Gandhian values in the economic crisis

There’s a great advert running on Classic FM. As Edith Piaf belts out Non, je ne regrette rien, a hypertensive voiceover concurs with the sentiment, until finally admitting “there is one thing” – the unforgiveable neglect of a special offer to buy cheap spectacles.

Despite a conspicuous lack of designer credentials, spectacles that once defined the global image of Gandhi don’t come so cheap. Bundled up with other simple possessions of the late Mahatma, they fetched $1.8 million at a New York auction this week.

Whether by accident or design, the sale blew up into a diplomatic spat. The Indian government demanded that the items be withdrawn from the auction and handed over as part of India’s national heritage.

The American owner of Lot 364, himself a declared follower of the Mahatma, agreed to the proposal but imposed the enlightened condition that India should first increase spending on poverty reduction or conduct a world tour for peace. The government decided that it would be cheaper to bid by proxy at the auction.

Inevitably, the various sides in the dispute sought legitimacy by invoking Gandhian ideology. An Indian minister asserted that Gandhi “would not have agreed to the conditions”. James Otis, the conscientious collector, was himself anxious that the outcome should not offend his Guru’s principles.

I prefer to think that the great man would have had little interest in such trivia, especially given the bewildering pace of world events during the week.

As a lawyer who found himself drawn to human rights issues in South Africa, Gandhi would have empathised with the difficult decision of the International Criminal Court to indict the Sudanese president for war crimes. And he would have been horrified at the murder of human rights activists in Kenya.

As the prime mover of civil disobedience against colonial masters, he would have welcomed this week’s settlement of the strikes in French Guadeloupe, on terms favourable to the workers.

But most of all, in its absolute rejection of material wealth, the spirit of Gandhi will relish the Bank of England’s decision to run up the white flag in Threadneedle Street. By reducing interest rates to zero and printing cash sufficient to cover the entire Indian Federal budget, the Bank has signalled the end of 300 years of an economic model which served neither people nor the planet.

The coincidence is almost providential. On the same day that Gandhi’s humble possessions are deemed to be worth more than their weight in gold, the Bank of England concedes that coin of the realm is no longer a store of value.

Maybe we should abort the mission of the Kepler space telescope. Signs of intelligent life survive on earth after all.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK