Thoughts about a “need based” economy

Let me start with a question: “What are our needs and how can we know them?”
There is a famous saying of Gandhi to the effect that the world has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed, which of course prompts the retort, what is need and what is greed? Broadband internet? Cheap public transportation? Is acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran greed, while the development of nuclear weapons by the US need? To take this a bit further, one should also inquire, “who is asking this question and where are they coming from?”

Viewpoints change continuously so that today’s need is yesterdays greed. We know that social consciousness changes over time — three hundred years ago, if someone were to say that a free-person would voluntarily submit themselves to someone else’s will for the better part of their waking life, 17th century human beings would find that extremely bizarre. Yet, that is what we do these days, white collar and blue collar workers alike. Yes, I know that life in those days was nasty, brutish and short, but those old folks also had no inkling about the kind of control that the state and/or corporations can have over your life. Given that greed and need cannot be defined in some universal and time independent manner, what is one to do? I can think of four different solutions:

(1) We accept that needs are dynamic, but all of us share a basic set of needs. These are the minimal rights that everybody should have — for example, a universal human right to life, food, clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, some people have unlimited greed and their power to fulfill their greed may overcome the ability of the vast majority of people to satisfy their basic needs. This is pretty much the current situation.

(2) The second solution is to accept that human beings are inherently greedy, but that through a market or state mechanism, my greed and self-interest will lead to the satisfaction of your need. In other words, as long as my I can say “I want product X and I am willing to pay for it” and you say “ I want to make money, and I am willing to make product X”, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. A perfectly fine solution in theory, but it has certain serious drawbacks, such as — what do you do about entities that do not have the ability to offer something in return for their demands? In other words, what happens to the poor, the disabled and the entire non-human environment? They have their needs, but they cannot articulate their self-interest, as a result of which their sole role in this system is as objects of exploitation. Therefore, one could argue that every being that has needs should have rights, which brings us to solution number three.

(3) The third system says, well we have to do both (1) and (2) simultaneously — we have to articulate a minimal set of rights, of humans, of the environment etc and we have to establish rules that prevent greedy humans from trampling upon these basic rights. In this scheme, greed is fine as long as it does not violate the basic needs/rights from (1). I would say that classic conceptions of a socialist economy as well as what we now call “sustainable economics” fall under this solution. The basic idea is that the greed of humans in one place at a given time is restricted, by a combination of law-making, education etc, in order to protect the rights of humans and non-humans in other places as well as in the future. In other words, regulate local greed in order to promote global needs. Well, this would be great, if not for the fact that humans are still being defined as primarily greedy creatures and the whole purpose of regulation is to curb our natural greed.

(4) A closely related conception to (3) is the moral/religious conception of greed as a sin, which has to be curbed by going to Church or fasting or not watching TV or whatever. In this moral scenario, we replace our innate greediness by our capacity to be moral and ethical beings — the disease of greed being cured by our control of our sensual desires and by the following of ethical and religious commandments. The classic understanding of the Gandhian approach to economics is in this sphere, where we replace the current, greedy state of human beings with a normative ideal of ascetic living. Various levels of transcendence of greed can be mapped out — Kumarappa’s conception of the “Natural Order” is one attempt to dilineate five stages of social control of greed. Once again, great if you can hack it, but most humans, especially young ones, may see this way as too much of a kill joy, more ideology than actual life.

What if I said that in my opinion, all of these conceptions were mistaken, too theoretical and ideological, riddled with abstractions that prevent us from seeing the world for what it is? I believe that these four conceptions of the economy are all sourced from a false epistemology, i.e., a false conception of knowledge and truth, especially about us as human beings. Each one of these theories of economic development suffers from being based on a theoretical conception of reality and truth, a conception in which reality can be studied abstractly, need and greed can be identified objectively and utopian ideals can be formulated as solutions to the problem. What if the utopian solutions were partaking of the same ignorance that they were claiming to cure? Furthermore, given that we have all been educated (brainwashed?) in this theoretical mode of understanding the world, what is the chance that any action we take, whether based on greed or need, is going to hit the actuality of this world, not some conceptual, intellectual and ideological distortion?

In order to discuss these questions, I believe that before we enter into a discussion of need and greed, we should actually try to grapple with the issue of truth and our access to truth and Truth (in its lowercase and capitalized manifestations). Sat-Satya-Satta, Being-Truth-Society is a trip of deeply linked concepts that requires a careful and open-minded inquiry. Until we have a living conception of these three, all our discussions of need and greed will come from the same abstract theoretical conceptual frameworks that lead us to believe that we can sit down in a room at Harvard or MIT and determine what these things really mean, before the fact. Isn’t that what we do when we go to a presentation — we expect that the speaker will replicate, in front of our eyes, the essence of a certain part of the universe and that we will then swallow this fully formed image of reality? I am not saying that we should all go and work in some village in India and then discuss need and greed, for that is an equally abstract and romantic conception. However, it is essential that we conduct an open minded inquiry without a preformed set of ideas or beliefs about need/greed in particular or Sat-Satya-Satta in general.

In the article on Gandhi as a thinker, Bilgrami says that Gandhi’s most radical vision was his denial of a theoretical, abstract conception of truth in favour of an experiential conception of truth, which is intrinsically moral. In this scenario, morality is not imposed as a norm from the outside, regulated by Sunday school preachers, but emerges naturally from an authentic way of life. It would also be a decisive break with the European enlightenment conception of reality. You could call this organic living.

One can disagree with Bilgrami about whether Gandhi was as radical as he is claiming, but there is no doubt that any experiential conception of truth is rather different from the theoretical conception of truth that science celebrates. Furthermore, a person who is the truth would also be able to see his or her needs without fear or bias. So one answer to the question: “what are our needs and how does one know them” would be to answer “embody the truth and the answer shall be transparent”. This might seem like a new age maxim without any real bite. An obvious rejoinder would be “How can you show me how to become the truth?” Well, that would be a great question if we are trying to define the truth or articulate a procedure to arrive at it, but that task I leave to scientists. If an authentic life is to be an actuality, not a theoretical conception, how are we to arrive upon it? It would defeat our purpose to define authentic living, but one can try to evoke it and trust that an authentic person will naturally arrive upon his or her needs, without trying to define those terms beforehand. Is this even possible? We can only try to explore this puzzle together, without any pressure to arrive at a conclusion. In this spirit, I repose the question that I asked at the beginning of this presentation: What is need and how can we know it?

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