Friday, 11 January 2013

Boulding on why Gandhi failed

Kenneth Boulding

My Lord, Thou art in every breath I take,
And every bite and sup taste firm of Thee.
With buoyant mercy Thou enfoldest me,
And holdest up my foot each step I make.
Thy touch is all around me when I wake,
Thy sound I hear, and by Thy light I see
The world is fresh with Thy divinity
And all Thy creatures flourish for Thy sake.
For I have looked upon a little child
And seen Forgiveness, and have seen the day
With eastern fire cleanse the foul night away;
So cleansest Thou this House I have defiled.
And if I should be merciful, I know
It is Thy mercy, Lord, in overflow.
There is a Spirit, 1975, p. 13.)

Apart from being a great Quaker mystical poet, Boulding was a widely respected Economist, many feel, greatly ahead of his time.
He introduced the concept of Psychic Capital in 1950 which, I suppose, might marry well with the doctrine of Rupert Sheldrake and give rise to a sort of Humanistic teleology such that 'the Noosphere'- i.e. the common intellectual and moral heritage of man- might itself yield an 'Omega point'- or theosis for the entire species.
However, in the context of why Gandhi failed, what he has to say about negative Psychic Capital bears repeating
'... failure in a task could also lead to a depletion of psychic capital. An accumulation of negative memories of failures, disasters,atrocities, or perceived injustices and indignities (as either recipient or perpetrator) could be called negative psychic capital. Negative psychic capital can also be a powerful motivating factor, in the pursuit of satisfaction through revenge or a settling of scores. In either of its forms as positive or negative psychic capital, this package of collective memory is an essential link between collective memory and collective mental state'
Mahatma Gandhi did not create the negative psychic capital which fuelled the Indian Revolutionaries- he did not invent the 'drain theory' of Indian immeseration or the notion that the rule of predominantly White I.C.S officers and Judges somehow represented a worse insult to Indian honour than the rule of 'Ashraf' Turks or Afghans or Yemenis or 'Manuvaad' Brahmins or Banias or Rajputs. However, he was very successful in denying that the positive Psychic capital created by the British Raj- viz. technological progress, law and order, a meritocratic educational system which permitted boys from poor families to rise to become High Court Judges, Privy Counselors, Dewans of Native State- was actually a good thing.
Boulding, visiting India some half a century ago, wrote-
The failure of Gandhism is not a failure of ahimsa, but a failure of satyagraha. The modern world is so complex that the truth about it cannot be perceived by common sense or by mystical insight, important as these things are. We must have the more delicate and quantitative sampling and processing of information provided by the methods of the social sciences if we are really to test the truth of our images of social and political systems.
Boulding was perhaps unaware that Gandhi's 'Guru' in politics, Gokhale- a Professor of Mathematics- represented precisely the sort of truth seeking, statistics compiling, rational and quantitative approach which Gandhism so signally turned his back on. The Servants of India Society functioned as a sort of Jesuit order, prizing  scholarship and independent research just as much as individual austerity and self-sacrifice. Gokhale, before his death, warned against entrusting any negotiations to Gandhi- he said, truth be told, his achievements in South Africa had fallen far short of the mark- and, to their credit, the Servants of India Society refused to admit Gandhi to their own august order. Thus, the only reasonable conclusion to draw, as to why Gandhism failed- assuming Boulding is correct- is that it was not because Gandhi came from a Society incapable of anything except 'common sense and mystical insight' but because Gandhi was not intelligent enough to take the more arduous path indicated by Social Science. Yet, to do him Justice, at Champaran, or later, during his inquiry into the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, he used his influence to exclude from the record testimony of atrocities which could not be substantiated- an important step in securing him the respect of the British authorities. True, as Rajendra Prasad pointed out, the Champaran atrocities had been exaggerated to a point of ludicrous absurdity, Gandhi had no alternative but to pursue the course he did- no lawyer of  any degree of professional integrity could have done otherwise- still, something else about Gandhi- viz. his proprietary, but also wholly imaginary, Psychic Capital of Satyagraha- proved more decisive in establishing his place as the leader of the Indian Freedom Struggle and arbiter of, not its Destiny, unless that was always a cowardly dereliction of duty, but its dense, dour and dim-witted praxis of self-deception.
But the simple 'preference falsification availability cascade' which a set of provincial politicians profited from, has now been taken up by senile Professors of International standing for no purpose I can see save that of making plain the utter bankruptcy of their disciplines.
Boulding, perhaps, was unaware of this impending disaster when he wrote-
 The next logical step, therefore, for the Gandhian movement would seem to be in the direction of the social sciences, in peace research, and in the testing of all our images of society by the more refined means for discovering truth which are now available to us. I am not suggesting, of course, that the social sciences produce “absolute” truth, or indeed that much valid perception is not achieved through common sense and insight. What I do suggest, however, is that the problem of truth is so difficult that we cannot afford to neglect any means of improving the path towards it, and that without this, non-violence will inevitably be frustrated.
Since Boulding wrote these words, and more particularly in the last twenty years, there has been an enormous explosion in 'Gandhian social research' as well as a Global epidemic of non-violent movements which attract good people and sustain a self-image of being effective thanks to the myth of the Mahatma's own extraordinary and untrue achievement of expelling the British from India. 
But is this a genuine psychic capital- know-how, as Boulding terms it- or merely a mass delusion like the recent panic about the Mayan Apocalypse?
The fact is, both genuine technological changes and imaginary ones can have a short term impact. The announcement, by a credible source, of the discovery of 'cold fusion' will move markets even if it turns out to be false later on.
It may be a false announcement coincides with some genuine change which militates towards the same end. In that case the only way of differentiating the true from the imaginary cause is to test their alethic status. Gandhian satyagraha fails this test. Where  peasant agitations succeeded, as in Champaran or Bardoli, Gandhi  neither initiated nor built upon what was achieved. All that Social Science can say is that 'rent strikes' or the like can succeed under such and such circumstances but their achievements are severely limited and require the sort of outside help which can't be made universally available. Bardoli succeeded because wealthy men from Bombay were willing to buy back alienated land and return it to its owners. Precisely for that reason, Bardoli was self-limiting.
Gandhian saytagraha, as some sort of 'perpetual motion' device, remains a myth- but is Boulding's notion of Psychic Capital really indifferent between myth and reality?
Everywhere I went in India in my brief and inadequate visits I heard one thing: “There is no alternative”. It was precisely the greatness of Gandhi that he always insisted there was an alternative. Morality always implies that there are alternatives to choose, for morality is choice. To deny alternatives is to deny morality itself. To perceive alternatives requires imagination, hard thinking, and costly and painstaking study. If the Gandhian movement in India can recapture this great vision of the alternative, India may yet be saved from the disaster towards which she seems to be heading.
Yes, Gandhi always insisted there was an alternative. But it was imaginary. Morality, indeed, is to choose rightly. But can Boulding really mean that it is morally right to reject Reality, because it remains indifferent to your scolding, and to live instead in a Fool's Paradise where, like Acharya Vinobha Bhave, you imagine that you have solved all Bihar's problems because, by your efforts, almost all of the land in the state has been gifted away in an entirely bogus  'boodhan'? Surely this is not Morality but self-serving Stupidity of a particularly repulsive sort.
There was a time when it appeared that the Government of India, purely in its own interest, was going to bring in tougher anti-corruption laws coupled with some sort of fast track Ombudsman service. This was because a principal-agent problem had arisen- dynasts could no longer trust their bag-men- and in this context it appeared that a 'Gandhian' anti-corruption movement might serve a useful purpose by creating a sort of popular 'don't take, don't give' anti-bribe' Psychic Capital favorable to Market based reforms. 
That was a pipe-dream. What we are faced with instead is just another rowdy political party and one more bogus Yogi Bogi Godman.

