THE LANGUAGE OF anti-colonialism has historically been dominated by a desire to acknowledge the humanity and therefore equality of all peoples, its critique often turning on the threat imperialism posed to the lives of its subjects. Even those labelled by colonial powers as revolutionaries and terrorists, after all, tended to excuse their violence as temporary and dedicated it to recovering the equal value of all human lives.
Gandhi, however, perhaps the most important figure in anti-colonial history, disagreed with this line of thinking. Not only did he understand claims to speak on behalf of the human race as being historically and necessarily imperialist, but argued that the value they put on human life was itself a cause of violence. While Gandhi spoke frequently about humanity and humanitarianism, he was deeply suspicious of any attempt to serve or even speak in the name of the human race.
In Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, his manifesto from 1909, Gandhi wrote, ‘I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbours, but, in my conceit, I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe. In thus attempting the impossible, man comes in contact with different natures, different religions, and is utterly confounded.’
He considered the effort to address mankind as a whole fundamentally violent and often described it as a sin. This was because man’s universality could only become manifest by destroying the social particularities that both obscured and made it possible. It was the singularity of one’s neighbours whose moral and political precedence Gandhi thought was especially compromised by mankind’s universality.
Not that he held neighbours to be worth more than strangers in the sense of favouring them. For like friends and relatives, they were also the first to be opposed when doing wrong, this being the true lesson of swadeshi or a preferential concern with one’s surroundings—whose virtue could only go abroad by serving as an example but not instruction to others.
Apart from being doomed to failure, Gandhi recognised any attempt to grasp the human race beyond one’s neighbourhood as being a product of modern civilisation and its obsession with technology. This was why he expressed his distrust of mankind in a passage on the evil of railways and the hubris of power and expansion they created.
The Mahatma recognized any attempt to grasp the human race beyond one’s neighborhood as being a product of modern civilization and its obsession with technology
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As a critic of modern civilisation, Gandhi objected to its technologised desire for universality. Of this the social or political instantiation of the human race, envisaged either in its potential control by some institution, no matter how representative, or by its own domination of the world, provided an important and to him fearsome example of despotism.
While such universal ideals as humanity and others like freedom were enthusiastically taken up by many anti-colonial thinkers, in other words, the Mahatma focused instead on their darker aspects and links with imperialism, which he considered the most important political manifestation of the technologically driven urge to universality in his time. And yet he refused to become a partisan for the particular either, recognising it as a category dependent upon the universal and so partaking of its logic.
Gandhi approached the universal in a negative way, by refusing it any positive identity that might be colonised by some group or another. Such was the status of his key concept of ahimsa or non-violence, for example, whose explicitly negative character entailed, among other things, the presumption that it could possess no history. For, as the Mahatma noted in Hind Swaraj, only violence had a history, not simply because it tended to constitute the subject of most historical narratives, but also because it was a category invariably linked to positive objectives if not identities.
But it was non-violence that in Gandhi’s view existed everywhere and did the work of sustaining families, societies and indeed the world, not the violence whose aim could only be that of safeguarding certain individuals, peoples or states at the cost of others. Yet non-violence could not be understood as universal so much as ubiquitous, since it had no positive character. It was in this sense non-universal and could not be reduced to positive categories or particularities.
The Mahatma’s consistent deployment of negative concepts, of which non-cooperation was another, signalled that he was doing the reverse of defending any specific or even singular Indian trait. Instead of succumbing to some European idea of positive universality or claiming to fulfil it as both nationalists and socialists often did, he took the historical air out of the universal and rendered it a negative or deferred notion. He was interested in what I am calling the non-universal.
Rejecting industrial capitalism’s environmentally as well as socially destructive cult of limitless desire and limitless growth for an equality that was premised upon restricting both, Gandhi also attended to the relationship between human and animal whose contrast defined both these categories, while also comprising the foundation of all exploitation. Man’s relations with animals represent the model for the exploitation of all living things, including human beings themselves.
Gandhi understood even humanity’s most transcendent form as a universal and inclusive identity to be a violent one.
