Gandhi the Futurist

When Gandhi critiqued the notion of western civilisation in ‘Hind Swaraj’, at a time when the West was the beacon of the world, he was branded a throwback to an earlier age. Hundred years on, the world is discovering how prophetic he was.

The following is an excerpt from Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century, by Niranjan Ramakrishnan (Palgrave PivotPalgrave Macmillan, 2013).

It was probably Alvin Toffler who first suggested the source of our discomfort with change. He noted that it was not change itself but rather its increasing speed that troubled us – which is to say, we are unnerved not so much by the velocity as by the acceleration. […]

Toffler’s Future Shock came out in the 1970s, and his observation about change growing ever-faster has proven entirely true. Many would point to the increased speed of communication and large-scale human migrations as examples; the Internet would be high on most people’s lists. The rapidity of change has pushed other futurists to enhance their own visualisations of what else might be expected in the decades to come, on the basis of the frequency of technological surges, new materials, and altered lifestyles.

Less evident is any widespread manifestation of the second aspect of Toffler’s prediction: a concomitant angst and disquiet on account of change….Remedies for chronic diseases, prospects of endless food and entertainment, underwritten by bioengineering miracles for limitless energy and pervasive connectivity, are givens in this unfolding technological Panglossia. Those of a more ethereal disposition see in the increased human interaction and diversity made practicable by fast communication and transportation a way toward unprecedented world harmony.

Paradoxically, even those who inveigh against the ill-effects of modernity, if not industrialisation per se, prescribe solutions that envision more technology, only they call it “smarter”. The environmental movement might boast of recent Nobel prizes and growing numbers of celebrities going “green,” but the overall trend is definitely toward greater reliance on technology and technology-based consumption, not less. It is the faith of both the world’s elites and its middle classes that science is the answer, that technology is the future, that gadgetry will resolve humanity’s problems.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan
Reading Gandhi in the Twenty First Century
Palgrave (December 2013)

It is a premise this book [Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-first Century] seeks to examine. It does so in the context of a previous book, the work of a futurist from a hundred years ago.  Everyone has heard of its author, but few would think of him as a futurist. Indeed, many might view him as the very antithesis of one; even in his own time he was regarded as rather a throwback to an even earlier age.

Nonetheless, I believe Mahatma Gandhi was a futurist in the best sense of the word. He foresaw trends and had the confidence to record his predictions and prescriptions in bold and stark terms. He did so, not in a stray article or opinion piece, but over a lifetime of speeches, writings – and living –beginning with Hind swaraj, the remarkable book he started writing in 1909.

The essential mark of a futurist is the ability to visualise something that does not exist; it is merely an added bonus if he happens to get it right. A hundred years later…each passing week appears to bear out the strength of Gandhi’s prognostications.

But the context in which he made them is equally worthy of attention.

Toffler’s thesis notwithstanding, change – and even its rapidity – are not wholly new. The Industrial Revolution and its offshoots have been altering the world almost continually over the past two centuries. Even as we in our day pride ourselves on being the “science” people, we are merely nurturing a fond notion our forefathers too cherished. Each gene as they are in the ration in the recent past has been united by its illusion that it alone, ever more than its predecessors, is privy to the scientific outlook. It is sobering to note that belief in the gods of science and technology has been with us far longer than our own lifetimes: indeed, they were as much watchwords in the first decades of the twentieth century as they are in the twenty-first.

The futurist who was considered a throwback to an earlier age in his time. Sketch: Masood Hussain

While Gandhi was writing Hindi Swaraj, Europe was thrilling to the sounds of the airplane and the automobile. The telephone and the telegraph were already several decades old. The electric light was spreading into the streets, replacing gas lamps. A Wi-Fi connection on a plane may be a big deal to us today, but can we declare it was any less exciting suddenly to be able to cross the ocean in a few hours or light up entire cities at dusk?

If anything, the early twentieth century was a time of singular hope and belief in technology. The flaws and ill-effects of industrial progress were less manifest, and it was the chassis upon which the juggernaut of Western civilisation rested as it hurtled to the far ends of the earth. Hillaire Belloc captured this central truth in its crassest form:

Whatever happens
We have got
The Maxim Gun
And they have not.

For all the arguments for Western civilisation and its claims of moral, political, and cultural ascendancy over the colonial world, the most essential element of superiority lay in science, with military might its clearest exposition.

But even this was only the tip of the iceberg. Along with the science and the guns came an industrial organisation and an incipient management and communication culture that combined to achieve a magical efficiency that “lesser breeds” of the planet could only behold in awe. India and China might hark back to their ancient monuments or keep pointing to their inventions of zero and gunpowder, but everyone at the start of the twentieth century – in East and West – knew in their hearts where the future lay.

Thus, in 1909 the Western civilisation was the unquestioned beacon of the world. We must recall that this was before Europe had blown itself to smithereens in a four-year orgy that would start shortly. If the European powers came out of that holocaust with all their colonies intact, albeit in different hands, one can only imagine the feeling prior to this exhaustion. The writing on the wall was clear: the European path was the way of the future, against which any cultural struggle would be futile, if not imbecilic.

It was in this setting, on a ship back to South Africa from England after meeting with the top rung of English politicians and having seen British power at its height, that Gandhi wrote a tract debunking the entire notion of Western civilisation. The themes of the book would stay with him and inform his thinking throughout the rest of his life, although he was keenly aware of the attraction the Western model held for so many of his compatriots who thought it was the quickest way to a better life.

The cover of Hind Swaraj.

The world knows Gandhi only for his leadership of India’s freedom struggle….It is the fate of multifaceted individuals to be known mainly for just one or two things.  Gandhi’s tragedy is that he is unsung, even unknown, for his greatest contribution, even in the land of his birth. This is a real tragedy, for what he identified in Hind Swaraj was a fatal flaw that would make the twentieth century the bloodiest in history, and set the twenty-first for ecological catastrophe.

Gandhi was also one of the earliest environmentalists, but from a spiritual viewpoint, not a scientific one. He would not have known technical terms such as “rainforest diversity” or “population load,” but he understood better than most the implications for both humankind and life at large of unfettered greed.

Mark Twain quipped that it was dangerous to make prediction, especially about the future. One might add, “even more so when every trend is contrary to your thesis.” But this is exactly what Gandhi did. When he began writing Hind Swaraj in 1909, he faced a West that was resplendent, confident, on top of the world. Even when he died some forty years later, the Europe of 1909 was in shambles but the European model was intact; indeed, it was gaining adherents in newer places still. Every country in the East (and West) continued to pursue the Holy Grail of industrial expansion. India itself rejected Gandhi in its post-independence economic policies.

But sixty years after Gandhi’s assassination, on the centenary of Hind Swaraj, it is Gandhi who seems prophetic….The collective flailing of the world’s political and business elites during the years since proclaiming a global economic crisis in 2008 is practically a QED for Hind Swaraj, and there is something almost poetic about the meltdown coinciding with its centenary. The book is a repudiation of every dictum of a globalised industrial economy. To me, it has always seemed the work most congruent with Gandhi’s own striving toward liberation, not merely from foreign rule but from all thralldom. In his own words, “I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke whatsoever.”

Niranjan Ramakrishnan has been a long-time contributor to Counterpunch and Countercurrents and his work has been carried by Z-Mag, Common Dreams and Dissident Voice. Among the print outlets that have featured his writings are The Oregonian, the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today and the Economic Times. His first book, Bantaism – The Philosophy of Sardar Jokes (2011), was hailed for its audacity by noted author and historian Khushwant Singh.