“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Gandhian Philosophy is a Critique of Modernity and Power

While the 150th anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi's birth are on, it is imperative to assess his legacy is being remembered. The core aspect of Gandhian philosophy is a critique of modernity and power. In a similar historical period (the 20th Century) the French philosopher Michael Foucault also invested in a critique of modernity and power. Both recognised the regulatory and disciplining aspects of the modern state and market/capital. Both looked at practices of the self in order to resist modern power. Their idea of the inner self as a site to resist an external power was key to how they viewed the project of (Western) modernity.  

However, beyond their similarity of purpose and convergence of entry points, they offered vastly different alternatives to and analysis of how to resist power in order to recover a sense of self, autonomy, freedom and dignity.   

Gandhi pursued the moral path of recovering the singularity of truth. Truth for Gandhi meant a complex web composed of moral integrity in political action and social existence. Truth represented an ability to take responsibility for one's action and decisions. A Satyagrahi could protest by breaking the law, but the act of transgression becomes truthful only when one is prepared to face the consequences of that act.   

He, therefore, believed in civil disobedience and breaking laws to be backed up by a preparedness to court arrest, or face any other punishment that the state, courts and law deem fit. Without such preparedness, there is no purity of intention, and that makes an act untruthful even if it is pursued for a just cause.   

Gandhi would often say the only tyrant he was prepared to submit to was his own conscience. Intention and conscience were the presence of god, or a sense of divinity in one's own self. It is this self invested in the idea of truth or god or conscience that alone can resist modern power. Central to modern power, in Gandhi's conception, is that it is a soulless and impersonal manifestation that has robbed us of morality.  

Foucault, in some sense, stands on the opposite side of the Gandhian reading of how modern power operates and how it can be resisted. Even though his purpose was somewhat similar to Gandhi's. Foucault begins by critiquing the very notion of truth. In fact, truth is the other name for how power actualises itself.   

The singularity of truth appears as if it is objective and scientific, if not divine. However, truth or "truth regimes" are historically-produced and socially-constituted. Truth is representative of how power manifests itself. Truth is contingently produced out of discourses of its own time and therefore stands to be questioned with time.   

Similarly, morality in Foucault's conception, is a closed system that excludes those who do not belong to the dominant moral order. He, instead, privileged un-reason, contingency non-identity and multiplicity over the search for a singular truth as a mode for resisting power.  

For both Gandhi and Foucault, the self becomes the site of resistance.  Gandhi believed in an idea of the self that is produced out of a deep moral experience. Here, self-limiting one's own self is the path to self-realisation: Hence, his ideas of not owning possessions, detachment, asceticism, celibacy, and fasting. Gandhi would often refer to them as the practice of brahmacharya. In other words, the art of gaining self-control over one's own senses. One should eat to live, not for the pleasure of the palate, he said. Gandhi even interpreted, in his initial reflections of the subject, that Varna-Ashrama Dharma was as a social method of self-limiting individuals within certain social limits.   

The act of self-limiting was key not only for non-violence but also the very survival of humanity. This reflects in Gandhi's ecological concerns, which included preserving natural resources and extracting as little as possible. He therefore believed that there is "enough for everyone's needs but not for everyone's greed".   

Disciplining the inner self was to be realised also in purity of intention. When Gandhi failed to contain communal riots he blamed himself, and believed that his intention lacked purity, which became the reason for his failure. He takes to fasting as a way to discover what he referred to as the "soul force".  

Foucault was concerned about disciplining the self and the guilt of pleasure as "technologies of self". The modern industrial logic of productivism and scientificity needed a disciplined self that was actualised by the modern state and its governmental mechanisms. What made modern power distinct is its capacity to discipline the "sou"l and not merely the body. It controlled and produced modern, governable subjects that could self-discipline themselves. This best reflected itself in the practice of "confessions" in the Church, where one suffers guilt without being told to do so.  

Gandhi and Foucault offered vastly varying critiques of modern power in spite of their shared rejection of modernity. However, in contemporary times, neither Gandhi nor Foucault have remained symbols or flag-bearers of resistance.   

Gandhi seems to have been appropriated by the modern state and Foucault by the cult of the market. The ruling elite in India is more than anxious to appropriate Gandhi and his message of non-violence. Peace is being read as his message to self-limit one's own desires. Whereas, protest and resistance without self-limiting would not be morally acceptable in Gandhian terms. While the State and ruling elite find this message useful, those at the bottom of the pyramid in India, Dalit-Bahujans have rejected Gandhi as a social and political conservative. It is an irony that the modern state appropriates him while contemporary Satyagrahis find him conservative.  

Similarly, Foucault was welcomed and became a cult as his skepticism of the State was appropriated by the market. While state produces bio-political and moral means of control, and manufactures singular truth, the market comes to stand for a dispersed space that appropriates multiplicity and heterogeneity.   

Clues to understand the current political impasse lie in the crisis of how both these modes of resistance have been appropriated. State and market remain more flexible than were imagined, while resistance is struggling to find a new language and moral universe.   

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU  


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