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Gandhi was not a stupid idealist, but strong on economics

gandhi-economic-modelMohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in Porbandar, India, Gujarat, the province of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Although at the opposite of Gandhi’s thinking and especially his non-violent practice, Modi obviously did not fail to celebrate in the middle of the election year the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Mahatma because the “great soul” continues to enjoy immense popularity.

Not only for his decisive role in the independence acquired in 1947, as a thinker and practitioner of what he called the “Indian way”: a society of non-violence by non-violent means, the supreme stage of civilization for him.

What is less well known is that Gandhi has been extremely concerned about economic issues. From his first manifesto for independence, published in 1909, Swaraj, he presented a highly argued criticism of the ultimate cause of India’s suffering: not the English, but their system, the so-called modern civilization “which has only a name civilization”, whose fetishism of machines and large industry crushed men and enslaved peoples under the grip of passions for money and power. Above all, he presents a counter-model, not to capitalism, but much more broadly to the “society of technological progress” in which he encompasses marxist communism, which takes away from individuals their profound share of humanity and freedom.

What is even less well known is that the frail little man in handwoven white cotton dhoti did draw from Indian philosophical traditions the concepts of non-violence, justice and compassion that date back to Buddhism and Jainism (5th century BC), but that he was also largely inspired by some Western thinkers who were critical of capitalism in the 19th century. In particular Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862) for civil disobedience and what is now called ecology, and John Ruskin, quoted very frequently in his economic program and who he said about his book Unto this last (1860) that he was a revelation in his life. It is therefore not surprising that Gandhian thought very early on had a global resonance with an ideal of a universal nature, as he himself said, be aware of the growing interdependence of countries. Today, non-violence and voluntary frugality are largely part of the alterglobalization landscape, a kind of third way between liberal globalization and xenophobic nationalisms.

The Four Keys of Gandhi’s economic Model

But what exactly is Gandhi’s business model? It is accurately described in a post-mortem book: Sarvodaya, an Indian word meaning “the well-being of all”. Published after his assassination by an RSS Hindu fanatic on 30 January 1948, it takes up Gandhi’s main ideas around four key concepts: Swaraj or autonomy, Swadeshi or local development, Sarvodaya and finally Satyagraha, the means to achieve this non-violent economy – from Satya the truth, and Graha to grasp it. This economic model is structured around four components.

one-marketexpress-inFirst of all, an ethical approach in which we find Ruskin’s sentence: “Man can only be happy if he observes moral laws”. Gandhi poses three questions: the end must never justify the means; first of all, one has duties towards others and from this derives his rights; finally, the total rejection of violence, including towards nature. This is how Gandhi defines the ultimate progress of humanity where orthodox economists start from a completely opposite premise: to take men as they are and first and foremost their selfish vices and interests supposed to involuntarily produce collective happiness through market mechanisms. Adam Smith himself in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, or, closer to us, Albert Hirschman actually joins Gandhi like most so-called heterodox economists: economics is a moral and political science and not only a “positive” science. Not to set moral rules in one’s economic model is to let amorality and indeed immorality rule the world. Moreover, the real passions are such that the theoretical orthodox system is still far from the optimal balance, as shown by all the theories of imperfect competition or the capture of market rents by the “Robber Baron” (thieving barons) everywhere in our crony capitalism being India or France.

two-marketexpress-inFrom this ethical basis flows the economic model itself. What is a non-violent economy that brings well-being to all? First of all, a humanistic approach: wealth is life and humanity, not money, which is in reality the search for power from which inequalities and the oppression of the powerful over others derive.

