Gandhian Economics and the Commons

In a recent post on her blog, Fearless Heart (a post that also appears at Psychology Today), Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, brought forward some fascinating connections between Gandhian economics and the commons.  She focused on two key themes – the satisfaction of human needs and the idea of trusteeship for things that exceed our needs.  Kashtan writes: 

The fundamental basis of Gandhian economics is a commitment to universal well-being. Like so many who are interested in universal well-being, Gandhi was led, inexorably, to looking at the difficult question of need satisfaction, since physical finitude makes it clearly impossible for everyone to have everything they want all the time. Like many others, he attempted to address this challenge by supporting a shift from the multiplication of wants to the fulfillment of needs. 

Kashtan notes that this is a highly complex issue, however.  What is a need?  How do we answer this question individually or collectively, and actually allocate resources to meet our needs?  It first bears noting that much of Gandhian economics is based on his particular circumstances and those of India in the early 20th century.  Still, certain fundamental principles such as simplicity, localism and decentralization should remain a beacon for us today.

When Gandhi wrote, “The spinning wheel and the spinning wheel alone will solve, if anything will solve, the problem of the deepening poverty of India,” he could have been talking about the commons.  His point was that we need to devise new collective forms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that will let us disengage from oppressive forms of provisioning and invent more humane and satisfying alternatives. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of the free software, local food and hackerspace/maker movements (and countless other commons)?

The other commons-oriented Gandhian theme is trusteeship.  As Kashtan wrote in a separate blog post, “In essence, as I understand it, Gandhi proposed that anything material that goes beyond the elusive notion of need satisfaction (which I discussed last week) be viewed as held in trust for service.”  She continues:

In preparation for writing this piece, I had a long discussion with a friend, let's call her Nadine, about the ramifications of what this approach could possibly mean. Nadine, a woman who lives in great simplicity, far beyond any I can claim, was talking about a computer she had acquired some time ago, and what it truly means to view herself as holding this computer in trust. At present, it seems straightforward: Since she is using the computer almost exclusively for the purpose of supporting her service work in the world, she is at peace. What would happen, however, if she stops doing her work? Would trusteeship mean that she would be obliged to give her computer away to someone else who would use it for others' benefit? Would she be able to part with it, to undo, within herself, the visceral sense that this computer is “hers”?  That was the moment we both understood deeply that trusteeship calls into question one of the most sanctified pillars of a market economy: the institution of private property. Trusteeship means we don’t own anything; we consume what we need, and the rest is ours to use for the benefit of all…..

As we delved more deeply into the difference between ownership, which is enshrined in legal terms, and belonging, which is emotional and relational, I described to Nadine my latest discovery, about which I am still learning: the institution, idea, and practice of the commons.

Kashtan proceeds to describe the role that the commons can play in serving as a trustee for resources.  Much of the history of the commons is about enlcosure – the ways in which industrialization has dispossessed countless commoners by shutting off access to the land and resources that met their basic needs.  As the great Digger advocate Gerrard Winstanley put it in the 1600s, “The Earth was made a common treasury for all!” 

It was gratifying to read Kashtan’s reaction to reading The Wealth of the Commons:

It’s rare for me to cry while reading dense academic prose, and yet that happened to me when I started reading this book. Those were tears of grief, for the immense and mostly forgotten destruction of institutions that had worked well for centuries and for so many people, converting untold numbers of people from self-sufficient producers to unskilled laborers. Those were also tears of gratitude, for discovering a new tool for making sense of these losses, and pointing a way forward into reclaiming the possibility of a relationship of mutuality and belonging with nature, life, and resources of all kinds. I experience both despair at the loss and hope at the ingenuity of people the world over who are reinventing new forms of the commons, both virtual (just think of Wikipedia) and physical, including groups of people that manage scarce resources collaboratively in various parts of the world. We have all been trained to believe, somehow, that the only alternative to runaway capitalism is central planning. What a wealth of possibilities opens up when we see that private property or state control are not the only two options for how we can come to govern ourselves and the resources of life well into the future. 

I read the entire book with an intensity of interest, as if I were drinking from a forbidden spring of water. I realize in this moment that the deepest ingredient of all in this mix was never mentioned in the book, and yet I am confident it is the foundation of all that is possible through this form of collective trusteeship: love. This love is one of the unifying principles of Gandhi's work, and the missing ingredient in both capitalism and the modern science of economics. Beyond supply and demand, and certainly beyond the straw figure of the “rational” economic actor whose only concern is maximizing self-interest in the narrowest possible sense, there exists a deeper relationship of love: of self, of others, of nature, of life. It is this love that gives me the basis for hope that we can find our way to loving trusteeship, collective and individual, of all that's needed for our own, and all other forms of life, to thrive.

Update:  A thoughtful reader and student of Gandhian economics, George Mokray, has provided links to his notes on the topic:

Also, a two-part podcast:


The future world of sustainable prosperity

"Independent wealth" is the dream of an unsustainable world.  But is the dream of interdependent wealth, communal wealth, limited to sustainable poverty, limited to needs rather than the prosperity that is growth of wealth, promising the possibility of more? Is no end to growth of wealth possible on a world with finite resources, is sustainable prosperity possible?  Love and knowledge both grow when they are shared, both exist within us and multiply between us. The world we are leaving behind is the world where value is measured with things, a world limited to the possibility of sustainable poverty.