The celebrated empathy meant to define such a conception, after all, depends upon biological notions of similarity and similitude no different in kind from those that characterise racist and other exclusionary identities. Only by repudiating a humanity residing in shared linguistic, sexual and dietary relations is non-violence possible. For, as Gandhi pointed out, such biological relations defining the species have historically divided rather than united human beings. But in making this argument, he was also universalising the language of caste beyond India, in the process turning its categories of sexual and dietary restrictions into philosophical ones.
Only because no generalised sexual, linguistic or dietary communion exists between humans and animals can their relations become non-violent. The animal has to be cared for not because it is like us, but because we cannot share any carnal, communicative or commensal relationship with it. Instead of taking human relations as a model for those we should enjoy with animals, Gandhi did the opposite by renouncing the sliding-scale logic of similarity and similitude that made a narcissistic humanity into a threat for itself and others.
Gandhi understood even humanity’s most transcendent from as a universal and inclusive identity to be a violent one. The celebrated empathy meant to define such a conception, after all, depends upon biological notions of similarity and similitude no different in kind from those that characterize racist and other exclusionary identities
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Our care for animals as much as fellow human beings occurs in the absence of any sure knowledge about or identity with them, revealing its most pure manifestation in sacrifice. And sacrifice was crucial for Gandhi not because it is made in the name of some larger identity, but even against the interests of humanity. He held that the self-interest we recognise as bad at an individual level does not cease to be so at a collective one. Interest itself is a capitalist principle that converts everything it names into a form of property to be defended against others.
For Gandhi service or sacrifice defined human relations more than self-interest, and he pointed to the fact that no society could survive without the voluntary sacrifice of its members for one another in both small and large ways. The problem is that these relations have increasingly been confined to ever more narrow circuits, such as those between lovers, parents, children and occasionally between coreligionists or citizens. Even here they have been corrupted by self-interest, construed as the sacrifice of smaller for larger identities.
Yet, unlike the ancient pedigree enjoyed by sacrifice, interest is a product of modern capitalism, whose naturalisation required strenuous efforts over many decades if not centuries. If sacrifice, in Gandhi’s view, has to be recovered in non-cooperation, civil disobedience and even death, this can only be done at the expense of the self-interest that seeks to supplant it.
Sacrifice also entails abandoning rights, which are linked to self-interest and humanisation in forms like ‘animal rights’. Moreover, the principal right, that to life, provides the very basis of self-interest, which Gandhi refused for a duty whose primary and so disinterested virtue is death. For duties are individual and inalienable but not rights, which must be guaranteed by the state and its narrative of life, identity and interest.
Yet self-interest is precisely what prevents action on issues like climate change, even when we seek to expand its penumbra to cover the entire human race. For interest only becomes possible plurally and competitively—there can be no interest of humanity unless it is against the non-human or even the inhuman selected from among us. Gandhi argued that it was always the desire for life as self-interest’s principal form that led to the violence and the death of others. Whereas the duty of sacrifice protected life precisely by disdaining it.
The rights-guaranteeing state interposes itself as a neutral arbiter between citizens whom it defines as interests. In order to secure these rights construed as forms of property and adjudicate among them, this state denies all unmediated relations between its subjects. This is also true of relations between humans and animals, which are now mediated by the state and its laws. Disallowing unmediated relations between subjects, the state turns them into competitors unable to come together except against other interests.
While the rivalrous relationship of interests was made visible to Gandhi by the colonial state’s politics of divide and rule, in one way or another they hold true for any liberal dispensation. Gandhi famously separated means from ends, not simply in order to prevent the former being justified by the latter in potentially violent ways, but since he thought instrumental action of the kind favoured by political and economic agents to be violent by definition.
Trying to control or produce the future through such action is a futile enterprise not simply because it is impossible, but because it closes off other possibilities while having to deal with the unintended consequences that turn even successful acts into new problems. The task of non-violence is not to force specific outcomes but create new circumstances. These possibilities allow instrumental actors like states opportunities they cannot themselves produce.