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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Gandhi and Jean Baudrillard

Saturday 21 July 2007, by Dipak Malik


As a matter of fact Jean Baudrillard, who recently died, was not very far in his worldview from Gandhi, who succumbed to the assassin’s bullet some 59 years ago. Except that Gandhi conducted virtually single-handedly the largest anti-colonial movement in the annals of world history after the twenties and did not succumb to stereotype trajectories offered in the vast historical tracts of anti-colonial movements right from the new world’s struggle to the struggles in the traditional world waiting to get liberated from colonialism. But there are strange parallels in the worldview of the two, though their domains of experience were altogether different.

The four major concerns of the Gandhian worldview were ethical parameters and their adoption in the affairs of state, nation and civilisation, thus making a ‘praxis’ of departure from the age- old Machiavellian and Chanakyan models. Ethical means for ethical objectives which get reflected in the praxis of Satagraha, environmental concerns germinating from his observation of mindless, aggressive and greedy expansion of imperial capital by the metropolitan powers, identifying women as the vanguards of a non-violent polity and practice, the emphasis on return to the nature and basic simplicity through his advocacy of largely utopian village republics, yet significantly non-utopian after the 1932 Poona Pact, and his acceptance of the capability of peasant societies to struggle against the zamindari system form the basic ingredients of the Gandhian worldview albeit in hunches. He apparently had some inkling of the future contradictions. The hegemony of the non-greedy, non-capitalist, non-feudal, non-discriminatory village society versus the alienating hub of mega urbanisation and industrialisation largely disturbing the balance between industry and agriculture—which has now rather converted into a raging controversy in the era of SEZ expansion as an industry versus agriculture debate—formed the kernel of Gandhian dialectics.

Baudrillard emerges out of a penchant cultural critic of the technology driven society which literally transforms the old relationship between individual as well as collectivity to the simple universe of nature into an altered set of relationships. Technology occupying the driving seat and the mode of production getting inundated from the hegemonic role of technology is the current disturbing state of affairs which evokes a response from Baudrillard. What bewildered him was the way the modern ensemble of technology, state and capital literally slaughtered the simple cognisable realities in their pristine forms and created a smoke-screen around it to move to a teleology which invariably took one to the ever expanding territory of alienation, self-destruction and inescapable imprisonment. Baudrillard declares that wherever scientific discovery, industrial upheavals, demographic transformation, urban expansion are engineered by the world capitalist market system acting as the principal motor of modernisation, such developments apparently look concrete and give an impression of solidity but they, in the final analysis, melt into air when the dialectic between modernisation and modernism occurs. Thus the great market-technology-driven capitalism creates a surrealistic world which ruptures from the basic reality and its relationship to the world and turns into a virtual unreality where symbols function without reference to tangible objects. A smoke-screen is created resulting in a mythology of unreality around preventing one to see things in its pristine factuality.

But whereas a post-modern Baudrillard touches a startingly proximity to the concept of “Maya” which also finds things melting into nothingness that, however, does not tally with the time-scale of the modern technological era but poses as a reality without any spatial and historical frame. Here the similarity with Gandhi ends as Gandhi still wanted a weave a tapestry of the future society or rather futuristic society with a mandate to spurn violence, and get back to the rustic simplicity of the village and nature, albeit this part of a seemingly utopia melts with the creation of a non-feudal rural society. Survival of the village in the midst of the non-capitalist mode of production and an organic communitarian society with egalitarian tinge alongside the levelling of the hierarchical Hindu Varna society—a cultural regime literal with tolerance, equanimity between distinct religious identities, faiths and groups—are the contours of the Gandhian restructuring of society.

GANDHI was obviously neither lost nor smoke-screened in the nothingness of Maya nor was he despondent about the absence of a cogent praxis for instilling a grand narrative of the future; his relationship with post-modernism precisely stops here and he becomes an actor of a futuristic endeavour in all its colours. Ecology and virgin nature, industrialisation versus agriculture, capitalist consumerism versus non-capitalist non-feudal society are all interconnected questions that Gandhi fervently proposed for an alternative praxis, however unreal and utopian it may look; but Gandhian praxis was not territorially specific, it was axiomatically universal.

