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The Acorn


published on January 22, 2021

Michael Allen

Integrating Economics and Life Goals through Gandhi’s ‘Back and Forth’ Method between Capitalists and Socialism

Gandhi scholars agree that he was a critic of capitalism, if not capital or capitalists. Nevertheless, they disagree about his relationship to socialism. Some emphasize Gandhi’s claim that the modern Western canon of socialism is incompatible with the philosophy of nonviolence. Others emphasize his occasional affirmation that he is a socialist, regarding socialism as a beautiful ideal of equality. Gandhi moves back and forth between conditional endorsements of capitalists and socialism’s beautiful ideal. In this article, I ask why Gandhi never specifies any clear economic preference for the philosophy of nonviolence. Is he confused and incapable of reaching practical judgments about what nonviolence demands in terms of economics? I answer this question in two ways. First, I argue that passing back and forth over the partial and fallible viewpoints of capitalists and socialists of various stripes is consistent with Gandhi’s method of experiments in truth. The passing-over method extends from experiments in devotion to constructive experiments in economics, laying the foundation for integrating distinctively human life goals or puruṣārthas. Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, I consider the background to Gandhi’s use of this method as applied to economics in Kauṭilya’s classical Arthaśāstra. Scholars often characterize Kauṭilya as both a socialist and a realist. While establishing the world’s first welfare state, his Arthaśāstra is also tied deeply into the material-spiritual concerns of the puruṣārthas, combining economics with duty, earthly pleasure, and transcendence. In this latter respect, however, Kauṭilya’s realism concedes too much to the contextual realities of his time concerning imperial conquest and caste. Gandhi emerges from this inquiry as another kind of realist in his constructive experiments with diverse economic perspectives, equally attuned to the contextual realities of his age. Gandhi succeeded—where Kauṭilya failed—to integrate economics with the spiritual goals of the puruṣārthas. I contend that Gandhi’s back and forth method in economics provides contemporary Gandhians with a way to address new contextual realities of the digital or “gig” economy through techno-satyagraha.

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