Gandhi as an Economist
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Mar 2015
Mahatma Gandhi is most famous as the father of his nation’s independence, and as an ethical philosopher, but it is also worthwhile to remember his contributions to economics. This is especially important today, as it becomes more and more clear that our present economic system is completely unsustainable. Today it is obvious that “shopping as a way of life” and “grow or die” economics are destroying our planet.
In a recent interview, Naomi Klein said “The economic system that we have created has also created global warming. I didn’t make this up. The system is broken, economic inequality is too great and lack of restraint on the part of energy companies is disastrous.”
It is worthwhile to look at Gandhi’s ideas on these issues:
In his autobiography, Gandhi says: “Three moderns have left a deep impression on my life and captivated me: Raychandbhai (the Indian philosopher and poet) by his living contact; Tolstoy by his book ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’; and Ruskin by his book ‘Unto This Last’.”
Ruskin’s book, “Unto This Last”, which Gandhi read in 1904, is a criticism of modern industrial society. Ruskin believed that friendships and warm interpersonal relationships are a form of wealth that economists have failed to consider. He felt that warm human contacts are most easily achieved in small agricultural communities, and that therefore the modern tendency towards centralization and industrialization may be a step backward in terms of human happiness. While still in South Africa, Gandhi founded two religious Utopian communities based on the ideas of Tolstoy and Ruskin. Phoenix Farm (1904) and Tolstoy Farm (1910). At this time he also took an oath of chastity (“bramacharya”), partly because his wife was unwell and he wished to protect her from further pregnancies, and partly in order to devote himself more completely to the struggle for civil rights.
Because of his growing fame as the leader of the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa, Gandhi was persuaded to return to India in 1914 and to take up the cause of Indian home rule. In order to reacquaint himself with conditions in India, he traveled tirelessly, now always going third class as a matter of principle.
During the next few years, Gandhi worked to reshape the Congress Party into an organization which represented not only India’s Anglicized upper middle class but also the millions of uneducated villagers who were suffering under an almost intolerable burden of poverty and disease. In order to identify himself with the poorest of India’s people, Gandhi began to wear only a white loincloth made of rough homespun cotton. He traveled to the remotest villages, recruiting new members for the Congress Party,
preaching non-violence and “firmness in the truth”, and becoming known for his voluntary poverty and humility. The villagers who flocked to see him began to call him “Mahatma” (Great Soul).
Disturbed by the spectacle of unemployment and poverty in the villages, Gandhi urged the people of India to stop buying imported goods, especially cloth, and to make their own. He advocated the reintroduction of the spinning wheel into village life, and he often spent some hours spinning himself. The spinning wheel became a symbol of the Indian independence movement, and was later incorporated into the Indian flag.
The movement for boycotting British goods was called the “Swadeshi movement”. The word Swadeshi derives from two Sanskrit roots: Swa, meaning self, and Desh, meaning country. Gandhi described Swadeshi as “a call to the consumer to be aware of the violence he is causing by supporting those industries that result in poverty, harm to the workers and to humans or other creatures.”
Gandhi tried to reconstruct the crafts and self-reliance of village life that he felt had been destroyed by the colonial system. “I would say that if the village perishes India will perish too”, he wrote, “India will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost. The revival of the village is only possible when it is no more exploited. Industrialization on a mass scale will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as problems of competition and marketing come in. Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use. Provided this character of the village industry is maintained, there would be no objection to villagers using even the modern machines that they can make and can afford to use. Only they should not be used as a means of exploitation by others.”
“You cannot build nonviolence on a factory civilization, but it can be built on self-contained villages… Rural economy as I have conceived it, eschews exploitation altogether, and exploitation is the essence of violence… We have to make a choice between India of the villages that are as ancient as herself and India of the cities which are a creation of foreign domination…”
“Machinery has its place; it has come to stay. But it must not be allowed to displace necessary human labour. An improved plow is a good thing. But if by some chances, one man could plow up, by some mechanical invention of his, the whole of the land of India, and control all the agricultural produce, and if the millions had no other occupation, they would starve, and being idle, they would become dunces, as many have already become. There is hourly danger of many being reduced to that unenviable state.”
In these passages we see Gandhi not merely as a pioneer of nonviolence; we see him also as an economist. Faced with misery and unemployment produced by machines, Gandhi tells us that social goals must take precedence over blind market mechanisms. If machines are causing unemployment, we can, if we wish, and use labor-intensive methods instead. With Gandhi, the free market is not sacred; we can do as we wish, and maximize human happiness, rather than maximizing production and profits.
Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on January 30, 1948. After his death, someone collected and photographed all his worldly goods. These consisted of a pair of glasses, a pair of sandals and a white homespun loincloth. Here, as in the Swadeshi movement, we see Gandhi as a pioneer of economics. He deliberately reduced his possessions to an absolute minimum in order to demonstrate that there is no connection between personal merit and material goods. Like Veblen, Gandhi told us that we must stop using material goods as a means of social competition. We must start to judge people not by what they have, but by what they are.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Mar 2015.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Gandhi as an Economist, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
Click here to go to the current weekly digest or pick another article: