Gandhi Jayanti is an opportunity to reconsider some of Gandhi’s core thoughts on the nature of human existence. This is particularly relevant in the present context when the Covid-19 pandemic has already claimed over a million lives across the world.
It is interesting to reflect on the trajectory of Western capitalist development which has defined human progress since the Industrial Revolution nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago. This was one of Gandhi’s pet themes. The basic tenets of classical economics were outlined in Adam Smith’s foundational tract, The Wealth of Nations, which appeared in 1776. Within the next four decades, Ricardo and Malthus in England and Jean-Baptiste Say in France had laid the full foundations of the classical system.
The watchwords of the classical system were laissez-faire and free trade. Adam Smith was possibly the finest representative of the Scottish enlightenment, and believed that this arrangement would ensure progress for all. But the later writers soon established that the material reality of the world is defined by scarcity.
The onset of the Industrial Revolution brought about extensive and severe disruptions in the lives of the labouring class, even as a wealthy capitalist class was emerging in England. By this time, England was already the premier imperial power. A mere chartered company of the British monarch, the East India Company, was ruling over most of the Indian subcontinent, and the colonies of imperial Britain extended to North America and other parts of the globe.
Classical economics was premised on the basic precept that all rational beings are naturally conditioned to pursue their self-interest. This view was strongly critiqued by a number of radical thinkers, among whom was John Ruskin. In his Unto This Last, Ruskin rejected the Smithian notion of “division of labour” as dehumanising and argued that classical economics fails to consider the social affections that bind communities together.
The young Gandhi read Ruskin’s book on a train journey from Johannesburg to Durban in South Africa in June 1904 when he was 34. He was to confess later that this book changed his life forever. He had not been exposed to the writings of Smith and Ricardo till then, but was now determined to apply the precepts of Ruskin in his daily life.
Barely five years later, in 1909, on a voyage from London to South Africa, Gandhiji penned his Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. This was a trenchant critique of Western civilisation, and capitalism in particular. The colonial British government reckoned this to be a seditious piece of work and the pamphlet was proscribed in British India.
Hind Swaraj may be regarded as the social and economic testament of Gandhi. His focus was on those living in the countryside, and he made a strong case to develop rural India as self-sufficient village republics. He fundamentally believed that all able-bodied men and women must be gainfully employed, and he was against machinery to the extent that it displaced labour.
Possibly the greatest original insight of Gandhi was to advocate the principle of “limitation of wants”. This was the exact obverse of the whole project of Western classical, and later neo-classical, economics, which believed in the continuous expansion of the production possibility frontier. The latter idea is fundamental to the modern-day obsession with growth economics in virtually all genres of Western economic thought.
Among the key classical thinkers, a major exception was John Stuart Mill who argued in favour of a “stationary state” to conserve the world’s resources.
There have been a few other notable voices too, such as the institutional economist Thorstein Veblen who warned against conspicuous consumption. Gandhi’s views, quite independently, were in tune with the concerns of these rebel thinkers. The present episode of the pandemic gives us yet another opportunity to revisit Gandhi’s critique of Western civilisation.
Pulin B Nayak is a former professor, Delhi School of Economics
The views expressed are personal