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Gandhi vs. the State

In Michael Moore’s movie Sicko there is an excellent quote from a British member of parliament, an old-school socialist who thinks that politics should be about bringing power to the people.

    I think there are two ways in which people are controlled: first of all frighten people, and secondly demoralize them. An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern, and I think there’s an element in the thinking of some people: We don’t want people to be educated, healthy and confident because they would get out of control.

This remark could apply to a lot of things, from the way the Bush administration used 9/11 to frighten a nation into a tragic and misguided war, to the way the elites in some developing nations may actually want their people to remain ignorant and poor, because that way, they are “demoralized” and easier to control.

Contrast this with Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj, the cause to which he dedicated his life. Swaraj is often translated “independence” but it is better translated “self-rule” or “rule over oneself.” In other words, self-mastery is a condition of true independence. Swaraj is meant to be understood at both the national level (a nation ruling itself) and the individual level (an individual ruling herself, without a state).

    Swaraj is a kind of individualist anarchism. It warrants a stateless society as according to Gandhi the overall impact of the state on the people is harmful. He called the state a “soulless machine” which, ultimately, does the greatest harm to mankind. Adopting Swaraj means implementing a system whereby state machinery is virtually nil, and the real power directly resides in the hands of people. Gandhi said, “Power resides in the people, they can use it at any time.”

Gandhi himself defined it this way:

    Independence begins at the bottom…. A society must be built in which every village has to be self sustained and capable of managing its own affairs…. It will be a free and voluntary play of mutual forces… In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom, but it will be an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual.

In his Iron Law of Institutions, Jonathan Schwartz argues that the people who control an institution care more about preserving their place within that institution than whether the institution is doing the job it was designed to do. This explains why dictators hold onto power as their nation collapses around them, or why corrupt and incompetent politicians bring discredit to their own parties rather than allow better individuals to take their place.

Perhaps it also explains why in rich or poor nations alike, the rulers so often prefer to keep the people in a condition of demoralization and fear rather than allowing the state to do what it was supposedly designed to do, namely channel the citizens’ ambitions for a better life. What better antidote to this than Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj or self-rule, in which power emnates from the individual, and institutions are seen as a dehumanizing force to be avoided?

India failed to adopt most of Gandhi’s ideas when it won independence, so today it behaves like a typical state. However there is a Swaraj Foundation that is attempting to implement his ideas at a local level, and they have an interesting reading list (click “Learning Resources”). There are also a lot of parallels between the Sarwaj concept and the ideas of Ivan Illich, as found in his two classics of social empowerment, Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality.


Comment from Stéphane
Time: August 13, 2008, 03:54

I quote : “the real power directly resides in the hands of people”

=> I am half OK with this assersion because power in the hand of people has reach its limits, perhaps not in India but in France.

For exemple, in a society each employee much be his own chief, must has entrepreneurship, but everybody is not make to work without clear objectives. The abuse of individualism is not the respect of the individual


Comment from eatbees
Time: August 14, 2008, 02:07

Stéphane, I agree with you completely that “the abuse of inidividualism is not the respect of the individual.” That’s why I like the concept of Swaraj in which “self-rule” has a double meaning: individual liberty but also self-control. Freedom and responsibility are linked. A person without self-mastery isn’t free. A person who insists on his own liberty at the expense of others isn’t practicing Swaraj.

Comment from Stéphane
Time: August 14, 2008, 14:06


I agree with you when you say what freedom and responsability are linked. But how is it applicable ? In france this week there was an accident, a woman of 20 years old has killed a child of 3 years old with her car in a street. She has drunk, smoked drug, and was wrinting a texto at the moment of the accident. How can you have confidence in individual responsability ?

I quote : “Power resides in the people, they can use it at any time.” I agree with this sentence but power is not what we believe. See on my blog there is an article, the title is “the power”

Comment from eatbees
Time: August 17, 2008, 15:24

Stéphane, of course there is no guarantee that individuals will behave responsibly most of the time, but what is the alternative? Rule by a dictator only works if the dictator is benevolent and just, and rule by “God’s law” only works if the humans interpreting that law are as wise as God. So I don’t see any alternative to democracy, or rule by the people, which Churchill called “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”

Gandhi is just extending democracy one more step. He’s saying that we should have no structures at all, except for what flows from individuals at the local level. Obviously this is an ongoing project of self-education, since we must learn to govern ourselves first as individuals, then as a society. I feel that the state, in governing us rather than letting us take responsiblity as adults, is keeping us as children and retarding our evolution. Gandhi’s answer and Ivan Illich’s is to keep politics local so any individual can participate.

I share your sadness at the example of the drunk woman who killed a child with her car, but maybe I take a different lesson from it than you do. Instead of noticing the irresponsiblity of individuals, I would say, “Society has failed that woman by telling her that freedom has no consequences. She never learned that actions have a price. She thinks life is a video game she can start over when she chooses.” Maybe society is too complex today and there are too many choices. When Gandhi argues for no structure beyond what an individual can control, he is arguing for voluntary simplicity as well. Illich thinks we should replace cars with bicycles, and hospitals with home medicine. I’m not sure I would go that far (I like modern cities) but clearly, in such a society, the accident you mentioned would never happen!

Comment from homeyra
Time: August 20, 2008, 09:59

I also remember this sentence from Sicko.
Just a short note to tell you that here is an award for you.

Comment from morisco
Time: September 1, 2008, 23:36

What Is Swaraj?

The concept of swaraj, or self-rule, was developed during the Indian freedom struggle. In his book Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi sought to clarify that the meaning behind swaraj was much more than simply “wanting [systems of] English rule without the Englishman; the tiger’s nature but not the tiger.” The crux of his argument centered on the belief that the socio-spiritual underpinnings of British political, economic, bureaucratic, legal, military, and educational institutions were inherently unjust, exploitative and alienating. As Pinto explicates, “The principal theme of Hind Swaraj is the moral inadequacy of western civilization, especially its industrialism, as the model for free India.” Gandhi was particularly critical of the deeply embedded principles of ‘might is right’ and ‘survival of the fittest’.

On another level, the call for swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the ‘self’ – our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization – from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, “It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true swaraj (liberation and self-rule). you can read the rest at wikipedia

oh yeah . help the (dalit people) please . there’s more than 250 million dalit living as fourth class citizens in india they have no right in owning land nor to enroll their kids in public schools or even walk on the same pavement as hindu , they work mainly as farmers or toilet cleaners for food not money and the hindus call them (untouchable) because they think they’re dirty. the western world like call india the largest democracy on this planet its joke.

Comment from morisco
Time: September 1, 2008, 23:53

check this one self rule in india.

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 3, 2008, 15:41

Thanks morisco, I guess it’s clear from your examples that people aren’t practicing what Gandhi tried to show them! Clearly his idea of “self-rule” or “self-mastery” is idealistic, and ignorance and hate are the great enemy. My practical side tells me we need institutions with rules to keep people in line, because most people can’t, don’t, or won’t rule themselves. My idealistic side forever aspires to something more.

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