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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 15-8-11

Economic Crisis A Nonviolent Opportunity
By Michael Nagler,, 11 August 2011
On Monday the Dow Jones industrial average fell 634.76 points; the
sixth-worst point decline for the Dow in the last 112 years and the worst
drop since December 2008. Every stock in the S&P 500 index declined.
It is easy to blame bipartisan bickering for the impasse that led to
Standard & Poor's downgrading of the American debt, and in turn the
vertiginous fall of the Dow. This bickering-this substitution of ideology
for reason, of egotism for compassion and responsibility on the part of
lawmakers-is a national disgrace; but while it failed to fix the problem,
we must realize that it did not cause it. The cause-and potential for a
significant renewal-lies much deeper.
what's an economy for?
The real purpose of an economic system is to guarantee to every person in
its circle the fundamentals of physical existence (food, clothing,
shelter) and the tools of meaningful work so that they can get on with the
business of living together and working out our common destiny. This was
Gandhi's vision, among others'. We can no longer afford to ignore him in
this sector any more than we can ignore his spectacular contributions to
peace and security.
By the time Gandhi's thinking on the subject matured in his classic
treatise, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule (1909), he saw that our present
economic system is being driven by a dangerous motive: the multiplication
of wants. Because these wants are artificial-being that they created by
advertising-and can never be satisfied, it creates what economist David
Korten has called a "phantom economy" of fantastic financial manipulations
that of course can never endure.
We will never know real prosperity-where we acknowledge that we are much
more than producer/consumers and can only be fulfilled when we discover a
higher purpose-until we shift to another basis entirely, the fulfillment
of needs. We have physical needs, to be sure, but also and more
importantly social and even spiritual ones.
While this takes us beyond the domain of economics proper, a sound economy
based on our real needs is the foundation. What, then, are the principles
of that which has come to be known as Gandhian economics, and how could we
implement them?
Arguably the most revolutionary feature of this system is the concept of
trusteeship, which defines the relationship of a person to material
goods-or, for that matter, any talents they can deploy. Borrowed from
English law, it is the nonviolent equivalent of ownership: people regard
themselves as trustees of their possessions for the good of their
respective societies, rather than as owners for their own real or symbolic
benefit (when you have more than you need, you are trying to impress
others or yourself with your own importance).
Wherever an attitude of trusteeship is recognized-and clearly it is first
of all a psychological, and only then a legal phenomenon-greed would find
it difficult to take hold. We would no longer over-consume, no longer
surrender our responsibility to corporations as the most efficient
instruments for over-consumption and accumulation, no longer need to fight
wars over inessentials, no longer ravish the planet in a vain search for
The trick, of course, is how to bring about this shift. Reeducation at
this depth is not easy, but it is any day easier than trying to stop
over-consumption and exploitation while so many people still feel that
happiness is something they can buy, and there is not enough to go around.
No revolution, however violent, has managed to dispossess the wealthy of
their wealth against their will; but extremely wealthy people (think of
George Soros and a few others) who have cheerfully redistributed it when
the concept of trusteeship took hold.
Trusteeship, like much of Gandhi's thinking, falls in line with the wisdom
delivered by scriptures East and West, that we are really not the owner of
anything. Indeed it needs no scripture to tell us this, since the stark
fact of life is that all we think we own can be taken away by any number
of contingencies - and, let's face it, will be so taken by the final
contingency of death. Trusteeship, however difficult to achieve, liberates
us psychologically from the existential insecurity that is driving us into
this dead end of competition and greed.
Other features of Gandhi's scheme are (material) simplicity, localism
(svadeshi), the sanctity of "bread labour" (a phrase he got from John
Ruskin), and nonviolence towards others and the earth itself. All came
into play with his stellar program of spinning homespun cloth (khadi, or
khaddar) that gave employment to otherwise idled millions (sound
familiar?), united the country in a vast network of growers, spinners,
weavers, and buyers, and, almost incidentally it seemed, broke the hold of
the British Raj in India.
Today many experiments that could potentially provide one or another piece
of this program are doing very well, thank you, around the world:
community farms, local currencies, "transition towns" and so forth. One
thing that would certainly help them coalesce into a real movement, making
them a visible alternative to the "multiplication of wants" economy that's
collapsing around our ears, is a voluntary shift to trusteeship carried
out by individuals at their own pace in their own applications. And what's
not doable about that-provided we stay clear of television long enough to
repossess our minds?
Korten has advanced a brilliant three-part strategy: change the defining
stories of the mainstream culture, create a new economic reality from the
bottom up, and change the rules to support the values and institutions of
the emergent new reality. Gandhian economics in general, and trusteeship
in particular, would be a major enabling condition, working as it does
within consciousness itself, for these great changes.
Monday's debacle points out once again that forward-thinking people need
to provide a "safe haven" - a plausible, attractive alternative - for
every sector of the current system that's showing signs of potentially
terrifying collapse: security, education, healthcare, and of course the
economy. Gandhi had eye-opening experiments we can learn from in all these
areas, being implementing self and local governance in the face of failed
national and international governance.