Monday, September 21, 2015

Co-opting Gandhi

Gandhi popularized the notion of visionaries living out their values as a strategy for achieving them. In this essay I will try to show that this is not always possible, nor is it always a good strategy. Success or attempt to carry out this strategy is looked out with the lens of "purity", and failure to carry out this strategy is seen in the popular mind as a failure of moral character with the label of hypocrisy. These are the flip sides of a strategy for controlling people,  common in religions that demand a certain code of ethics, with rewards for the compliant ("pure"), and punishments for the deviant ("hypocrites"). This is a good strategy for controlling people (and who or rather what is trying to do the controlling will be talked about later), but that was not Gandhi's intention.

It is useful to make a distinction between values that can be lived out easily in the present system, those that are very difficult and impractical to live out in the present system and those that can't be lived out at all in the present system, even if one desires to very much. Values are part of a wholistic system of memes, they are not independent. In a concentration camp, optimism is very difficult to live as a value because of all the other values and circumstances in that environment. Kindness is easier to practice but easier still in a Gandhian ashram. Honesty is not difficult to practice in a concentration camp but sometimes counterproductive when dealing with people who want to kill you, your family or your fellow inmates. These are all internal values and so they are always possible no matter what the external circumstances, though as we just saw there are environmental influences affecting their ease or the wisdom of their practice. With external values it may not be possible at all to live them in a particular system. For example, if someone values a pre-industrial technology, it is impossible to live that unless a whole bunch of people have built the infrastructure for that technology. Another example is if one values folk dances, which by definition require many people, it is impossible to dance them alone. We are all part of wholistic cultural, technological, economic and ecological systems and certain values are just not possible to live out in those systems (but possible in other systems), certain ones are counterproductive and certain ones are just very difficult and may not be worth it because they compromise other values.

Here is an example of the latter: the person who values honesty and lives in a concentration camp but lies to the guards about something that saves his son's life is being pragmatic. He can be called a hypocrite but that misses the mark completely. He values his son's life more than honesty (Dietrich Bonhoffer offers a similar example to illustrate the same point). When people think I am a hypocrite because I am not an environmental purist, they miss that I am not an environmentalist, I am a personalist (in Peter Maurin's sense of the word). I value community and edifying work for people sometimes more than love of nature, and I think (along with a long list of revolutionaries like Gandhi and Wendell Berry) that local technology and personalism would ensure all 3 and so that is what I am willing to give my life to, not some controlling ego-boosting game of adhering to people's preconceived one value of environmentalism. I drive cars, though in the system I am working towards there would probably be no cars, unless they are locally manufactured. That system requires hundreds of technological, craft and farming specialties and is not just about having or not having cars. Not driving cars in that system works. In this current system it doesn't very well.

The person who values optimism, freedom, kindness and life but loses hope, is highly constrained, not so friendly and sees death all around sometimes in that camp can also be called a hypocrite, but what if he just doesn't have the resources to be optimistic, free, kind and life-affirming in the face of daily horrors? He might be trying to escape and digging a tunnel so he can be in an environment where optimism and the other values above is easier. He might avoid getting shot by looking forlorn instead of being cheery. Calling him a hypocrite again misses the point that the issue is not one of some religious purity but of how to work towards values one desires given the present technological, economic and environmental system of memes and values.

The only possible useful negative meaning of hypocrisy is one where a person wants to be in an system conducive to certain values but is not working very hard towards that. The other meanings of not being in the system one desires just by choosing so are counterproductive and silly. Sometimes it is hard to tell. One might look at Al Gore and think he is not really making a difference as far as global warming but he might see his plane and car and mansion use as a strategy towards educating people by e.g. making that movie. If someone is not willing to make any sacrifices towards the values they want they are not working very hard towards achieving their values and the negative connotation of hypocrite is justified. If I thought that giving up the convenience of cars and airplanes and computers would promote a local technology and peronalism better than using them I would. As it is I make some sacrifices with my comfort and convenience such as living in a one room cabin, drinking rainwater, riding bicycles and walking, being beaten up by the legal system for starting an urban homesteading community, using very little electricity (mostly from sun), working as a farm hand and not having many colleagues to do physics with but I still use cars and computers. And most of all, I make hundreds of sacrifices a day with my values, every time I consume a product or service that is not traded personally, but that is gotten from the impersonal global market or work at a stupid, spirit-numbing job. Most people who have just adopted mainstream market values do not have to make such sacrifices.

