Mahatma Gandhi was not taken very seriously as an economic thinker. His strong point was moral ideas. But, in a post-covid world, economic ideas must have an ethical quotient. The way the world economy is collapsing and inequalities are increasing, we should reconsider his ideas. We can find answers to our current situation in his ideas, even though he arrived at these conclusions intuitively rather than through empirical observations.
Gandhi’s core ideals include swadeshi, autonomy at the individual and community level, an aversion to mass production and senseless industrialization, an aversion to the amoral extremes of capitalism and communism, and a reduction in mutual antagonisms between the rich and the poor. He believed that wealth should be held in trust by the rich on behalf of the poor. Unlike Marx, who saw the interests of workers and capitalists as irreconcilable, Gandhi sought a new convergence of interests. Marx considered work as handicapped because he did not have the means and tools of production; Gandhi’s charkha visualized the opposite reality. A worker can and should be able to meet his basic needs with his own tools and the ability to earn a living.
Gandhi’s vision did not materialize in his lifetime and his instincts about technology were too negative. But today, as we embrace work from home standards and refocus on the basics, we see that digital technology has enabled what Gandhi envisioned: empowerment at the individual and village level. .
While it is unlikely that we would return to the village republics he would have liked, we can see that web-connected villages can indeed make enough money for themselves by offering goods and services from locations distant. If you can work from home, you can also work from your village. As the world is partially de-globalized, countries are moving towards self-sufficiency; local supply chains are less likely to be disrupted by global events. As renewable energy sources develop, a country with sun and wind can generate electricity locally; today, even the settlements supply solar energy to the grids. Many others can be decentralized.
Gandhi was right to take a dim view of both capitalism and communism. Today, the middle path looks more and more attractive, not only in welfarist Scandinavia, but also in the United States, where redistributive justice is sought to counterbalance the excesses of unbridled capitalism. As wealth concentrates, rich capitalists display a new concern for the poor, from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar. The Tatas, of course, got here much earlier. They give up a large part of their fortune for social causes, even if they will remain rich. Gandhi is still right and Marx was wrong. âThere is no doubt that capital is lifeless,â Gandhi said, âbut not the capitalists, who lend themselves to conversion.â
Many entrepreneurs develop and offer software for free, even if they use other means to make money with their inventions (eg Linux, Google Docs, etc.). The âCollaborative Commonsâ will drive many innovations in the future. It should come as no surprise that the discoverer of a vaccine against covid-19 offers it at a very low license price, or even for free.
Even at the macro level, high income inequalities and jobless growth make economists question whether an obsession with gross domestic product (GDP) is healthy. The quality of growth matters. Understanding who benefits or loses from globalization is becoming a critical issue for policymakers around the world.
Gandhi’s maxim that there is enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed makes a lot of sense today as we focus on what is really important to living a life. worthy and what we can do without. Once we see the back of covid-19, maybe some of the old greed will return. But it’s a safe bet that it won’t be the kind of unbridled greed that caused the dotcom crisis of 2000 and the global financial crisis of 2008.
Gandhi didn’t have much to say about the excessive financialization of the global economy, as it didn’t exist when he was there. But it is more than likely that he would have criticized it as excessive greed. He also wouldn’t have liked the speculation and debt fueled spending of governments and individuals that brought the house down in 2000 and 2008. His advice in the event of economic adversity would have been to limit your needs. Parsimoniously parsimonious, his message would have been common sense: if you want to spend more, save first. Gandhi valued savings, and a post-covid world will have to relearn its virtues.
A counterpoint: if today the Gandhian virtues seem clearly achievable, we must recognize that this only happened because we went in the opposite direction and saw both its benefits and its costs. Today’s digital economy and remote working would not have been possible if we had remained village republics and millions of people had not gathered in cities to win and innovate. Food and energy would not have been available in abundance either without opting for polluting technologies (inorganic fertilizers, solar photovoltaic, accumulators, etc.).
Gandhi has become good today because over the past half century he has turned out to be wrong.
R. Jagannathan is Editorial Director of ‘Swarajya’ Magazine
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