How Gandhi’s Moral Vision Could Be a Critical Catalyst for Capitalism
Gandhi’s visions of the model of guardianship, ahimsa and self-denial could be the corrective course our economies urgently need
Gandhi’s visions of the guardianship model, Ahimsahand self-denial could be the corrective course our economies urgently need
“A time is coming when those who are today in a mad rush to multiply their needs, thinking in vain that they are adding to the real substance, to the real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we -U.S ?'”
Who said these words? I recently interviewed some of my friends, as well as businessmen and politicians, Indian and foreign. Most of them answered “Karl Marx”. After all, this statement sounds like a Marxist critique of acquisitive consumerism. But, in this case, the correct answer is Mahatma Gandhi.
The recent emphasis on sustainability gives Gandhi his rightful place in the capitalism versus sustainability debate. It is now widely accepted that human economic activity and rampant growth patterns threaten the world’s fragile ecosystems – with clearly visible impacts such as climate change, increased socio-economic inequality and technological disruption of the global market. work and human behavior – and a remedial course is urgently needed.
For these 21st century problems, the solutions the world is discussing bear a striking resemblance to the ideals proposed by Gandhi almost three-quarters of a century ago.
Gandhian economic thought 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 advocate degrowth, demanding that we use less of the world’s energy and other resources, and that we put well-being before profits. The opposing camp, on the other hand, wants to pursue the dynamics of the free market to solve the problems.
As a media via through this impasse, the Gandhian approach is the model of guardianship (he has been ridiculed by critics at both ends of the ideological spectrum for this view). According to Gandhi, in the interests of human society, owners of capital should see themselves as “stewards” on behalf of the people and invest in the collective social good. Today, aspects of this willful style of self-denial can be found in philanthropy and cooperative models.
The Mahatma dandi walking statue | Photo credit: Getty Images
What does the path look like now
The famous American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie played an important role in influencing Gandhi’s concept of guardianship. Carnegie has also inspired several generations of American billionaires with his philanthropy. Gandhi’s distinctive contribution in this context is the culture of non-violence ( Ahimsah) for a capitalism with a social conscience.
To begin with, since truth is infinitely beyond the finite reach of any human being, no individual should claim that he, and he alone, has access to undiluted truth. Thus, we must undertake the painful operation of critically questioning our own assumptions, views and values - this exercise in epistemic humility is concomitant with walking a mile in the other’s shoes and trying to see the world as he sees it. Such humility requires cultivating Ahimsah – namely, to resist the impulse to hit those with whom we disagree. A himsa is not merely a passive self-distancing from instances of violence, but an active concern for the well-being of others. Therefore, a Gandhian would appeal to the (currently dormant) moral sensibilities of capitalists and seek to generate in them a “transformation of the heart” whereby they would hold their earnings in trust and direct their wealth towards social welfare. Of course, success is not guaranteed, but Gandhi was an individual of cosmic optimism and he believed in the spiritual power of self-sacrifice. satyagraha catalyze moral conversion.
Read |Mahatma Gandhi, the thinker off the beaten track
There is more to be gained from such dialogical guardianship schemes than “cancellation”, a controversial term in the Woke dictionary. Gandhi’s hope is reflected in a title of The New York Times last October: “Can a carbon-emitting iron ore tycoon save the planet? The reference is to Australian miner Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest who donated $400 million. Similarly, Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, once a coal czar, has become one of the biggest investors in green energy and has pledged $7.7 billion to charity. These shifts in the priorities of Forrest and Adani, the original industrialists who profited from mining, are examples of how a capitalism steeped in Gandhian consciousness can begin to bring change to the real world.
Gautam Adani and Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest
It is also worth remembering how Gandhi himself used his relationship with contemporaries like GD Birla to promote wider societal causes.
Organizations versus markets
In an ideal free market scenario, consumer choice is the primary reason firms produce and supply goods and services in an economic system. In reality, it is big business that creates the technology for new production and influences consumer behavior by tapping into latent desires and promoting FOMO with 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 for catastrophic failures to reveal systemic deficiencies, distortions, and deceptions. Second, a culture can provide social checks and balances to correct systemic distortions before catastrophic failures.
For several decades now, we have been rushing, almost without thinking, down an unsustainable path of production and consumption. Tangled up in this spiral, we are left with little choice. A Gandhian moral vision would induce us to lower our demands and curb our materialistic pursuit. This vision of abnegation is easy to pronounce but quite difficult to implement in a world with well-established socio-economic hierarchies.
This is where the popularization of Gandhian thoughts will play a crucial role. One of Gandhi’s greatest contributions to politics and public life is the introduction of morality as a non-negotiable instrument in everyday conduct. This moral sense is largely missing in business decisions that only work with the quantitative idioms of cost-benefit analyses. To some extent, the recent focus on corporate governance and sustainability has changed the way business is done. But we have yet to build a market that is driven by ethical business models.
Ethics as an economic model
We should focus on how big business treats nature, employees and consumers. In discussions about the future of capitalism, the notion that a company’s primary – and sole – purpose is to make a profit is challenged by concepts such as ESG standards. It’s time to embrace ethics as a central business goal and make it a company’s core concern with metrics that can be tracked. Are supply chains from ethical sources? Does the company improve the well-being of society? Is there equality and pay equity?
It is time to accelerate a critical and sympathetic rehabilitation of Gandhi in the contemporary world.
The writer is co-author of The assassin, the monarch and the fakir – A new investigation into the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and Founder-CEO of Pixstory, a new social media platform.