The person who values non-industrial technology but is currently in an industrial ecosystem would not magically be in a non-industrial ecosystem if he just dropped industrial technology. Nor would he achieve it even if he single handedly tried to and had several lifetimes to do it. It is by its nature a mass action problem, not an individual action one. Even if hundreds of people got together with the purpose of creating a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based technology and economy, if they don't use power tools, cars and electricity for that purpose, they get alot of "purity" points, but don't end up accomplishing their goal because they are struggling just to survive, and the system tries through negative feedbacks, as all complex systems do, to maintain itself by either beating them up for not conforming or offering them hard-to-resist rewards for complying.  Time is of the essence in order not to slide back into the memetic (negative) fitness valley of the status quo. If we're working towards achieving a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based system, we would do better to use computers, the internet, money and cars than just dropping all these.  I've plotted a hypothetical cartoon illustrating the two paradigms of "purity" and utilitarian below, contrasting in each the two strategies of Gandhian vs utilitarian (using the tools of the prison to get out of prison).

In the first paradigm, the people who eschew much of industrial technology are clearly being more "pure" than the ones who use it, at least at first (but both have the same goal of creating a non-industrial system).  Eventually, if the utilitarian strategy is able to keep on track and not lose sight of its goal, it is able to create an alternative technology which eschews industrial technology, and achieves a larger measure of "purity".

In the second paradigm, we are measuring "good done", or harm avoided in the two strategies. The graph exagerates the good done by the gandhian approach so it will stay visible. The approach is a drop in the ocean, not just because only a few people are doing it, but because unless they are able to produce a non-industrial production system they are still totally dependent on industrial production, despite their reduced consumption. Also, by not having a complete system of non-industrial production, they are not benefiting from the good that comes with varied, edifying, connective work. The utilitarian approach starts out slow and at first not much good is being done, but at some critical point, a non-industrial local technology is built, and good done increases as more people see the benefit of such a system.

Purity Paradigm, two strategies


Utilitarian Paradigm, two strategies

The current global market industrial economy wants us to believe that we can choose everything. We can't. We can choose what products to consume and how to make money to buy them and that is why the global market is pushing this agenda of rational individual actors, because it is good for its self-maintenance, it promotes more consumption and more people playing the game of making money. Gandhi did not have this intention when he came up with "Be the Change", but Empire co-opted his intention (as it is prone to do with almost any alternative, especially ones that are a threat, e.g. Christianity) and used religious memes to facilitate this co-option. Another way of saying this is it shames people into being good consumers by calling them hypocrites if they propose a different system, while still participating to whatever extent in the current system. The same strategy was used to control people into Empire's version of Christianity.

Gandhi meant to propose a model of change in which individuals were seeds for change at a higher level of organization, rather than merely complaining about the discrepancy between the envisioned system and the present system. By trying to live some of the values one aspires to, a creative tension is produced that can inspire other people as well as oneself. But the seed approach is not restricted to individuals. A cell can't inspire other cells or individuals or societies, an individual can so that is the lowest level of organization for seeds of social change. But a small group that achieves coherence and is able to form an autopoeitic resonance can also inspire change at a higher level. The activation energy for a group is greater than for an individual, but so is the amount of work that can be done. I have been trying for a while to find that group that would be a seed but I have not quite succeeded yet. That does not make me a hypocrite--it is not wholly within my control.

The other thing I think Gandhi was pointing at was that certain values are not subject to a utilitarian calculus, such as doing direct violence against another person (except in self defense). Only in theory can such violence decrease total harm. In practice it does not.

We can choose to work towards values other than market values but that does not mean we drop everything and just live them, as I have tried to show in this essay. Gandhi certainly did not do that: he used planes and cars though he was a luddite, he provoked violence though he was a pacifist, and there are probably other examples. Let us be inspired by his example and not misuse it.

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