Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gandhian Economics, Universal Well-being, and Human Needs

by Miki Kashtan

As this entry is being posted, it’s Gandhi’s birthday. Given how much I have been influenced, even transformed, by learning from Gandhi about nonviolence, I wanted to write something to honor his legacy. Because I’ve recently started a mini-series on money, I decided to focus on a lesser known aspect of Gandhi’s work: his views about economics. 

At first sight, many of Gandhi’s basic economic thoughts seem entirely irrelevant to our very different time, culture, and context from the one in which he operated and wrote. For example, the idea of village cottage industry, which might have been feasible in early 20th century India, is very hard to imagine now as a primary way forward for industrialized economies. Delving into it a bit deeper, I see a number of convergences between his ideas and the direction that many are advocating today, such as simplicity, localism, and decentralization. Rather than an exhaustive introduction to Gandhian economics, which can be found through a search on the web, I chose, instead, to look more deeply at two core principles that resonate deeply with me and the path I am on with regards to thinking about money and the economy. This week, I am looking at the question of what constitutes universal well-being and how we approach the conundrum of attending to human needs. Next week I plan to look at Gandhi’s notion of trusteeship and connect it with current unfolding thoughts about the Commons.

Needs and Wants

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.

If only it were so simple. As Kate Soper, an academic researcher in the field of human needs observes in On Human Needs: “we hear and read repeatedly of ‘basic’ ‘needs, ‘true’ needs, ‘false’ needs, ‘spiritual’ needs, ‘material’ needs, unconscious needs, of ‘needs’ as opposed to ‘wants’ or ‘desires’, of ‘needs’ as opposed to ‘luxuries’, of ‘actual’ as opposed to ‘potential’ needs.” This is a category fraught with difficulties on a variety of levels. It includes questions of what’s true of reality, how we know and identify it, and what we do about it. For those who have studied philosophy, we have epistemological, ontological, and moral dimensions to the complexity. No wonder we haven’t figured this one out completely. This means we are challenged to identify what a need is and distinguish it from other forms of wanting, wishing, or desiring. This difficulty is not idle or purely theoretical, because the deeper question of whether or not needs can be met is completely tied up with what we mean by a need, and both are intertwined with whether or not we decide, collectively, to put efforts into trying to meet them, along with figuring out the even more perplexing question of who decides what counts as a need when it comes time for resource allocation. 

From this perspective, I can see so clearly the appeal of modern capitalism. Rather than attempting to address the question any which way, the lure of capitalism is the promise of a certain kind of freedom: you will be accountable to no one for as long as you can amass enough money to buy everything you want, regardless of whether you need it or not. The translation of needs into market demand appears implicitly to preserve human dignity: no one can decide for anyone what their needs are. Only an impersonal and optimal force will determine which needs will actually get met. The actual question of human needs gets swept under the rug.

The other modern challenge to the possibility of need satisfaction is the Freudian theory of human nature, in which everything we want is reduced to two insatiable and asocial drives. If our inner drives are insatiable, there is no point in attempting to satisfy our needs, because the project is impossible. 

Although Gandhi may have not been aware of Freud, he was very aware of the abundance that mass production creates (abundance I believe to be imaginary, because of invisible costs – to nature, to other people, to social ties, to the future). His project, as I understand it, was more on the moral and spiritual plane than the actual economic and practical plane. He issues an invitation, to all of us, to become ever more aware of the proliferation of options that don’t add to real choice, and to choose to go against that current by coming closer and closer to our essential needs.

Reaching clarity about what our needs really are and how they differ from the almost infinite array of strategies we have for attempting to meet them is one of the core practices of the work I’ve been studying and teaching for years: Nonviolent Communication. This practice delineates clear guidelines for deciding (see The What and the Why in Human Needs), and yet leaves the final decision for each person to figure out for themselves. This process sidesteps the oppressive path of someone from the outside deciding for us what constitutes a need, while at the same time achieving the beneficial results that come from moving closer to the core as proposed by Gandhi.

