Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, India
Gratuitousness means many things to many people. Commonly it implies an attitude of gratitude. In a more evolved sense it conveys our gratitude to God for His benevolence. This message of gratuitousness is pervasive across all great religious cultures of the world. Almost universally it conveys the sense of loving kindness, selflessness, human solidarity, mutuality, humility and reciprocity.
It is true that the ideal of selfless action for the good of others has been grievously eroded by divisive life ways wrought by an economistic world view that has become predominant over the last two hundred years or so. But it is equally true that many everyday people act in remarkably compassionate ways and respond generously to the neediest, far and near, outside the market framework. They are guided mainly by the moral reference points embedded in their respective belief systems. Their efforts are hardly ever aggregated in terms of monetary value. Indeed, these efforts mostly relate to small scale situations and hence ignored by serious scholarly pursuit. They also remain outside the market reckoning.
The opposite of gratuitousness is greed. Greed is seen by the market as good. Classical economics abstracted the human being into Homo Economicus, a creature defined primarily as a pursuer of self interest. This reductionist view is taken to any length by the market supremacists. In a 2010 film (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), its one protagonist articulates this world view thus: "Greed in all its forms...has marked...the upward surge of mankind” and that greed is the cure of whatever is ailing "malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A." In fact, greed as the guiding principle of the market world pushes every individual to be an entrepreneur interested in maximization of his own benefits. Economy is no longer just one sector or aspect of life. It has become the determining factor of all other life activities, that is, depersonalization of human relationships in terms of commerce and exchange instead of exchange of gifts.
This is the core of modern predicament, a kind of vacuity where instead of fulfilling himself man, in his single-minded pursuit of his economic well-being, disperses and disassociates himself from the other. This attitude of beggar thy neighbour shrinks his capacity and attributes of being truly human. In this perspective pursuit of self interest is natural and rational. Total faith is placed in the impersonal hand of the market to overcome the disjunction between private and public well-being. It matters little if it leads to a joyless world.
Contemporary society, like every other in history, rests on some set of largely tacit assumptions about who we are, what kind of universe we are in, and what is ultimately important for us. The market logic which seemed to have had all the answers till not long ago is no longer confident of providing all the answers to guide the humankind. Recent debates and stirrings against the inadequacy of markets and market logic is recognition of the many sidedness of reality within the framework of essential unity of existence, in other words, rejection of exclusivism.
In philosophical terms, I can do no better than quote Jacques Maritain when he says, “I really give myself, and wherein I am really received”. Here reciprocity becomes not only a personal aspiration but also a societal goal and a cosmic ideal. The necessity of harmonizing oneself; with an enlarging circle of relationships is only the other name of gratuitousness. The society then turns out to be a complex web of binding reciprocities rather than a mechanical aggregation of all consuming totality based on relationships that derive their legitimacy from market economy and its off-shoots.
However, unless gratuitousness becomes a vital part of the temporal structure of the modern world, of which market is undeniably a major component, it will not have the bite to be taken seriously by hardened cynics of the market world. What is needed to be taken seriously is not the scale but the potential leverage gratuitousness can exercises. Such leverage can not materialize if it is introduced as a moral stimulus package with its attendant commodification. It is possible if it becomes a demonstrably continuous flow. It is in this vein that Larry
Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore argue:
Moral ideas can sometime substitute for financial resources because they attract people to work for a cause without recompense and to contribute other valuable goods and services. This phenomenon represents ‘moral currency’, a commodity that is not only useful…but which may be essential to garnering support and leverage to build fields or change the direction of a field.
In a world where either the market or the state, or both combining together, has become the sole arbiter of social, economic and political processes, the phenomenon of gratuitousness is least theorized and chronicled. Cases of numerous community initiatives, cutting across religious lines, involved in sharing of resources for individual and common good, are scattered all over the place, but they remain unknown outside the communities they are located in. Given such an orientation, there is profound inadequacy in efforts to see the linkages between gratuitousness and the market. An empirical exploration these efforts is important to establish the viability of gratuitousness as a force in the marketplace.
Now I turn from a discussion of the idea of gratuitousness and the market to citation of a large contemporary movement in India, Swadhyaya, about which I can speak with some intimacy because of my two decade long association with it. Swadhyaya seems to be successfully creating spaces to transcend private interest to overcome human plight and misery, not by confronting but by using the opportunities offered by the market world.
Swadhyaya represents externalization of the principle of bhakti (devotion). It has two important aspects--personal relationship with the divine and its transmutation into a social force. This fusion of the personal and the collective is facilitated by the realization that we are all children of the same God, and that to serve God it is necessary to serve His creation. Such an activist orientation of devotion finds expression in several concrete social and economic activities such as: community-building, farming, fishing, forestry, horticulture, dairy-farming, vocational services, nutrition, health care, informal education, water conservation and sundry tertiary work. This novel way of expressing gratefulness to God through devotion of time and skills ultimately results in creation of large capital resources.
Swadhyaya relies primarily on internal generation of capital resources. Labour is the primary form of capital. It is neither love of labour nor labour of love. It is journey towards self-perfection through constructive work for collective good—devotional activism or krutibhakti. In other words, it is a devotion that promotes the ‘we-ness’ of the human family under ‘the fatherhood of God’ The labour input of the swadhyayees, called shram bhakti, is converted into physical capital and eventually monetary assets. Swadhyaya rejects everything that comes gratis, that is, subsidy or donation from external sources. The corpus thus generated is quite impressive. Every swadhyayee is expected to offer two days of labour every month to God. Here the community/society is equated with God because of the presence of divine in all. This devotional labour, by rough approximation, runs into over two million man-days in a year. It consists of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour.
Distribution and sharing of resources is always problematic. However Swadhyaya has a simple solution to this problem. As these resources belong to no one except God, none can claim ownership of the produce of his or her labour. The wealth (Lakshmi, in Swadhyaya’s idiom) generated by the sale of output belongs to God and hence is apaurushya or impersonal. This wealth is output of collective devotion that is neither tainted by greed nor by dishonest labour. It is divided into two parts. One part is used to meet short-term needs of the indigent in the community or for starting small enterprises. Such disbursement is seen neither as loan nor as charity, but as prasad (that offering of devotees to God that is blessed by Him and distributed among them as His grace at the end of a religious service). The recipient is under no obligation to repay it and definitely no interest has to be paid on such sums. (The evidence suggests that that there has not been a case of default to this date.) The giving and receiving of such sums is done with such subtle grace that it obviates any sense of inferiority on the part of the recipient. This serves as social security net that is free from donor-donee syndrome. The remaining income is kept in trust funds to meet the long term needs of the community. However, it is not the utilitarian aspect (the key characteristic of the market) of these enterprises which attract the swadhyayees, but it is the spiritual and social energy they create and absorb, and the sense of social purpose and solidarity which these activities engender
Karl Marx’s metaphor of “a world-embracing commerce and a world-embracing market” is apt characterization of the contemporary market world. It is the dominant imagery of our times. Juxtaposed to it is the idea of an economy inspired by gratuitousness, the seeds of which are embedded in various faith traditions, and can be found across multiple sites. Though these are not insignificant efforts, on the face of it, there is no match between the two. There are obvious disparities of scale. The market can afford to be dismissive of such stray instances of successful economic initiatives led by some mavericks motivated by their beliefs and operating within local communities. They are seen as nothing more than minor irritants, but some mosquito bites can prove dangerous. These cases are pointers that tell us how to avoid the exploitative nature of the market and how to meet the needs of its community members by relying on its own resources raised by actualizing the idea of gratuitousness.
Swadhyaya is just one case. There are many others. Some of them are not third world phenomena but are also to be found in the first and second worlds. Notwithstanding the incongruity of scale, what these faith-based and small community based initiatives definitely show is that the reductionist view of economics, though strongly upheld by the market, is not the only way of maintaining material well-being. They challenge the statist narrative of the market that is over determined by a materialist worldview. In a world where faith is playing significant role in public sphere, such initiatives do impinge on the sovereignty of the market and may contribute significantly to the reconfiguration or modification of the market in future. It is not far-fetched because markets also depend on flow of imagery, values and peoples. I believe that an economy of connections is most crucial need if gratuitousness is to be given its due by the market world.