Boulding's work, including his notion of Psychic Capital, is by no means facile. But, properly applied, it militates to the conclusion that Gandhism was a sham. Elsewhere, and treating only of social movements which yielded more than they cost, it may yet expand the noo-sphere, not the nonsense sphere.


  1. I am not aware of any connection between Rupert Sheldrake and Kenneth Boulding. Boulding was a serious thinker, rigorous in his approach and his Religious faith is irrelevant to his legacy for Economics and Systems theory. Furthermore, the doctrine of theosis is from the Greek Orthodox Church, not the Society of Friends.
    Boulding explicitly states that Gandhism failed precisely because it did not follow Scientific principles. Had Gandhi commissioned a proper study of things like 'khaddar' thread production, then it is quite possible that it could have been changed to become productive and employment generating. For example, at present handloom weaving of carpets and fine fabrics is economically viable. But it is done with machine yarn. Hand spinning can't compete in terms of price or quality. Gandhi's intuition was that if the weavers became dependent on Machine yarn, then the Capitalists would try to destroy handloom weaving by denying them good quality yarn so as to monopolize the market with machine made fabrics- i.e. Gandhi was worried that vertical integration in Manufacturing would squeeze out the small weaver. Had a proper Economic study been commissioned, Gandhi would have seen the flaw in his reasoning and tried another tack. Gandhi did not have an M.B.A or an engineering degree. Why should he be blamed if his initial idea was wrong? Gandhism is bigger than any one man. There are numerous other areas where Gandhi was willing to be convinced by empirical evidence and to change his mind. All that Boulding is saying is that Gandhism failed because it was not scientific in its attitude, but it can succeed if it learns by its mistakes.
    Compare the miniscule amount of research being done by 'Gandhian' technologists and the billions of dollars spent by big Corporations- it is no wonder that Gandhism looks weak and anemic. But, David can overcome Goliath if David does not lose heart and develops appropriate technologies using what is at hand. David had no sword or armor to smite the giant. So he used a sling=shot- a poor man's technology.

