So here we are. More than two centuries separates us from the Industrial Revolution, in a sort of “no-man’s land” economically speaking, which was first called post-capitalism, to be re-baptized later as the digital economy and more recently the global economy. Whatever it comes to be known as, the truth is that the purpose of our economy is, as it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, to maximize consumption as the only means of maximizing individual and collective well-being. In other words, the more we consume, the healthier the economy. But it is evident that there is something failing in this approach, because if there are more and more inhabitants on the planet and, in order to have individual and collective well-being we all have to consume more, or at least the same, unless resources are capable of regenerating at the same speed as they are consumed, we are all sitting on a time bomb. Today, more than ever, the contradictions of our economy oblige us to search for new sustainable models.
In this quest, perhaps in the West we should stop looking inwards and start learning from other civilizations. An example of an alternative economy can be found in the model that Mahatma Ghandi advocated for an India free of British colonialism: swadeshi.
Satish Kumar, programme director of Schumacher College and a Gandhian scholar, defines swadeshi as an “economics of permanence”, a concept that goes beyond mere economics as it implies a profound social and political transformation. In our modern “global” economy, societies are organized in mega-cities, whose inhabitants are employed in the services sector, in particular services developed around the so famous information and communications technologies. The individuals who make possible this economy are, on the whole, employed by second parties and sometimes by third parties, as occurs in subcontracting. They hire out their intellectual capacity to public and private companies to provide certain services, which are often consumed in another part of the world. They are “global” services. But the truth is that, in this model, individuals have very little or no power over their work, over the services that they help to provide. From the moment that they are “employees” of others, individuals cannot decide how to organize their work. Nor are they able to decide how the food they eat is grown, how the clothes they wear are made or how the homes they live in are built. They depend totally on external production for feeding, clothing or sheltering themselves. The global economy leads therefore to dependant societies, which are only capable of consuming but incapable of “”manufacturing” anything and that are, because of this, completely vulnerable. In this economy, individuals have less and less freedom to make decisions about their lives. Ghandi was the first one to realize this at a time when the “educated” western nations lauded the achievements of industrialization.
In opposition to this approach, Ghandi proposed the organization of society into self-efficient, self-governing village communities, each empowered to take all the decisions that affect the community. The inhabitants would be self-employed and would produce, with the fruit of their labour, the goods and services consumed by the community. In an economy based on the principles of swadeshi, everything produced by the community is destined for local consumption. This means that production does not depend on market forces, only local demand, therefore pressure on the environment is minimal. External trade only occurs for those goods and services that the community is unable to produce. On the contrary, the nation states of our global economy attempt to maintain a favourable balance of payments by increasing the volume of exports, which necessarily leads to increasing production and therefore, the exploitation of natural resources. Ghandi especially emphasized the autonomous character of the inhabitants of these communities. In an economy of swadeshi, each individual is capable of generating his own work, is capable of using his own skills to produce something that will be consumed in the community. Self-sufficiency is therefore achieved at community
, and not at an individual level.
Regrettably, Ghandi never had the opportunity to put into practice the principles of swadeshi, as he was assassinated only six month after India gained its independence. His successor, Jawaharlal Nehru, considered Ghandi’s vision too idealistic and decided to continue, with minor amendments, the British colonial model.