Mahatma Gandhi was was one of the most influential men of the 20th century. He did and wrote many things, but perhaps the most succinct statement of his philosophy was written at sea in November 1909 on the way back to South Africa from a confrontation with the British government. It is called Sermon on the Sea. The title is obviously a derivative of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and in some ways the text is similar in that it counsels the way a nation of oppressed people should respond to their oppressors and achieve spiritual and economic growth. Gandhi had a hatred of machinery, and felt that it had destroyed England as well as India.
Reader: When you speak of driving out Western civilization, I suppose you will also say that we want no machinery.
Editor: By raising this question, you have opened the wound I had received. When I read Mr. Dutt’s Economic History of India, I wept; and, as I think of it again my heart sickens. It is machinery that has impoverished India. It is difficult to measure the harm that Manchester has done to us. It is due to Manchester that Indian handicraft has all but disappeared.
But I make a mistake. How can Manchester be blamed? We wore Manchester cloth, and this is why Manchester wove it. I was delighted when I read about the bravery of Bengal. There are no cloth-mills in the Presidency. They were, therefore, able to restore the original hand-weaving occupation. It is true, Bengal encourages the mill-industry of Bombay. If Bengal had proclaimed a boycott of all machine-made goods, it would have been much better.
Machinery has begun to desolate Europe. Ruination in now knocking at the English gates. Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin.
The workers in the mills of Bombay have become slaves. The condition of the women working in the mills is shocking. When there were no mills, these women were not starving. If the machinery craze grows in our country, it will become an unhappy land. … Where there is machinery there are large cities and where there are large cities, there are tram-cars and railways; and there only does one see electric light. English villages do not boast any of these things. Honest physicians will tell you that, where means of artificial locomotion have increased, the health of the people has suffered. … I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery.
A century after Gandhi wrote this it would seem that most people might agree with his sentiments about machinery, but they would strongly disagree about what he calls effects of machinery. We would have to give up our 40 hour work weeks, and return to full time hand-farm-work or starve. We would have to give up eating wonderful and varied food brought to us from all over the world, and return to eating something such as a local equivalent of turnips and potatoes or nothing at all. Furthermore without machines we would have to return a population back to that farming level of 1.8 billion people from the current 6.8 billion. That is that 5 billion people would have to go. That is about 3/4th of people presently alive, would have to die. Machines have brought this bounty, but as I have discussed elsewhere this bounty is based on an unsustainable foundation of fossil fuel energy. That must change and will inevitably change as those things are mined away, but the argument that machines makes people into slaves is wrong—it frees people from slavery by multiplying their productivity which gives them more free time, and more food and goods. Gandhi was successful with his political revolution and helped bring about India’s political independence, but that independence would probably have come about anyway as it did everywhere else in the world. Gandhi would probably be horrified at what is happening now with India being one of the most rapidly industrializing countries in the world, becoming a true world class giant of commerce, and speaking English.
Gandhi’s conclusion at the end of the Sermon on the Sea:
What we want to do should be done, not because we object to the English or that we want to retaliate, but because it is our duty to do so. Thus, supposing that the English remove the salt-tax, restore our money, give the highest posts to Indians, withdraw the English troops, we shall certainly not use their machine-made goods, nor the English language, nor many of their industries. It is worth noting that these things are, in their nature, harmful; hence we do not want them. I bear no enmity towards the English but I do towards their civilization.
A hundred years later the living people of India have chosen English as their official language, and are one of the world leaders in machine made goods. His real success was in giving India a personal identity, and from that base it grew away from his hoped for agrarian society into a high technology world power.