    1. I think theosis is the same as the Quaker doctrine of Perfection- vide. I don't know much about Boulding and am currently reading some of his later works.
      I think you are right when you say Boulding does not endorse Rupert Sheldrake's 'morphic resonance'. He was a sophisticated thinker. Still, 'know-how' externalities, whatever their inward mechanism, would tend to lower the cost of acquisition of Knowledge and lower barriers to improved choice of technique.
      The problem with Boulding's article 'why Gandhi failed' is that it does not address Gandhi's conspiracy theory of Capitalism and moral pessimism by which those with Wealth and Power always use it to harm and impoverish the weak and poor. The fact is Gandhi received a lot of feedback on how 'khaddar' could be profitable but he rejected that advise. He said he'd prefer to close down the whole program rather than permit weavers to sell their product for a good price and wear cheaper machine made cloth themselves. I don't see how any amount of 'Social Science' could have convinced Gandhi to change his mind.
      The amount of 'Social Science research' done by Gandhians may indeed be miniscule but the amount of hot air produced by them has been quite staggering over the last 20 years. If money and scholarly attention were all that was required to put Gandhism on an equal footing with Market Oriented Scientism then, in India at least, it would be in a dominant position. Yet, as Boulding noted forty years ago, in India more that anywhere else people were utterly disillusioned with Gandhism. It did not represent an alternative but just mindless stupidity and holier than thou hot air.
      Boulding may have believed that Gandhi was one of the first Indians to get a Western education and so he was a pioneer who made mistakes because his people were very backward. The reverse is the case. Had Gandhi gone to College in India, rather than try to leap-frog over the competition by paying a lot of money for a Barrister's licence from London, he would have been forced to pass exams in Commerce (what we now call Business Studies) and Accountancy and so on. Indeed, had he remained in India- if for example he had managed to get a couple of clients with or without the use of a 'tout' and not totally disgraced himself in Court, then his moral and personal qualities would have brought him to the attention of the Reformers who stressed training in Quantitative methods. Working as a lawyer, he would have become familiar with the Economic facts of life. This did not happen. Gandhi went to South Africa where he enjoyed a monopoly as the only Indian barrister till about 1902- which is when he intended to return to India for good. The Indians gave a lot of money to Gandhi in South Africa. For his part, he gave Gokhale a royal welcome when he visited that country. There was an Indian M.P at Westminster lobbying hard for the amelioration of the conditions of Indians in the Colony. But, Gandhi was not influenced by the 'know how' and rational thinking of these people. He preferred to consider himself the sole fountain of wisdom. This is what attracts Gandhians. They feel they to gain a superiority to other toilers in the fields of Social Science Research and Activism by claiming his mantle. This is why Gandhism continues to fail. Anna Hazare, supposedly a Gandhian, Aung San Suu Kyi, very much a Gandhian, both will be shown to have been naive tools, mere window dressing, rather than reforming angels. That is my fear.

    2. Let me remind you of what you wrote- 'He introduced the concept of Psychic Capital in 1950 which, I suppose, might marry well with the doctrine of Rupert Sheldrake and give rise to a sort of Humanistic teleology such that 'the Noosphere'- i.e. the common intellectual and moral heritage of man- might itself yield an 'Omega point'- or theosis for the entire species.'
      It appears to me that you are suggesting that Quaker Religion has some sort of concept of the Human species gaining divine powers, becoming as Gods. It may be that such a doctrine exists in Mormonism or is part of 'New Age' thinking. However, there is no evidence that the Quakers, Quaker thinkers like Kenneth Boulding subscribed to such views.
      Your criticism of Gandhi misfires because you are importing some extraneous notion of a Science Fiction sort into a simple straightforward ethically motivated program of Social and Political activism.
      There is no evidence that recent academic publications on Gandhian thought are uncritical in their approach or that they hope to gain a higher standing by 'claiming his mantle'