communities with private security guards,etc. The public services are poor so it is natural that those who can afford it will use the private alternative. But the rich and the poor leading increasingly separate lives creates a long-term problem that is difficult to solve. I realized this only a couple of years ago when I read Justice by Michael Sandel where he writes:
This has two bad effects, one fiscal, the other civic. First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with their taxes. Second, public institutions such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and community centres cease to be places where people from different walks of life encounter one another. Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue become few and far between. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends.
Granted that there have been significant achievements since independence, not least of which is the maintenance of democracy (however flawed) for the most part despite the diversity of religions, languages and cultures. A fifth of India lives well (which includes me) and a fifth of India is bigger than most countries in the world. But the mode of development has ended up creating what Amartya Sen called ‘islands of California amid oceans of sub-Saharan Africa’. The majority of the people will always remain enslaved – this ’development’ can only be in this fashion.  Much is made of  GDP growth in terms of which India has been ranked at or near the top for many years but in terms of per capita GDP, India remains one of the poorest countries in the world. And in term of broad social indices, India’s performance is not flattering at all.

Although India has much higher per capita income than Bangladesh, the latter fares better in certain social indices like life expectancy, infant mortality, enhanced immunization rates, etc. In the United Nations’ Human Development Report, India ranks much lower than Sri Lanka which got Independence more or less at the same time as us. The primary health and primary education systems are in a sorry state and the police are corrupt, inefficient and are oftentimes incredibly brutal. Atrocities against Dalits continue despite there being stringent laws against it.  Exiling the poor  from our conscience and consciousness is not going to solve the problem.

Gandhi preferred slow and steady changes brought about by patient, gritty work which had greater permanence rather than spectacular, short-term changes which were superficial. He knew that social change was difficult so he never tried to look too far ahead. He liked to say: “The distant scene I do not care to see, one step enough for me.” What happens today is exactly the opposite. I heard someone from NITI Aayog say that we should regularly 'disrupt' the system to create a 'better' system. The technology driven GST was rammed through even though millions of people have never used a computer. But the 'big bang reforms' grab headlines, the slow and steady moves don't.

An economy involves millions of transactions of different types. To reduce all of them into one indicative number results in losing all the qualitative information. Quality is much more difficult to deal with than quantity. If GDP has increased, it doesn't tell you who has benefited, whether the growth has been disruptive etc. Crowing about GDP without analyzing the social effects is self-defeating. As Gandhi once said, a nation's wealth cannot be estimated by 'the quantity of cash' it processes. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile:
As to growth in GDP, it can be obtained very easily by loading future generations with debt - and the future economy may collapse upon the need to repay such debt. GDP growth, like cholesterol, seems to be a Procrustean bed reduction that has been used to game systems. So just as, for a plane that has a high risk of crashing, the notion of "speed" is irrelevant, since we know it may not get to its destination, economic growth with fragilities is not to be called growth, something that has not yet been understood by governments. Indeed, growth was very modest, less than 1% per head, throughout the golden years surrounding the Industrial Revolution, the period that propelled Europe into domination. But low as it was, it was robust growth - unlike the current fools' race of states shooting for growth like teenage drivers infatuated with speed. 
One BJP spokesman said, 'Statistics don't lie.' On the contrary, if you want to sound sophisticated while lying, use statistics. Per capita GDP is an average figure and like all averages, conceal more than they reveal. They are used by politicians like a drunkard uses a lamppost – more for support than for illumination. An Oxfam report showed that the richest 1% held 58% of all the wealth in India. Such a skewed distribution makes averages meaningless. This is illustrated by the joke that when Bill Gates enters an old-age home, all inmates are millionaires on average.

Farmers have committed suicide when monsoons have been good and when they have been bad. The rate of farmer suicides is much higher in Maharashtra which is one of the richer states than in poorer states like Bihar or Jharkhand. There have been farmer suicides in Punjab which has high farm productivity. If you rely on statistics to tell you about the reality on the ground, you are likely to be misled.  I heard that nowhere in the world is agriculture profitable without state subsidies. If this is true, then there is something foolish about a system whose end result is to make it unprofitable to produce items that are essential for life and profitable to produce items that are not essential for life.

