Gandhi and the Mentality of Modernity

A Transcript of the Report by Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, presented at the 12th Rhodes Forum on September 26, 2014

It’s fitting to honor Jagdish Kapur by having a discussion of Gandhi and Tolstoy significance today. I’d like to look at Gandhi and Tolstoy not to expound what they have to say, but to get from them the resource of the interest in the spiritual and folk traditions of their part of the world, basically the non-European South, and to see what that resource allows one by way of critical power in understanding European civilization. A lot has been written on this. One of the subjects that emerge here is that it is assumed by many, and this is what Gandhi and Tolstoy were criticizing, that what happened in Europe and in the West must eventually happen in the rest of the world. That is a very well-known fact, it is a part of colonial legacy. What is less fully articulated is that one believes that what happened in the West and in Europe must happen in the rest of the world for a very specific reason and that is that what happened in the West happened because it was rational to happen. So when one opposes it, one has to criticize this rationality. My colleague Ashis Nandy will speak after me has done a lot of work in critiquing that idea of rationality. The idea is because it was rational in the West it must be inevitable as a progressive necessity in other parts of the world.

Let’s look at it from the spoken spiritual traditions of the South which Gandhi was tapping. What does the West look like from that point of view? Let’s look at the basic ideals of the West. The basic ideals are that we all been brought up to admire other values and ideals of liberty and equality, but it is interesting and almost a perverse thing that as soon as these two ideals were articulated in the West, they were theorized in such a way that they were put in deep tension with one another. So it was impossible to realize the one without feeling to realize the other. It is sort of zero sum tension between them. If you look at the West from the point of view of the spiritual and folk traditions which never articulated liberty and equality as ideals, were never part of spiritual and folk traditions of the South, it seems a very perverse thing that here is a part of the world in which two great ideals were articulated and immediately put in tension with one another. It is a very strange thing to observe from a distance.

What, I think, emerges from people like Gandhi and Tolstoy is to say: Let’s remove liberty and equality from central stage and we should put something else on central stage as the basic goal of politics. Maybe bringing liberty and equality again from the back door, but they are not going on the central stage, but in the nearly necessary conditions to achieve this other third more fundamental ideal. What was that more fundamental ideal that came from Gandhi, Tolstoy and other figures including Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky? What was this other more fundamental ideal? How can we think about any ideal more fundamental then what we’ve been brought up on, which is liberty and equality? I think what Gandhi proposed was that the more fundamental ideal was the ideal of living an unalienated life. This is something which is very deep in these folk and spiritual traditions. If liberty and equality are important it is only because their necessary conditions for this other more fundamental ideal.

What is this idea of an unalienated life? One of the reasons why liberty and equality were in tension with one another right from the start is that liberty was attached, first of all, to the possession of property. The possession of property bestowed on one. Liberty, which became part of the law of the land. But a much more psychologically deep going aspect of liberty was not that it just attached the property, but that it attached to individual talent and thereby incentivized individual talent. It is to say that it was argued that for centuries in early forms of social life if there was something wonderful that emerged as a cultural product, let’s say, the praise went to the whole “Zeitgeist”. After the Enlightenment, in the 17th century and roughly onwards, that began to be seen as a way of denying individual, a recognition of their individual talent. If it were just a tribute praise to the “Zeitgeist”, they must be recognized as having talent, each individual, and must be rewarded for it, must be allowed to reap the fruits. That notion of dessert became a kind of another liberty, right, otherwise you were not respecting the individual. This created again tension with equality. This course is very deep. You know all about it, this endorsements for sportsmen, their merit raises in cooperation. In fact if you remember during the financial crisis somebody said: “Look we’ve got to stop these bonuses for these bankers, the outcry was the banks will lose their talent. To which the obvious answer it is talent got to all the financial crisis, so let’s have some mediocrity. In any case, here is the tension: liberty attaches to property, attaches talent and it creates inequalities.

