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12 March 2013, Gateway House

Trusteeship: A futuristic concept

There is much global discussion on creating new metrics of ‘valuation’ to make markets respond to burgeoning crises such as the widening income gap, ecological imbalance and social instability. Can Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Trusteeship enable the creation of a broader, more wholesome definition of value?

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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Azim Premji’s recent decision to sign the Giving Pledge is widely viewed as a big boost to advocates of philanthropy. But the reasoning behind Premji’s decision may expand space for a more radical idea – Trusteeship.

“I was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s notion of holding one’s wealth in trusteeship, to be used for the betterment of society and not as if one owned it,” Premji said in a statement that accompanied his decision to sign the Giving Pledge, an initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to persuade the world’s super rich to be more philanthropic. Premji has committed to placing a large volume of his assets, estimated at about $16 billion, in charitable trusts – some of which have already created educational institutions in India.

There is a crucial difference between philanthropy and Gandhian trusteeship.

Philanthropy developed as a vital component of 20th century capitalism. It is largely about giving away surplus wealth without necessarily questioning the economic system which allows for such concentration of wealth.

Trusteeship is a futuristic concept which radically challenges the very concept of ownership.

Philanthropy has been promoted on both moral and strategic grounds. The privileged are deemed to have a moral responsibility to those less better off. Large scale giving has also been viewed as a safety valve to defray discontent about vast disparities in assets and income.

By contrast, Gandhi’s concept of Trusteeship is based on the premise that you are never really the ‘owner’ of wealth but rather its temporary holder or caretaker.

Gandhi was acutely aware that wealth-creation requires special skills and instinct. Historically, the dominant strains of capitalism have made this a justification for limitless wealth accumulation by individuals. On the contrary, Gandhi argued, while these special abilities need to be honored they ought not to be used to concentrate money-power in the hands of a few.

Interestingly, the man who has most sharply articulated this view in our times is an iconic hedge fund manager. George Soros has repeatedly argued that since all wealth is generated in a social and cultural context, it is never really private.

Soros has acted upon this belief in two ways. In the realm of ideas and policy, he has campaigned vigorously against what he calls ‘market fundamentalism’ – an ideology that makes society and normative structures subservient to the cold logic of supply and demand. In the material realm, Soros has given away billions of dollars – his Open Society Foundation has an annual budget of about $850 million.

At the same time the concept of social and environmental ‘returns’ on investment has gathered momentum. The launching of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing at the New York Stock Exchange, in 2006, was a significant watershed event.

This phenomenon is driven largely by expediency. Widening income disparity is the top-most concern in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Risks Report. Ecological imbalance is now widely accepted as a key risk – threatening to undermine both economic and social stability across the world. Consequently there is a scramble to create new metrics of ‘valuation’ that will make markets respond to these burgeoning crises.

While many of these emerging responses tend to offer piece-meal managerial solutions, there are other stirrings that hold some promise. Ideas like ‘conscious capitalism’ and ‘caring capitalism,’ while still marginal, are making their presence felt on the global stage. That’s why management guru Michael Porter is making waves with the concept of ‘shared value.’

However, in this context, Gandhi’s advocacy of Trusteeship is hardly ever mentioned on the global stage. Since most people associate Gandhi with a saintly asceticism, he is perceived to be overly idealistic and his economic ideas have been dismissed as being unviable.

It is possible that Gandhi’s exploration of Trusteeship was futuristic because it looked beyond the two dominant trends of the 20th century – feral capitalism and stifling communism. Like much of his politics, Gandhi’s advocacy of Trusteeship was based on the conviction that individuals and society at large can, and do, evolve to higher states of being.

“My theory of trusteeship is no make-shift, certainly no camouflage,” Gandhi wrote in the journal Harijan in 1939. “I am confident that it will survive all other theories…No other theory is compatible with non-violence.”

What once seemed like an overly lofty claim now begs to be examined with depth and imagination.

Can Trusteeship be a value and a policy framework which gives shape to more just patterns of accumulation over the 21st Century?

Can it give rise to a new definition of ownership itself?

Can the concept of Trusteeship enable human society to create a broader, more wholesome definition of value?

There are no simple answers waiting in the wings. A rigorous exploration of these questions would have to firstly attempt to understand the experiences of those who attempted to live by the principle of Trusteeship – however partial or inadequate their endeavor might have been.

For instance, Gandhi’s links with the Tatas as well as his close personal relationship with Ghanshyamdas Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj need to be examined in a more nuanced manner. What, in each case, has been the tension between pure accumulation and a philosophy of trusteeship?

The millions Premji gives away can make a difference on the ground, improving lives here and now. But his invoking Gandhian Trusteeship draws attention to a creative challenge which may redefine notions of wealth and ownership. Like much else about the philosophical Gandhi, the idea of Trusteeship is global. And yet how Indians grapple with contemporary forms of accumulation and ownership, giving and sharing, could be a crucial component of how these issues are tackled across the world.

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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