Schumacher and Trusteeship – by Godric Bader

Godric Bader is Patron of The Gandhi Foundation

We need a nobler economics that is not afraid to discuss spirit and conscience, moral purpose and the meaning of life, an economics that aims to educate and elevate people. – E. F. Schumacher

The words Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) which Fritz Schumacher chose to describe his commitment to helping the ‘third’ world came from his deeply intellectual, but radical and practical, mind. Its essence is now seen to be better understood as Practical Action (ITDG’s recent name change) as these two simple words accurately describe what purpose he wanted the organisation to have. I recall what he said about appropriate technology and “economics as if people mattered” in his last talk, called Caring, for Real which he gave at Caux in Switzerland in 1966 just before he died – all his words were at bottom calling for Practical Action, directly with the people wherever they were on the earth.

So I now understand why he travelled to the small village of Wallaston in Northamptonshire, where the Scott Bader company (producing polyester resins) had evacuated in 1940, when he was in great demand as an adviser by many world governments. Scott Bader was an attempt at putting good ideas into practical action in the world of industry. Ernest Bader, an immigrant Swiss national, had founded a company in London in 1920 but normal ownership had been extinguished when the family company was given freely into a charitable holding company, the Scott Bader Commonwealth Ltd, in 1951.

Fritz came to know my father at a Pacem in Terris Conference in Geneva, and Fritz wanted to encourage the company whose ethos he described in Small is Beautiful as

“the development of the power over the responsibility for a bundle of assets – not ownership”.

That is why Fritz had given me much of his lunch times in London, where we usually met in a small Polish restaurant near the National Coal Board HQ where the waitresses, some from Auschwitz, could still show you their numbers on their arms. He understood the paradigm shift we at Scott Bader were struggling with and could spell it out better than we could. I would like to think that the 21st century description we are beginning to use to describe Scott Bader as a Democratic Trusteeship, with its “responsibility for a bundle of assets instead of ownership of them” has a direct parallel as to how we now urgently have to look at our earthly home.

This is a neat description of how we all have to learn to live on our planet, being responsible for the “bundle of assets” – the air, sea and land – through which nature and our life evolved and is sustained; not to be selfishly fought over, bought, sold and pillaged. The understanding was that there was a way forward by which we could say good-bye to the 150-year-old Company law, with its dominance of ownership, of shareholder money power. Instead there would be life beyond acquisitive capitalist motivation and we would hold the earth and its resources in trust for all its peoples.

Quite early in our discussions for Scott Bader, Fritz suggested that the company should appoint two or three imaginative biologists. We should put them in our research and development labs and leave them alone for at least five years. We would then have our new products and no longer be ‘capital dependent’, for he saw, as an economist, that the world was using up its capital: its fossil fuels and minerals – as income, and literally burning it away instead of using it to construct the means of recyclable and sustainable forms of production and lifestyles. He saw the direct parallel with nature’s ability to run the planet, without piles of waste everywhere. However I was unable to persuade my fellow directors who were all in the tough competitive business world of using petrochemicals for synthesising useful polymers for paints, adhesives and resins for glass fibre boats, pipes, tanks and building products. For them biology was not even a science and was a pointless direction for the company to go. An opportunity was lost.

In business Fritz taught me that the conventional planning process and games with graphs and numbers were too rigid and lifeless. They did not reflect enough reality – if anything tangible at all. As the top Economic Adviser and Director of Statistics at the National Coal Board he learnt that planning the way forward was not a rigid process – one should “stir forward to sense what one would bump up against”, so one had to be widely read and know what was going on in the world, as well as in one’s own sector. As the small poster on my office wall with his picture above reads:

“Economic growth is a quantitative concept and quite meaningless until defined in qualitative terms”.

And to illustrate Fritz’s later ability to put things even more succinctly after he had travelled more widely, he said, when questioned about the importance of Buddhism to him, and its relevance to economics:

“Economics without Buddhism is like sex without love”.

Fritz directed me also to the writings of R H Tawney and such words as:

“It is a condition of freedom that men should not be ruled by an authority they cannot control”.

Scott Bader was on its way to finding, as Tawney put it so well:

“…a principle of justice upon which association for the production and distribution of wealth could be found”.

Fritz however warned

“.. this is only an enabling act … though a necessary one but not yet sufficient condition for the attainment of higher aims … yet everyone in Scott Bader has the opportunity to raise themselves to a higher level of humanity”.

We could not go very much further than encouraging and educating people, for Tawney had said:

“It is obvious, indeed, that no change of system or machinery can avert those causes of social malaise which consist in the egotism, greed, or quarrelsomeness of human nature. What it can do is to create an environment in which those are not qualities which are encouraged.”

In Davos at the European Management Conference, just before it became the World Economic Forum, I claimed that democratic common ownership, as we then called it, created an organisation in which

“man’s spirit can be freer so that he can become more creative, productive and responsible”.

I believe Democratic Trusteeship is a way of releasing the talent, so often frustrated in the present day that many look for other work, or like the Quakers give up industry (eg Cadbury, Rowntree, Huntly and Palmer, Barclays), leaving the less mobile workforces who can then only turn to unionism to speak for them.

Fritz would never have attained the recognition that he was one of the few people who had changed the direction of human thought had he not

“combined scientific thinking at its most rigorous with spiritual commitment at its most compassionate”

to quote The Times. Sadly, this was said only after his death. I well remember his funeral in Westminster Cathedral where Yehudi Menuhin with his young violinists, and speakers from around the world, paid homage. Many people afterwards turned to me including Scott Bader’s Technical Director, saying: “We did not know what we had in the Company”, or “We did not realise he was so widely known”, such was his influence, literally around the world.

Remembering him one cannot forget the highly infectious warmth of his personality. Here was someone who knew where he was in the world. His depth of assurance came from his basic grasp of what humankind’s destiny should be in the world, and how to live out our evolutionary purpose on our planet.

It is difficult to pin down the unconscious influence Fritz had on Scott Bader; his depth of understanding and ability to analyse a situation was always apparent in Company meetings, and often a simple statement or question from him would clarify matters and show the way forward. From the point of view of the Company’s efficiency, and a better life for its workers, one of the most practical things Fritz did was to bring about our transference from coal to gas with the construction of a new gas main from Wellingborough (our local town) to Wallaston.

I was looking forward to having his acceptance to follow me as Chairman in 1978 when he so tragically died in a train when returning from Caux. It was reported:

“Dr Schumacher belongs to the intensely creative minority and his death is an incalculable loss to the whole international community”.

It certainly was to Scott Bader, especially as he was also going to give our 1978 Commonwealth Lecture. In the event his son Christian took over.

Fritz was a true prophet and one the world should have listened to earlier and thus we may have been able to avoid the development of resource depletion and climate change. Fritz would have agreed with the recent slogan which appeared in Time magazine:

“Don’t blow it! Good planets are hard to find!”

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Categories: Gandhian Economics


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