In an essay called Reinventing Gandhi (part of the essay collection Debating Gandhi), Shiv Visvanathan writes, 'Modern professionalism is the perspective of an abstract mind that handles equations, files, and formulae as disembodied entities.' During his trial for sedition in 1922, Gandhi made a famous speech in which he said regarding the fondness of colonial officials for quoting statistics to show how much they have benefited Indians, 'No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye.' If someone makes a similar statement today, it won't sound strange. He later on makes another observation which, after removing the colonial references, would sound apt today:
The greatest misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe. I am satisfied that many English and Indian officials honestly believe that they are administering one of the best systems devised in the world and that India is making steady though slow progress. They do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defence on the other, have emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation. 
I heard Ashis Nandy say that you can be casual when choosing your friends but you should be careful when choosing your enemies. This is because, if you become too obsessed with your enemy, you eventually come to resemble him. The idea is conveyed by the title of one of his books: 'The Intimate Enemy'. In this sense, the colonialism that began after August 1947 is more dangerous than the earlier period of colonialism. The structures of governance, the relationship of the people with the State, etc., are as they were in colonial times. It was an eventuality that Gandhi had warned about in Hind Swaraj and is playing itself out faithfully.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VIII

I keep hearing from people from large cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc., that there are more roads and flyovers but traffic jams are the same or worse. This is to be expected because of a  concept called induced demand, which is an economist's jargon for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people will use it more. Even with more and better public transport, if more roads are built, traffic congestion doesn’t ease.

What’s interesting is that the effect works in reverse too. Whenever some city proposes taking lanes away from a road, residents scream that they’re going to create  huge traffic jams. But nothing truly terrible happens. The amount of traffic on the road simply re-adjusts and overall congestion doesn’t really increase. Cities like Paris, San Fransisco and Seoul have tried it. Traffic didn’t get worse and many other things, including pollution, got better. Some people take public transport, some people drive less and a new equilibrium is reached whose conditions are not very different from that of the old equilibrium.

A lot of effort is made for promoting 'spiritual tourism' by beautifying and improving facilities at pilgrimage sites. But improving accessibility to and conveniences at holy places reduces their sanctity. Gandhi saw the problem over a century ago when he said in Hind Swaraj, 'The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays rogues visit them in order to practise their roguery.' (It is to be noted that while calling himself a true Hindu, Gandhi never visited temples for praying in his adult life nor did he construct any temples in his ashrams.)

I heard about a program called 'transforming India' organized by Niti Aayog which would no doubt have come up with rosy projections about the distant future. In  The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the penchant for making long-term projections came about because of MS Excel. Earlier, people had to make tedious calculations manually so they did not make projections beyond a year or two. Now they can just pull the table to the right and you get 10 year projections in a second. The more into the future you predict, the less they will conform to reality. As a quote variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Neils Bohr or Mark Twain says, 'It's Hard To make predictions, especially about the future.' The easier you make some things, the more hot air you get.

A similar problem happens due to cashless transactions. The easier you make it to pay, the more the tendency to make impulse purchases and you end up buying things you don't really need - good news for manufactures, not such good news for consumers (although it is marketed as being beneficial to the latter). Moreover, encouraging use of credit cards makes you more indebted making you more dependent on your job and thereby making you a 'better' slave. Making it easy to write and publish ends up producing what a school-teacher told me was 'a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of thought'. (What was that,once again? I haven't changed, is it? Hmm.) Again, Gandhi saw this when he wrote in Hind Swaraj, ‘Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds.’

There is a naive faith that technology will solve all problems, that machines will give objective, unbiased outputs. This contention ignores the biases of the persons making the algorithms thus making their moral delusions institutionalized. By overvaluing algorithms, we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world. In The Black Box Society, Frank Pasquale says about such ‘black boxes’ (complex automated calculation algorithms of which MS Excel is only one tool), ‘…attraction of the black box isn’t hard to understand. It promotes “automation bias,” an assumption that a machine- driven, software- enabled system is going to offer better results than human judgment. And when the stakes are high enough, automation bias can degenerate into wishful thinking or worse: opportunistic misuse of models to validate sharp business practises.’   Gandhi was very much aware of how concentration of power in the hands of experts perpetuates existing indignities and sought to resist it.

The problem with making things easy is also seen in the educational system. (I had written about this earlier.) Making question papers easy and correction lenient only encourages mediocrity. Any conscientious teacher knows that these are not the mechanical exercises they are sought to be made into and that a certain amount of subjectivity is required. As John Dryden wrote, 'errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; / He who would search for pearls must dive below.' One can understand why such changes are made - try to eliminate bias and favouritism. It again brings to mind why Gandhi was dismissive of the idea of trying to make institutions so perfect that they would obviate the need for the individual to be good. Systems are just external manifestations of a person's inner convictions.