The questions of ecological balance, peace, primacy of civil society in Gramscian terms (society outside the coercive dirigitse of state) are questions which have acquired a centrality and Gandhi invariably looms large behind all these posers. The unilinear concept of history is alien to Marxism also though it is common practice for sectorian interpreters to turn into unilinear modes than a dynamically multiplying dialectal flow which ushers together not one history but several histories simultaneously. It may not be out of place to refer to Etienne Balibar who suggests that it is not the feudal mode of production that evolves into capitalist mode but the different elements that comprises the structure called capitalism, that come together to form capitalism and so transfer from one stage to another. Teleologically this proves vulnerable as the conditions for maturing into the next stage are invariably conjectural rather than unilineary precoded. For a mechanial interpreter of Marxism, Gandhi may look like striking a proximity with the Narodniks in Russia because of his immense faith on the village, peasantry, pre-capitalism as well as non-capitalism; this would be another stale as well as futile exercise in straightjacketing in the revolving circus of sectarianism and wooden-headed doctrinarism. Gandhi emerges out as an actor of a distinct as well as differing history not necessarily filling into convenient stereotypes that on both sides of the fence the devotees as well as the adversaries would desire.

With many of his prognoses gone waste in the vast and varied subcontinent of India, he was not off the mark when he thought that it would be a fool’s utopia to think that India can be industrialised in the manner in which the history of Western societies trekked along; he was also aware that if India embraced the imperial models which he thought were not viable at all, it will have to plunder the whole world as he saw the small island kingdom of Britain turning into an England as the bedrock of modern capitalism after having subjugated more than half of the world. Indeed India is much bigger and, according to these calculations, it will have to plunder every nook and corner of the world to become a wealthy India resting on the might of its capital and capitalism; so Gandhi was unable to welcome the nightmare of neo-colonialism which has taken its latest avatar as globalisation—for him the nightmare of classical imperialism or colonialism was enough and he wanted his fellow countrymen and women to break away from these shackles.

Gandhi equally does not fit in a post-modernist mould though many post-modernist enthusiasts would wish so; rather he fits as a passionate player of futuristic praxis with ecologically friendly habitat and industrialisation in a non-capitalist mode of production with trusteeship rather than profit maximisation as the goal for alleviating the woes of the common masses and to facilitate a non-feudal mode of agrarian production and non-hierarchical social life. He also sees a new vanguard for change emerging from the columns of women. “There is enough to feed people, not enough for their greed” was the understanding that went against the mad consumerism, profit maximisation and pre-emptive attacks on oil rich territories with a design of raw plunder. Post-modernists are not concerned with a future humanistic architecture of our civilisation. More so when we are willing to dream and do not consider this as merely a fruitless grand narrative. They are reconciled to a stagnant as well as aggressive present with nothing to encounter but to mumble ugly nothings in the ears of tired, isolated intellectuals who have kept themselves away from the world of restless dissenters, organic intellectuals, social activists and masses on the move.

In the era of “hyper reality” and “simulation”, the facts have retreated into oblivion and Braudillard like an ever alert defective tries to solve this “slaughter” of reality. The post-modernist view, however, can command a gaze but due to its tragic inability to believe and restructure “an alternative” it becomes a hopeless victim of the era of virtuality and unreality. This is what distinguishes Gandhi and Braudillard. Gandhi has an uncanny sense and a discerning eye to find out the germinating roots of the malady and then launch a massive humane-ethical alternative, indeed a very difficult proposition in those hey days of colonialism and perhaps more so today. Yet the Gandhian project has that invevitable spirit and prowess which makes it revive itself repeatedly whenever one of those apocalyptic hallucinations threatens life.

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