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Home / Opinion / Views /  The Gandhian dream of a non-violent economic model

Amid the crushing despair of the Great Depression in 1930, John Maynard Keynes fondly hoped that eventually the human race would solve its economic problems. But for at least another 100 years, Keynes wrote: “… we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still."

It is this assumption, even more than the power of the British crown, that Mahatma Gandhi militated against. The charkha and rejuvenation of local economies were merely methodological details. Gandhi’s primary focus was on the profound structural violence unleashed by this assumption that lies at the heart of modernity.

The year of corona may yet shift the focus from Gandhi as an icon of political protest to Gandhi as a far-sighted economic thinker. In diverse settings, there is a buzz about “non-violent economics".

Some of this was evident in the intensity of global coverage on the passing of American anarchist philosopher and anthropologist David Graeber. Graeber was credited with inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement and coining the evocative term “99% vs. 1%" to describe wealth disparity.

Non-violent economics shifts the focus from wealth distribution to difficult questions about what constitutes value and how it might be measured. This means going beyond calls for stricter regulation of transnational corporations and asking why money alone is the store of value. Why are greed and avarice treated as legitimate and necessary drivers of progress?

Over the last 30 years, there were two major developments on the world stage that created hope of overturning this worship of greed. One was the rise of the free or open software movement. The other was the rise of triple bottom line valuations along with the emergence of ethical investing as a pervasive phenomenon.

The open software movement gifted us the World Wide Web when its creator Tim Berners-Lee refused to patent its protocols. Subsequently, knowledge commons did grow in some spheres. But on the whole, as Berners-Lee has often lamented, the democratizing and decentralizing potential of the web has been cannibalized by its own children—notably Google, Facebook, etc.

Today’s internet giants have not merely unprecedented concentration of money wealth but also manipulative power that could undermine mental health and democratic institutions across the world. The documentary The Social Dilemma shows tech industry insiders explaining how the drive for profits created a Frankenstein.

With approximately one in three dollars globally being managed by some “socially responsible investing" criteria, this looks like a success story. But in the same two decades that this trend took shape, income disparity has worsened and ecological degradation reached a catastrophic scale. Earth Overshoot Day, which tells us when humans used up the year’s quota of renewable resources, fell on 22 August this year. In 2000, Earth Overshoot Day was in October.

Diverse advocates of “alternative economics" argue that building solidarity economies by encouraging greater localization will challenge the destructive dominant order. Going by the experience of such efforts over the last half century, this is unlikely to happen. It is delusional to expect that just growing the volume and spread of alternative economic entities will save future generations from suffering. This is because the malice of “foul is fair" is hardwired into global systems—not as a limited conspiracy but as a historical force that has grown in strength over 300 years. So, is there any hope for a non-violent economics emerging? Yes.

One, because covid might serve as a wake-up call for leaders and foot soldiers of the current global disorder. The link between environmental degradation and proliferation of ever-more-deadly pathogens is more widely acknowledged.

Two, we are shockingly vulnerable as long as value is equated with money. If supply chains break down for long enough, even millionaires are in danger of starving.

Three, it is now more widely recognized that gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic activity is grievously misleading, if not a lie.

When the use of irreplaceable natural resources is counted as GDP, for example fossil fuels and other minerals, depletion of capital is shown as income. Total spending on medical services, which adds to GDP, tells us nothing about the state of healthcare.

As long as GDP, “green accounting" of various kinds and the human development index are separate measures, the structural violence of the global economic system will continue unabated. Creating a combined measure that tracks social and environmental well-being is now a survival imperative.

Bhutan’s gross national happiness mechanism can be applied by others. The genuine progress index (GPI) developed by think-tank GPI Atlantic is another model to build upon. Likewise, US non-profit Holochain is innovating systems for a regenerative economy based on non-monetary measures and stores of value. Such efforts hold promise because instead of directly attacking the “foul is fair" assumption, they seek to make it less lucrative. They are far from sufficient to overcome a crushing historical burden. But they do look like a light at the end of our tunnel.

Rajni Bakshi is an author and curator of ‘Ahimsa Conversations’, a YouTube channel.

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