The question arises: what is it? What is the mentality that underlies the thinking of liberty in such a way in this tension with equality along these lines? I want you to consider what the mentality is. It sometimes called homo ecomicus. Let’s ask what the mentality is by looking at one very common issue and problem that is worth discussing: that is the idea of the tragedy of the commons. When Gandhi and Tolstoy talked of the cooperativeness of coming alive or the life of the ashram and community they were looking at a kind of cognitive mentality. What does it take to be cooperative? You can’t understand that without understanding that what they were opposing was the mentality which is supposed to give rise to formal rationality which leads to the tragedy of the commons. Here is the idea. It’s a very simple idea. People put it in fancy terms by talking about multi-person business dilemmas of very simple idea. The idea is that it is not rational to cooperate. It is not rational to live the life that Gandhi and Tolstoy and all were suggesting which is the life of commons in which this cooperation to keep the commons up and live by the commons. The commons could be anything: it could land, it could be fresh air, so the environmental issues are very basic to the commons too. The idea was it is not rational to cooperate because non-cooperation gives you immediate benefits and you are never sure that cooperation is going to happen because you do not know whether other will do it or not. So the idea is you should not overcultivate the land or you should not overfish to create the problem of overfishing. You have to pay the cost. Everybody if they pay the cost then everybody is well off. But you never know that everybody else is cooperating, so it would be more rational not to cooperate, because the benefits of non-cooperation are immediate and assured whereas the benefits of cooperation are not assured and they are long gone. The thinking, the mentality goes, you can never cooperate if nobody cooperates or if individuals are, what they called, free riders, then the commons will be destroyed. The idea is you privatize the land, you incentivize the talent, the idea of the commons, the ashram mentality is just irrational. This goes extremely deep in liberal thinking. It is the essence of liberal thinking. You have to ask the question: how is the unalienated life that I’m putting on central stage on behalf of Gandhi and Tolstoy as political ideals, how does it stand opposed to this way of thinking?

Let me end with two anecdotes to get across what I have in mind. I think what Gandhi and Tolstoy were saying is that there is no doubt that an unalienated life is enjoyed by individuals. It is a form of individual liberty and that is something that they were both committed to. But they reconstrued liberty along different lines. I think something like this is the idea that is there in Gandhi and I think he was in some reason deriving it from Tolstoy, the idea is that the mistake in the West is to think that values to live by just come from our heads, from our subjectivities. Values are things that are in the world and they make normative demands on us. The world doesn’t just consist of what the natural sciences study. The world consists of what the natural sciences study, the world consists of things that demand of us a certain moral and normative life. We have to see the world correctly, if we are going to be unalienated. We have to just literally, see the world correctly. What is it to see the world correctly? The concept of liberty doesn’t give rise to equality. What is this unalienated way of literally seeing the world’s demands on you? The best I can do is just to give you an analogy and ask you to extrapolate it from the analogy I give you to the social idea that I have in mind. 

I was teaching my daughter to drive a car and I noticed that when I was in driver’s seat and she was next to me, when I looked at her I was oriented towards her by my body. It was my individual body that was talking to her and looking at her. Then I turned around and I was driving and I suddenly realized that I was seeing the world not from the point of view of my individual body, but from the point of view of something larger, which is the whole car. My orientation to the world, I literally saw the world’s demands on me not from my individual bodily point of view which was when I was talking to her, but from a point of view of something larger. If I hadn’t it would’ve been a car crash, if I’d looked at the road from the point of view of my individual body, I would’ve crashed the car. I had to look at it from a larger point of view. In that sense I think the tragedy of the commons is like the tragedy of a car crash. You are looking at the world’s demands on you from the point of view of something more narrow then you should be. You should look at it from the point of view, literally seeing its demands as coming from a larger point of view than your own, and it was Gandhi’s point. And if you did, liberty so conceived could not be at odds with equality, because it is the deliverance of liberty which would not be in a trade of something alien like equality, but you would be seeing liberty as exercised in a way that is more socially oriented and from the point of view of everybody, so it could not deliver results which were at odds with the equality.

I want you to give a sense that if you even ask the question of the tragedy of the commons which is what if somebody else doesn’t do what I do when I cooperate? What if they do not cooperate? Even to ask that question is to be alienated.

I will end with the anecdote from my teenage. When my father and I lived in Bombay, my father would take me for a walk every morning, I was 12 years old. Once we were walking on a beach, we came across a wallet with some rupees sticking out of it and my father stopped and he said: “Akeel, tell me why should we not pick it up?” I said: “I think we should pick it up”. He looked very irritated and said “Why do you think we should pick it up?”. I said: “If we don’t pick it up, somebody else will pick it up”. He said and I never understood what he meant: “If we don’t pick it up then nobody will pick it up”. I think that is the unalienated  idea. That makes it impossible to ask the question about the tragedy of the commons. It makes it impossible. That mentality is ruled out. You should be preempted from, you should have an unalienated mentality which does not even allow you to say: “What if others are not cooperating why should I cooperate?”. That should not even be a question that can arise. That is the unalienated  life of Gandhi and Tolstoy. Thank you.