Ogden Nash said, ‘The cow is of the bovine ilk;/  One end is moo, the other, milk.‘ In India, it is a bit more than that. Whenever there is some controversy over beef eating, RSS/BJP will say that Gandhi also wanted to protect the cow thereby implying that their actions are in tune with Gandh's thinking. Gandhi has made objectionable statements on certain issues but it is always better to check what exactly he said and how his views changed over time. (All 100 volumes of 'The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' are online.) As Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said, 'The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.'

He was not an admirer of consistency and said so a few times. He said in 1930, 'I ...endorse Emerson's saying that 'Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'' Young India in 1931: 'Seeming consistency may really be sheer obstinacy.' Sept 1939: 'At the time of writing I never think of what I have said before. My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth". He would have liked the remark of Keynes who, when accused of having made a U-turn about something, said: ’When I find that I’ve been mistaken I change my mind: what do you do?’

Gandhi said on January 17, 1933, 'My language is aphoristic, it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations.' Take, for example, his speech on cow protection in Bettiah about Oct. 9, 1917, (as per the Collected Works),  when he was invited to lay the foundation-stone of a cow-shed. He began by saying, ‘ For the Hindus, this is sacred work. Protection of the cow is a primary duty for every Indian.’ But then, he went on to criticize how it was being done which was leading to riots and loss of property. Then he says:

Those who want to stop others from sinning must be free from sin themselves. Hindu society has been inflicting terrible cruelty on the cow and her progeny. The present condition of our cows is a direct proof of this. My heart bleeds when I see thousands of bullocks with no blood and flesh on them, their bones plainly visible beneath their skin, ill-nourished and made to carry excessive burdens, while the driver twists their tails and goads them on. I shudder when I see all this and ask myself how we can say anything to our Muslim friends so long as we do not refrain from such terrible violence...

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VII

There was a paradox underlying Gandhi’s goal of winning freedom: he had a very low assessment of the role state power should play in human affairs. He was very apprehensive about arming the government with too much power even in what purported to be a welfare state. He believed that the citizens in such a state pay for their dependence with a proportionate loss of their liberty. He was apprehensive about the use of power anywhere, which might prove dangerous for egalitarian growth and individual initiative. He was of the considered view that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. As Blake says in his poem Auguries of Innocence ‘The Strongest Poison ever known / Came from Caesar's Laurel Crown’. His fears about the concentration of power are expressed in some observations:
  • Young India, Nov. 1924 - 'There is no freedom for India so long as one man, no matter how highly placed he may be, holds in the hollow of his hands the life, property and honour of millions of human beings. It is an artificial, unnatural and uncivilized institution. The end of it is an essential preliminary to swaraj.'
  • Young India, Jan 1925 -  ‘…real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words; swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence. '
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.’  
  • Harijan, (November. 1936).  - '...a nation that runs its affairs smoothly and effectively without much State interference is truly democratic. Where such a condition is absent, the form of government is democratic in name [only].'   
So while Gandhi opposed the colonial power, he also inherited this suspicion of the power of the state. Once independence was achieved, however, the Congress went from being the party of the nation to being the party of the nation-state. Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar wanted a centralized, top-down state, each for different reasons, but it was opposite to Gandhi's desire for a minimalist state. The former had a state-centric mindset; the latter had a civil society-centric mindset. Gandhi hoped for a progressively decreasing State but what happened was the opposite. As David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours, 'Far from there being any devolution of power, the state assumed increasingly authoritarian powers.'

The nation-state is a formal system with a well-defined constitution, strict criteria for citizenship and a monopoly over violence. It has a limited capacity to be flexible and therefore performs poorly when faced with diverse populace that does not agree on the basic rules of co-existence. The resultant dissent is often viewed as an existential threat and it responds with ruthlessness and systematic oppression.  There is thus constant tension between a nation-state's tendency to homogenize and Ambedkar's exhortation to disadvantaged sections to 'educate, agitate, organise'. While Gandhi did not deny an important role for the government in some areas, he resisted any solution that made people depend more on the government.

Gandhi thought of the state as ‘a game of chess’ between rival parties who use people as ‘pawns’ to further their own ends. The judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police and the army of independent India are all descendants of their colonial predecessors. The sedition law is akin to the blasphemy laws in operation in some Muslim countries. There is a term called 'lawfare' which is similar to 'warfare' - it involves using the legal system against people, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory. As Arundhati Roy said about justice in India, 'Punishment is not after due process, due process is the punishment.'

