“A time is coming when those who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’”
Who uttered these words? I recently quizzed a few of my friends, as well as businessmen and politicians, both Indians and foreigners. Most of them answered “Karl Marx”. After all, this statement does sound like a Marxist critique of acquisitive consumerism. But, as it so happens, the correct answer is Mahatma Gandhi.
The focus on sustainability in recent times is giving Gandhi his rightful place in the capitalism versus sustainability debate. It is now broadly accepted that human economic activity and frenetic patterns of growth are threatening the fragile ecosystems of the world — with clearly visible impacts such as climate change, rising socioeconomic inequality, and technological disruption in labour market and human behaviour — and a corrective course is urgently needed.
For these 21st century problems, the solutions that the world is discussing bear a striking resemblance to the ideals Gandhi proposed almost three-quarters of a century ago.
Gandhian economic thought was developed at a time when a bipolar world was divided into two ideological silos: Marxism and Euro-American capitalism. The nature of the debate is not very different today. Marxist thinkers are advocating degrowth, demanding that we use less of the world’s energy and other resources, and we put well-being ahead of profits. The opposing camp, in contrast, wants to pursue free market dynamics to solve the problems.
As a via media through this impasse, the Gandhian approach is the trusteeship model (he was ridiculed by critics at both ends of the ideological spectrum for this vision). According to Gandhi, in the interests of human society, the owners of capital should regard themselves as “trustees” on behalf of the people and invest in the collective social good. Today, aspects of this voluntary style of self-negation can be found in philanthropy and co-operative models.
How the path looks now
The famous American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie played a significant role in influencing Gandhi’s trusteeship concept. Carnegie also inspired several generations of American billionaires with his philanthropy. Gandhi’s distinctive contribution in this context is the cultivation of non-violence ( ahimsa) for a capitalism with a social conscience.
To begin with, since truth infinitely exceeds the finite grasp of any one human being, no individual should claim that they, and only they, have access to the undiluted truth. Thus, we must undertake the painful surgery of critically interrogating our own presuppositions, vantage points, and values — this exercise of epistemic humility is concurrent with walking a mile in the other person’s shoes and trying to see the world as they see it. Such humility requires the cultivation of ahimsa — namely, to resist the impulse to strike out at those with whom we disagree. A himsa is not simply a passive distancing of oneself from instances of violence, but an active concern for the welfare of others. Therefore, a Gandhian would appeal to the (presently dormant) moral sensibilities of capitalists, and seek to generate in them a “heart-transformation” through which they would hold in trust their earnings and direct their wealth towards social welfare. Of course, success is not guaranteed, but Gandhi was an individual with cosmic optimism, and he believed in the spiritual power of self-sacrificing satyagraha to catalyse moral conversion.
There is more to gain from such dialogical patterns of trusteeship than ‘cancelling’, a controversial term in the Woke dictionary. The Gandhian hope is reflected in a headline from The New York Times last October: “Can a Carbon-Emitting Iron Ore Tycoon Save the Planet?” The reference is to the Australian miner Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest who gave away $400 million. Similarly, the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, once a coal czar, has become one of the biggest green energy investors and pledged $7.7 billion for charity. These shifts in the priorities of Forrest and Adani, originally industrialists who profited from mining, are examples of how a Gandhian conscience-infused capitalism can begin to make real-world changes.
It is also worthwhile to remember how Gandhi himself used his relationship with contemporaries like G.D. Birla to promote larger societal causes.
Organisations versus the markets
In an ideal free-market scenario, consumer choice is the dominant reason why firms produce and provide goods and services in an economic system. In reality, it is large corporations that create the technology for new production and influence consumer behaviour through tapping latent desires and promoting FOMO by using targeted advertising.
Long before the world reached this point on a horizon of relentless pursuit of wealth, Gandhi had warned: “A technological society has two choices. First, it can wait until catastrophic failures expose systemic deficiencies, distortion, and self-deception. Secondly, a culture can provide social checks and balances to correct for systemic distortion prior to catastrophic failures.”
For several decades now, we have been hurtling forward, almost mindlessly, on an unsustainable path of production and consumption. Enmeshed in this spiral, we are left with few choices. A Gandhian moral vision would appeal to us to reduce our demands and curb our materialistic pursuit. This vision of self-denial is easy to pronounce but quite difficult to implement in a world with entrenched socioeconomic hierarchies.
This is where popularising Gandhian thoughts will play a critical role. One of the biggest contributions of Gandhi to politics and public life is the introduction of morality as a non-negotiable instrument in day-to-day conduct. This moral sense is largely missing in business decisions which only operate with the quantitative idioms of cost-benefit analyses. To some extent, the recent focus on corporate governance and sustainability has changed how business is conducted. But we have not yet succeeded in building a market that would be motivated by ethical patterns of business.
Ethics as business model
We should focus on how large corporations treat nature, employees, and consumers. In discussions on the future of capitalism, the notion that the core — and sole — objective of a business is profit-making is being challenged by concepts such as ESG norms. It is time we adopt ethics as a central business objective, and make it the core concern of a business with metrics that can be tracked. Are the supply chains ethically sourced? Is the business improving the well-being of society? Is there pay equality and fairness?
It is time to accelerate a critically sympathetic rehabilitation of Gandhi in the contemporary world.
The writer is a co-author of The Murderer, The Monarch and The Fakir - A New Investigation into Mahatma Gandhi’s Assassination, and founder-CEO of Pixstory, a new age social media platform.