Much of Gandhi’s constructive programme was based on village India where the majority of Indians lived (and I believe still do). However, in the West, and increasingly throughout the world, most people live in urban centres. This, along with changes in society brought about by rapid technological developments perhaps require some adaptation of Gandhi’s ideas. Gandhi at times severely criticised modern civilisation, most especially in Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) written in 1909, but at other times he was more accepting of technological developments. If Gandhi’s broad principles were applied to modern society what would it look like ?
Among the liberal democracies a tolerance of the diverse religious and ideological traditions has taken root, indeed increasingly going beyond tolerance to embracing a real interest in both the different and the common elements of traditions other than ones own. Gandhi, although calling himself a Hindu, went further and adopted elements from Jainsim, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Humanism. British society has gone some way to catching up with Gandhi in this respect. While some intolerance persists, and indeed in some quarters has increased, an acceptance of a pluralistic society is widespread.
How different is the picture when we turn to the political and economic sphere, especially the latter. A basically free market system operates which admittedly has its worse features mitigated by social security in the developed states. But even in these communities there is gross inequality with outrageously high incomes for a small minority who are so oblivious to the injustice that they take their millions without embarrassment (and even when they have done their job badly). Gandhi was a great egalitarian, something which we badly need both between nations and within them (Wilkinson and Pickett have demonstrated this in The Spirit Level).
One of Gandhi’s major ideas, however, has, I believed, not proven a practical way forward and that is Trusteeship – that the wealthy should retain their wealth but not for their own use. Such is human nature that few will use their wealth only for the good of others. A more realistic way forward is to have common ownership of companies by those who work in them with decisions taken collectively. Private ownership, except for very small businesses, should disappear so that profits do not accrue to one individual or a small elite. This would also mean a healthy empowerment of the workers in the company. But if Trusteeship is interpreted in a wider sense, that is that everyone has a responsibility to use their income and wealth wisely, then there is value in the concept.
Another aspect of our economic world is the vast size of multi-national companies, some exceeding the wealth of smaller countries. The power yielded by the few who control these corporations is anti-democratic and sometimes dangerous. International agreements to limit the size and sphere of operations of these giants is desirable. Gandhi’s preference was always for small scale, whether in political or economic structures. Another relevant aspect is what Gandhi called swadeshi – a preference for local products, whether in agricultural products or in manufactured goods. This ties in with small scale activities and is also highly relevant to reducing impact on the environment. Trade where price only matters results in goods being transported from one side of the world to the other without consideration of wider impacts. Where international trade does take place it is important that it should be done on a fair trade basis. As individuals we can make purchasing decisions that have an impact and if we are not on very low incomes we have options. Today there is also too much travel by too many people who are using up limited oil reserves and polluting the atmosphere. Gandhi travelled a good deal (although he was never on an aeroplane) but that was at a time when world population was much smaller than today and many fewer people travelled.
A fundamental principle of current economic ideology is that one must have growth – something that runs counter to our knowledge of the finite resources of the planet. Gandhi’s advocacy of restraint and a more static society fits the facts in a way that conventional economics doesn’t. It is important, Gandhi believed, that everyone who is fit to work should – there is an obligation on the individual to seek work, but the corollary is that the state has an obligation to provide employment if necessary.
European culture’s distinction between animals we keep as pets or companions and those we eat is not one Gandhi would recognise. A population that was vegetarian in diet, or vegan even more so, would be more consistent ethically. Furthermore the greatly reduced animal population that would result would help reduce global warming through reduced methane and carbon dioxide emissions. It would also save large areas of land which could be used for edible vegetation or trees, and savings in water usage, something which is appearing in many parts of the world. On economic, ecological and humane grounds a widespread move away from a flesh diet towards ahimsa would be an advantage.
Gandhi had a great belief in ‘nature cure’ to deal with health problems as well as advocating a health style conducive to good health. The latter is readily accepted in the West – in principle, although in a rather indulgent culture the practice often does not match up. Most people however would doubt the efficacy of natural cures when it comes to many illnesses. Gandhi himself was deeply grateful to have an appendectomy by a British army surgeon when in prison in 1924 so his belief in nature cure was qualified.
One area where Western culture has more than caught up with Gandhi is gender equality. Gandhi showed support for women wanting to enter careers when he encouraged his secretary in South Africa, Sonja Schlesin, to apply for training as an advocate. The application in 1909 was rejected as no woman had been envisaged in such a role. In India many of his staunchest colleagues were women and many women participated in satyagraha campaigns.
Perhaps the least useful idea and the least likely to be accepted in general in the desirability of celibacy. It is an issue difficult to ignore because it was so important to Gandhi, but he also universalised it and thought that everyone should follow the path of restraint or brahmacharya. This is also how excessive population size was to be avoided. He believed his control of the sex drive enabled him to achieve what he could not otherwise achieve. Gandhi was generally ascetic and while few would follow him all the way a less hedonistic lifestyle than we have today has something to be said for it.
Last, but no means least, is the issue of war and peace, violence and nonviolence. While Gandhi admired courage (as a child he had been timid) which might be displayed by a soldier, better still was the courage of a nonviolent soldier or satyagrahi. He believed it was possible to defend a country, or community or an individual, by nonviolent means and it is necessary to develop methods for this. Alas, many states are more heavily armed than ever before, including India. Most politicians still have a misguided faith in the efficacy of the threat of destruction and death. It should be obvious that a world that had destroyed its nuclear weapons, abolished trade in weapons, and greatly reduced armaments in general would be a safer world, and in fact the countries of the world have agreed that general disarmament should be an achievable goal. It would also release vast resources for life-enhancing purposes. As inequalities between and within states diminish conflicts would too. Conflicts would still occur but they would be amenable to nonviolent solutions including those pioneered by Gandhi.
A Gandhian society would exhibit a tolerance of diversity, a fairer economic system, a change in diet, a greater awareness of impacts on the environment, and a new concept of defence. To reach such a society we require a new attitude of mind and there will be vested interests to overcome but, I suggest, none of theses things are impossible.
George Paxton is Editor of The Gandhi Way