There were Gandhians whose views were opposite to that of Gandhi. For eg. Vinobha Bhave supported the emergency, calling it an era of discipline that would be good for the health of the nation. The type and extent of the disciplining can be guaged from the fact that  when there was a murderous assault on Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency, he said that he had not witnessed such state terror in all his years of public life, including during colonial rule. Freud said that the state forbids the individual to do wrong, not because it wishes to do away with wrongdoing but because it wishes to monopolize it.

I remember reading that of the 200 million or so people killed by violence in the last century around 2/3 were killed by their own state. Gandhi knew that a centralized, bureaucratic state will result in decisions affecting a community being taken by someone else far away. He thought that it was important to encourage the creation of political spaces that were not part of state power and which would act as a constant check on state power. In thinking thus, he was very different from other political activists of his day or after his time. But the nature of the nation-state is to impose its ideas on the rest of the population. Hence the regular attacks on educational institutions, NGOs and other civil society groups that challenge government views.

The coersiveness of the state has only been increasing. Each crisis will be used as a new means of tightening the screws and further reducing the degrees of freedom available to citizens. The threat of terrorism is actually beneficial for the state because it is a convenient excuse for keeping on tightening the screws on citizens with their consent even though far greater number of people die in road accidents. You are told that  there is no right to privacy, that you don't have absolute right over your own body (when the SC quashed every contention of the government, it smoothly changed its stand), a person being subjected to an IT raid cannot ask for the reason for the raid...(See talk: 'The Databased Citizen' by Usha Ramanathan.)

The Aadhaar card was said to be optional when it was first introduced. Now it is slowly being made compulsory for a range of services. If a service agent asks for Aadhaar mandatorily, then citizens have no option but to get an Aadhaar number. Saying that Aadhaar is voluntary is like saying that breathing is voluntary. Ordinary people are reqired to be transparent to the state and leave a digital trail of their transactions using Aadhaar even though the biggest scams in the country have been perpetrated by politicians and businessmen. The side that is forced to become more transparent (citizens) is required to give data to the areas that are becoming more opaque (government and corporates - the distinction is becoming more blurred with time) This is problematic - you can't know what is being done with the data. As Frank Pasquale says in The Black Box Society:
An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular danger, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny.  That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behavior.
There is a consistency in the views of whoever is in power at the center. The BJP shouted itself hoarse demanding CBI autonomy when it was in the opposition but now there is not one word about it. BJP opposed GST for years, now it is called the most important tax reform since independence. 'On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Q's on security threat it can  pose.  There is no vision, only political gimmick'. Who tweeted that? Narendra Modi, 8th April 2014. Now it is the flagship program of the government. As an old adage says, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VI

For Gandhi, no economic model was worth implementing unless it aimed towards the general well-being of mankind. For him, man is not a purely economic being, he has many more interests and motives such as spiritual, intellectual, religious and ethical (an idea that present-day leaders refuse to learn). Unlike Marx, Gandhi did not accept the view that merely changing the ownership of capital while leaving the mode of production untouched would improve matters. He was the first to see clearly the similarity between capitalism and communism i.e. he saw communism as state capitalism.

He realized that the important question was not about whether the market or the State allocated goods but about how the goods were produced in the first place. 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.

Industrialization is based on the division of labour which no doubt increases the productivity but the work loses its variety, initiative and colour. The famous illustration of Adam Smith that a pin has to pass through ninety hands before it is completely manufactured illustrates the point. In Gandhi’s view the exploitation of one’s fellow human beings was built into the very structure of modern civilization. As one wag had put it, ‘Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; socialism is the reverse.’ Large-scale industrialism leads to the centralization of political power in a few hands or in an institution like the state. Then there will always be the likelihood of its misuse. Moreover, the more the centralization the less will be people’s participation. This leads to strict limitations on the non-economic aspects of life for most people, ultimately resulting in corruption and fraud.

A technique which tends to make man a robot, robs his independence and makes an all-out invasion on his political, economic and social liberties (like Chaplin in Modern Times) was not acceptable to Gandhi. 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 evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them.' This led him to propose a decentralized mode of production which seemed to be the only way to preserve individual autonomy while promoting social and economic justice. His dissent stood out against the sea of conformity. Does this mean that Gandhi was against the use of machinery?