This implies for Gandhi to reduce as much as possible the mass mechanization concentrated geographically and socially, to decentralize production activities as close as possible to the local (swadeshi) by reducing to the bare minimum large industry and international trade. How? The corollary of this model is a voluntary frugal economy, guaranteeing a minimum income for all and basic collective goods, essentially eliminating private ownership of the means of production in favour not of a centralizing State by definition, but of production cooperatives (trusteeship) where the rich mix their capital with that of others without deriving more power. Gandhi will always refuse violent political revolutions as well as the economic expropriation of the rich or the State nationalization based on a simple principle: persuasion by example, or even sacrifice. Anything that is not voluntary is de facto violence and reproduces the system that was rejected.

three-marketexpress-inSuch a non-violent economy requires a corresponding social organization, and in particular strict respect for individuality, real equality between citizens, especially between men and women, as well as the elimination of all social, religious or philosophical discrimination. A lawyer by training, Gandhi was not an idealist. He knew that all this must be guaranteed by the law and its application. But he was wary of the legal world, which tends to lengthen proceedings in its own interest until it corrupts the legal system. He preferred conciliation practices based on the values of empathy and compassion towards others, or advice from wise men as close as possible to the local level. Hence the essential role of education, which he especially did not confuse with “instruction” in the vein of Ivan Illich’s famous “A Society without school” (1970).

four-marketexpress-inFinally, a non-violent economy presupposes a coherent political organization, which is also found in Tolstoy and most thinkers claiming to be supporting “enlightened anarchy” such as Aldous Huxley or David Thoreau to whom we owe this famous phrase: “The best government is the one that governs the least. ” Hence a maximum of direct democracy, a minimum of representative democracy, and a federation or rather a confederation of communities starting from the autonomous individual and gradually moving up to the national and then international level. Because Gandhi is well aware of geopolitical realities. His vision of international organizations for peace prefigures the UN and international NGOs, even with all their shortcomings.

An utopian ideal? This is where Gandhi’s thought has probably been most caricatured with this image of a return to the spinning wheel and to ancestral villages. There is nothing like it for those who take the time to read him and especially to read what he called his “experience with the truth” (My Experiment with Truth). As Gandhi says in a famous sentence: “Just because we have never been able to represent the Euclid point does not mean that we have been able to do without it”. The same goes for an Ideal: its virtue is to set a target and corresponding means, including pragmatism and a spirit of concession, but all this with tenacity. By thinking that we have little choice but a non-violent society to guarantee happiness for all and therefore for everyone, a corresponding economic model is needed. Conversely, for Gandhi, the so-called civilization of progress is de facto based on competition and violence from the market society that leads the planet to its social and ecological ruin.

Having largely contributed to India’s independence after more than fifty years of mobilizing an initially incredulous people, discouraged at many times, making tactical withdrawals – including engaging India in the Second World War alongside the British – Gandhi was able to experiment with a much more sophisticated method than we believe: Satyagraha or “clinging” to what we believe is right, but at the cost of demanding mental training and proven techniques among Satyagrahis. Perhaps that is where the problem lies in today’s world. Or rather, that glass still needs to be filled despite significant progress, as shown by the large mass mobilizations currently underway in Sudan, Algeria, France and all around the world on Climate change. Economists could contribute more by deciding to open a chapter on Principles of Nonviolent Economy in their textbooks. May I also suggest all managers to read carefully one of my preferred book: “Gandhi, CEO: 14 Principles to Guide & Inspire Modern Leaders” by Alan Axelrod. A lot food for thought!

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of MarketExpress – India’s first Global Analysis & Sharing Platform or the organization(s) that the author represents in his personal capacity.

  • Jram Td

    When will western countries start adopting his principles.or is it for discussion in forums only

    • marketexpress

      western countries and India should also apply those principles with focus of the getting things done for the people and not for any political agenda.

  • Jean Joseph Boillot

    Thanks for your comment and share your concern about the western countries adopting or not Gandhi’s principles. Actually, if you follow closely the economic debate in Europe (much more than in the US), you will see that Gandhi’s ideas are quite popular in the field of frugality and local development as well as on non-violence. But true that the core of the population and elite remain very classic on consumerism and violence unfortuantely