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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born at a time when a nonviolent economic system was almost unthinkable. A hundred-and-fifty years later, there is a growing clamour to reconfigure the world’s economic systems in ways that minimise violence on people and the planet, while fostering actual well-being rather than wealth-as-money. Why is Gandhi’s intellectual and activist legacy vital to these contemporary struggles?

Gandhi was born 12 years after the revolt of 1857 just as the British crown was consolidating its power over India. Globally, imperialism with its flagrant claim that “might is right”, was more deeply entrenched than at any time since Christopher Columbus sailed westward in 1492. Volume One of Das Kapital had been published just two years before Gandhi’s birth. However, the Marxist challenge to the systemic brutalities of capitalism and imperialism was not non-violence but the dictatorship of the proletariat. In 1869, the book that was to shape Gandhi’s thinking on the equation between samaj, sarkar and bazaar was the subject of ridicule. Unto This Last by the prolific art historian John Ruskin was a response to the depths of degradation which most working class Britishers experienced in the mid-19th century. The cause of this degradation, Ruskin argued, was a delusion that lies at the heart of the modern science of political economy. As paraphrased by Gandhi, “the social affections are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature; but avarice and the desire of progress are constant elements.” John Maynard Keynes validated this prognosis when he wrote in 1930 that: “For at least another 100 years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair, for foul is useful and fair is not.”

Finding nonviolent ways out of this dimension of modernity was Gandhi’s life mission. Ending British rule in India was a relatively small part of this endeavour. Gandhi’s most widely-known economic ideas were revitalisation of village industries and local economies while promoting the concept of trusteeship by owners of large industry. Behind them were two fundamental principles which now hold the key to the survival of our species. One, redefining wealth so it is equated with actual well-being rather than units of exchange value. Two, purity of means in creation of such wealth.

In the 70 years since Gandhi was killed, there have been important milestones in this audaciously ambitious mission. The least known of these is Economy of Permanence, a book by Gandhi’s contemporary and disciple J C Kumarappa. This was one of the inspirations for E F Schumacher and his famous text, Small is Beautiful.

In 1972, the first report by the Club of Rome marshalled data to reconfirm Gandhi’s prediction that one Earth is not sufficient for all people to live like the Western nations — and he was referring to consumption levels in the 1940s. The 1980s saw the rise of the Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) movement in the Western countries. It created mechanisms to enable institutional and individual investors to make choices based on the social and environmental impacts of companies, not merely their monetary profits. After a slow start, the SRI sector now has approximately US $23 trillion under management. This process has been aided by the concept of Triple Bottom Line, a term coined by John Elkington in the late 1990s, and the adoption of the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investing by some of the world’s largest corporations in 2006.

However, even while more and more companies adopt such measures, the process of mineral extraction and industrialisation continues to result in violent displacement of people and destruction of ecosystems. The globalised economy, while creating new money-wealth for some, is at war with local economies everywhere. Thus, today the cutting edge of that larger mission initiated by Gandhi is not so much the SRI phenomenon but a mobilisation around the deliberately chosen shock-word, “Degrowth”. What began as a platform of West European intellectuals in 2008 is now a global network of activists and social entrepreneurs who are convinced that a combination of environmental degradation and lack of adequate livelihoods is poised to plunge our species into chaos.

Their answer is to urge governments, corporations and societies to rapidly redefine growth — partly by abandoning Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic progress and replacing it with a measure that gives primacy to social and environmental well-being for all. Some of the groundwork for this approach has been done over the last two decades by the development of metrics like Genuine Progress Indicators in North America and the related concept of ecological footprint.

Not surprisingly, the Indian equivalent for Degrowth has been identified as “Sarvodaya”. The African equivalent is “Ubuntu,” which can be roughly translated as “You Are Therefore I am”. The Latin American equivalent for “Degrowth” is “Buen Vivier” or Good life for Humans and Ecosystems.

Are all these endeavours, even if taken together, ready to push the world towards nonviolent economic systems of the kind that Gandhi believed are possible? If this question is addressed with only the present in mind, the answer will be a depressing “no”. But then “might is right” was the norm when Gandhi was born; that is no longer acceptable. Yes, there is a bitter struggle to stop the actual violations; this includes the repression of many who challenge the supposedly “development’”projects on humanitarian grounds and are pilloried by the powers that be as “anti-progress” and “anti-national”.

These struggles may or may not be drawn to nonviolence as a method of protest. But they are a living continuation of Gandhi’s legacy because, like him, they seek to build a new kind of economics rooted not in mechanistic redistribution of resources but in moral animation.

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