Gandhi's views on machinery evolved over time. Criticizing Gandhi by saying that he was a Luddite who was against industrialization by quoting his book Hind Swaraj written in 1909 makes little sense. He had accepted many of the modern technological inventions not as a compromise but as a necessity.  He traveled on trains, buses, and ships and used loudspeakers and printing machines. He said in Young India in 1925, '"What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.....". He welcomed machinery that served people (like what is described in  Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E F Schumacher) but not ones that enslaved them in deadening mechanical jobs.

While he was for decentralized production, he was prepared to compromise where necessary. In a letter to Nehru in October, 1945, he said, '...I can still envisage a number of things that will have to be organized on a large scale. Perhaps there will even be railways and also post and telegraph offices. I do not know what things there will be or will not be. Nor am I bothered about it. If I can make sure of the essential thing, other things will follow in due course. But if I give up the essential thing, I give up everything.' (The 'essential thing' was individual autonomy which is discussed in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy.) He also recognized that machinery in India was inevitable. He said in 1946, 'Today there is such an onslaught on India of Western machinery that for India to withstand it successfully would be nothing short of a miracle.'

In the rush to modernize and be counted in the modern jungle of nation-states, it was not a surprise that India adopted the large-scale, centralized mode of production. It was the easier, quicker and therefore more tempting route to modernity. Perhaps another alternative was not possible. But as often happens, it is the easier option that requires more caution. It has turned out that the consequences were the ones that Gandhi had pointed out: concentration of power in a few individuals and modern-day slavery (better known as ‘working hard’) for the majority. Such a large–scale, centralized production structure necessarily produces a system that is coercive and exploitative. Villagers are faced with a Hobson’s choice – continue living in the village and lead a life of relative dignity but face regular prospects of starvation or migrate to the city and get better wages but lead a life of drudgery in an urban slum.

In a far-sighted essay, You and the atomic bomb, George Orwell said, '...ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance...A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.' So the atom bomb, which is very expensive and requires  a lot of industrial effort, favours the long-term trend of favouring the few against many. He  says that for a long time 'every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialized country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power.'

As with weapons, so with machines - the bigger, more complicated and more expensive machines become, the more will be the concentration of power in a few hands. Skilling India is actually a process of de-skilling - skilled artisans become bricklayers. As Orwell says in the above-mentioned essay regarding weapons, '...looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity.' (But a general breakdown is quite possible now because of environmental concerns which were not so pressing during Orwell's time.)

All the ongoing well-meaning efforts to generate livelihoods and reduce poverty may be futile without challenging the pyramid-like structure of the economy. Gandhi’s civilizational vision posed precisely this challenge that cannot be addressed by either capitalism or state-communism. Both these systems assume that accumulation of assets and productive resources must necessarily take the form of a pyramid – with a few at the top holding the bulk of assets, a middle class, and the ‘masses’ at the bottom with the resultant dehumanizing tendency of over-organizing and centralised control. The systems that promised freedom for humans end up producing the modern version of slavery for the majority of humans. Nelson Mandela writes:
Gandhi remains today the only complete critique of advanced industrial society. Others have criticized its totalitarianism but not its productive apparatus. He is not against science and technology, but he places priority on the right to work and opposes mechanization to the extent that it usurps this right. Large-scale machinery, he holds, concentrates wealth in the hands of one man who tyrannizes the rest. He favors the small machine; he seeks to keep the individual in control of his tools, to maintain an interdependent love relation between the two, as a cricketer with his bat or Krishna with his flute. Above all, he seeks to liberate the individual from his alienation to the machine and restore morality to the productive process. 
As we find ourselves in jobless economies, societies in which small minorities consume while the masses starve, we find ourselves forced to rethink the rationale of our current globalization and to ponder the Gandhian alternative.
The problem with considering the Gandhian alternative is that it can only be theoretical at this stage. The present development path is a one-way street and cannot be reversed as and when you feel like it. (Perhaps the alternative was not possible even in 1947.) Most people will continue to think rich and live poor. Inequalities will continue to rise and power will continue to get concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, irrespective of which party is in power. More industries will not produce more nett jobs due to increasing automation. The economy will consist of thousands of kings and millions of slaves. Occasional landmark judgments like the one on right to privacy will help keep the powerful from crushing the weak (or at least to slow them down).

PS: For a Gandhian perspective on economic issues see The Web of Freedom: J. C. Kumarappa and Gandhi’s Struggle for Economic Justice