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)
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
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
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
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