Unfortunately, the lure of capitalism has only grown since Gandhi’s day, making it that much more difficult to tease apart needs in the arena of material satisfaction, especially when it comes to money itself, the universal translator of needs in our world. We all have many physical, relational, and emotional needs bound up with money and material possessions. I know of no effective way to be able to get to true clarity amidst the emotionally overwhelming bombardment of our senses and minds by injunctions to consume. That said, the trend of embracing some degree of voluntary simplicity appears to be growing in the last few decades, as more and more people recognize the costs of a high-consumption lifestyle.

All of this leaves unaddressed, still, the question of how we make the shift from wants to needs. One core insight that I find profoundly liberating and core to the possibility of need satisfaction is the realization that although most of what we want, moment by moment, is not in itself a need, it is also not separate from what we need, and there is always some underlying need which informs and motivates every action we take and every wish we harbor. In contrast to Freud and other human nature pessimists, I have embraced the faith that there is no inherent insatiability to our core human needs. Put differently, I believe that we are capable of satisfaction, and that we can experience it much more often, reliably, and deeply, if we create, collectively and globally, conditions that support human flourishing. Although my language is different from Gandhi’s, I believe that this framework, and the practice that emerges from it, are consistent with Gandhi’s vision of an economy that is geared towards the general well being of all humanity. 

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, October 8, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. 


  1. The view of capitalism that I find compelling is Friedrich Hayek's, who would say that it's a common misconception to see capitalism as having the goal to "amass enough money to buy everything you want." Hayek sees capitalism as a tool rather than a goal or cultural value: a tool for basing decisions on the best information available to the decision maker. Central authorities cannot have the best information to make decisions for the trillions of human interactions that take place on earth every day. For Hayek, there is no "magic of the marketplace," only the brute fact that, for example, when I rent out one of my extra rooms, only my renter knows what rent is acceptable to her and only I know what rent is acceptable to me. It's an illusion to think that someone somewhere knows what the rent "should" be. Amassing enough money to buy everything you want is primarily a spiritual goal insofar as it speaks to what you want to make of your life; it's not inherent to capitalism. Gandhi is a capitalist if he wants to make decisions based on the best information available to himself rather than have his decisions made for him by some central authority who cannot possibly have more relevant information about Gandhi's well-being than Gandhi does himself. This of course in no way means that we cannot learn from one another, only that in the final analysis each of us is the final author of our life.

    Which takes us to your point about needs being dynamic. In that spirit, I would like to say a need is a relative term pointing to when we stop asking if there's something further that might make us feel more alive. As you note from Soper, there is no final stopping point where we arrive at absolute need. There's just stopping momentarily because of fatigue, lack of further curiosity, or finding ourselves at least temporarily feeling satisfactorily alive. In that light, NVC is good at helping us avoid prematurely ceasing to ask that question.

    Gary Schouborg

    1. Gary,

      I am appreciating the questions you are raising. The main point I want to stress is that the idea that we either have capitalism and private property OR we have central control is part of what I and others are questioning. As you will hopefully see when my next post is posted, other possibilities also exist.


  2. I can see the links between what you write here and the quote you've given me for the Maximum Wage Movement: “Supposing I have come by a fair amount of wealth—either by way of legacy, or by means of trade and industry—I must know that all that wealth does not belong to me; what belongs to me is the right to an honorable livelihood, no better than that enjoyed by millions of others. The rest of my wealth belongs to the community and must be used for the welfare of the community.”

  3. As the industrialized economies run out of the oil that has driven their growth, we will need alternative, sustainable ways to meet human needs, and Gandhi's village cottage industries will become a more viable alternative. In fact, I see this model as a way to meet needs for many people, such as the multitudes of homeless people in our country, who are left out of the current industrialized economy. This system is no longer working.