THE LIFEWORTH REVIEW OF 2008

Conclusion: A Global Satyagraha

The night has ended,
Put out the light of the lamp of thine own narrow corner smudged with smoke,
The great morning which is for all appears in the east,
Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path of pilgrimage.
80

Rabindranath Tagore wrote his poetry at a time of heightened creativity due to new exchanges between East and West, which was also a time of struggle and emergence, with the retreat of the British Empire and the birth of India. Our current period resonates with such momentous times, as economic systems are shaken and people think again about the order of things.

We have described The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise as a shift in the location of responsible enterprise challenges and the origin of responsible enterprise ideas and initiatives, arising because of the growing power and development of the Middle East and Asia. We have argued that it is not a turning away from the West but an opening up to insights from all directions. The rise of Asia reminds us of the diversity of our world, and therefore the diversity of ideas about social, economy and politics. In this sense, 2008 witnessed the The Return of History.81 Yet rather than seeing our future history as a repeat of ancient conflicts, “the challenge at hand is to conceive a common vision of the future which goes beyond our current concerns and preoccupations, advancing towards the creation of a global community, dominated neither by the East or the West, but dedicated to the ideals of both.”82

Progressive professionals in both the West and East have much to gain from reconnecting with, and debating, the wisdoms across Asia. For instance, one of the greatest leaders from recent Asian history is Mohandas K Gandhi. His views are relevant to the future of the global economy and our work on responsible enterprise and finance in at least five ways: economic purpose, economic equality, appropriate technology, self-reliance, and trusteeship.

To begin with, he saw economic activity as significant and meaningful, not merely in terms of what was produced, but how and by whom, and with what implications for the community. Challenging both the caste system and negativity between religions, he promoted the equality of all peoples, which meant non discrimination in employment and economic affairs. He also believed that technology could be good if it did needed work, but bad if it put people out of work. This philosophy led him to spend many hours working on the spinning wheel, a technology that was appropriate to the economic level of villagers across India at the time. Another important aspect of the spinning wheel was how it generated self-reliance. Gandhi spoke of ’swadeshi’ or economic self-sufficiency, as the only way that India would achieve self-determination. He called on his country-people not to pay into the system of empire by buying foreign clothes. In our current context the implication here is not simply that we produce for ourselves, but that we seek to become independent of systems of exploitation for our own livelihoods and lifestyles.

These aspects of Gandhian economics are well documented and discussed. Like many business folk the world-over, some Indian executives do not see the relevance of these approaches to modern business, viewing them as anachronistic. Yet, in a resource-constrained and climate-threatened world, where hyper-inequality fuels violence, the need for principles and practices of equality, appropriateness and self-reliance to pervade business is clear.

Gandhi’s views on ‘trusteeship’ resonate with the latest thinking within the corporate responsibility movement. More of us have come to understand that we need to redesign the systems of corporate governance and finance in order to create more sustainable and responsible economies, and that business executives can and should engage in public policy debates to promote that re-design:

“In a democratic society, property rights should only exist because people collectively decide to uphold them; they are not inalienable but are upheld by society as a matter of choice. Therefore, if society confers us the right of property, then we have obligations to that society. Today property rights have become so divorced from this democratic control that they are undermining other human rights. A reawakening to a basic principle is required: there can be no property right without property duties, or obligations. From such a principle, it should not be left up to the powerful to decide if they are responsible or not, or if they are carrying out their obligations or not. Instead, the focus shifts to the governance of capital by those who are affected by it.”83

The Mahatma’s view of trusteeship is the same, but elegant in its simplicity. It arises from an understanding that everything is owned by everyone, and wealth is owned by those who generate it. Thus the one who controls an asset is not an owner but a trustee, being given control of that asset by society. Gandhi wrote “I am inviting those people who consider themselves as owners today to act as trustees, i.e., owners, not in their own right, but owners in the right of those whom they have exploited.”84 In the Harijan paper, his views on trusteeship of property were later documented to clarify “it does not recognize any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare” and “under State-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction or in disregard of the interests of society.”85 He also wrote that “for the present owners of wealth… they will be allowed to retain the stewardship of their possessions and to use their talent, to increase the wealth, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the nation and, therefore, without exploitation.”86 All those years ago the Mahatma was proposing an economic system that many people are only beginning to conceive of today.

Some Indian industrialists supported Gandhi and applied some of his ideas to their own business, such as G.D. Birla. The concepts of equality and trusteeship inform some Indian companies’ voluntary corporate responsibility efforts today.87 However, the concept of trusteeship has much untapped potential as an economic system, if codified into public policy and regulation. The current crisis demonstrates the need to globalise trusteeship, or capital democracy, as an approach that can be debated and interpreted into new principles and policies for economics, finance and enterprise. In addition, it is clear that concepts of appropriate technology and self-reliance have much more to offer both to corporate strategy and public policy than currently the case. It is to be seen whether contemporary Indian business leaders can mobilise these concepts and play a role in bringing them to the world.

The life of Gandhi is important not only for his views on economic systems but also on how to bring them into being. In The Corporate Responsibility Movement the lead author of this review argues that the global challenges we face mean those of us who work to make business better must start thinking and planning like a movement:

“The corporate responsibility movement is a loosely organised but sustained effort by individuals both inside and outside the private sector, who seek to use or change specific corporate practices, whole corporations, or entire systems of corporate activity, in accordance with their personal commitment to public goals and the expectations of wider society.” 88

As a movement leader, we could learn from Gandhi’s mastery of symbolic communication combined with personal authenticity, his embrace of both dialogue and direct action, his respect for people no matter the differences, and his demonstration that we must ourselves disengage with systems that do not align with our values. More of us can mobilise our networks and knowledge for transformative ends. And if it means changing our lives to be less economically dependent on the status quo, then that’s what we must do.

The poet Tagore particularly identified with Gandhi’s philosophy of liberation which he called Satyagraha. “Satya” means truth, “Graha” means both ‘involved in’ and ‘total (or perhaps ‘global’). Gandhi used satyagraha to describe a non-violent way of life, that does not participate in oppression wherever it occurs, and challenges it in non-violent ways. It became synonymous with India’s liberation movement. Gandhi believed that satyagraha required fearless yet convivial dialogue about the truth of society and efforts to live by that truth. As stakeholder dialogue has been a central methodology for responsible enterprise practitioners around the globe, we could embrace a new degree of fearless yet convivial dialogue to seek out truths for the future of business and society – a new global satyagraha. Such an international and cross-cultural dialogue could encourage a multitude of Asian approaches to responsible enteprise to positively affect business practices around the globe.

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(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)

This section can be referenced as:

Bendell, J., and C Ng, ‘Introduction’, in J. Bendell, N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines. (Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)

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