Review of Kumarappa, J. C. Economy of Permanence. Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Rajghat, Varanasi, India, 1984 (originally published in 1945).
Like his mentor, Mohandas Gandhi, Joseph C. Kumarappa was an unlikely candidate for the part of social revolutionary. Raised in a well-to-do Christian family in India, he worked for years as an accountant in London before pursuing a graduate degree in finance at Columbia University. Perhaps it was the bracing atmosphere of American political economy that opened his eyes to the darker side of the British Raj. Upon returning to India, Kumarappa joined the Congress movement and conducted surveys of village finance and economy, as well as editing the newspaper, Young India. His support of Gandhi’s civil disobedience earned him hard time in prison, during which he wrote his best-known books, The Practice and Precepts of Jesus and Economy of Permanence. Both works contain a radical critique of prevailing social values, which was as challenging to post-war Indians as it is to us today.
‘Permanence’ in Kumarappa’s thought is what we now call ‘sustainability’. Next to God himself, Nature is the best teacher of sustainable system-building, and by following her example we can minimize the violence that characterizes modern civilization. There are, to be sure, parasitic and predatory organisms in the natural world, but the scope of their activity is limited. The heavy lifting is done by plants and animals that return what they take from the natural commons or (as in the case of mother-love) give freely without requiring any payment. Kumarappa discovers the same types in human society, but they are not so happily coordinated. Indeed, the parasitic and predatory types dominate modern industry and finance, and they determine the course of international affairs. The unfortunate result of this arrangement was clear enough in 1945. The challenge for Indians, especially on the eve of independence, was to encourage economic life in the sustainable path of justice and altruism.
This is easier said than done, for an economy of permanence requires a thorough re-examination of economic concepts and values. One can start with the concept of ‘value’ itself. Echoing John Ruskin’s critique of western political economy, Kumarappa argues that money is a poor measure of utility. There is, in fact, a sense in which money is simply unnatural, because it does not decay like the goods for which it is exchanged. In an agricultural and village-based economy, the holder of money has a distinct and unfair advantage over the seller of produce. A money-based economy also increases the distance between a producer and his financiers, on the one hand, and his consumers, on the other. This distance tends to reduce the moral relations, of which economics properly consists, to mere figures in a ledger. The result can be disastrous, as the great Bengal famine of 1943 had shown.
Kumarappa finds another example of conceptual distortion in the notion of ‘standards of living’. The requirements of a meal in England include tables, chairs, plates, tableware, and napkins, in addition to the food to be consumed. Even a gardener and his wife must furnish their humble cottage with these things. In India, by contrast, a prince may live in a marble palace, but he is content to take his meals sitting on the floor, collecting the food with his fingers from a disposable plantain leaf. Given a choice, why would anyone prefer the more complex manner of eating? In the same way, ‘labor-saving’ household devices put their owners to considerable trouble and expense, while taking jobs away from their less fortunate neighbors. When advertising is added to ordinary social pressure, it is absurd to describe the behavior of consumers as rational, much less free.
Kumarappa was likewise ahead of his time on the subject of work. Although he was a Christian, he rejected the idea that living by the ‘sweat of one’s brow’ is God’s just punishment for sin. In fact, work has two sides, one of which is trouble and tedium, and the other, pleasurable creativity. Throughout history, men have tried to separate these two aspects and to ‘outsource’ the unpleasant work to other people: slaves, foreigners, and proletarians. This division, according to Kumarappa, fails not only because it leads to violent conflict between the haves and have-nots, but because it is like separating the ingredients of milk: a healthy body needs both the fat and the whey. Similarly, the price of comfortable office work is the loss of vital contact with the sun, the soil, and the company of one’s neighbors.
The solution to these and other problems, from Kumarappa’s point of view, is a radically decentralized and democratic society. Economic life should be concentrated in the village, and it should be calibrated to satisfying the basic needs of all. Local cooperative organizations would see to the collection and storage of produce as a hedge against the money-based economy, and they would facilitate the equal distribution of tools and information. Government should also be close to home and entrusted to people with long-range thinking and an ethic of service. Planning should be within the intellectual comprehension of all. Taxes would fall on profit-centers and exports, rather than on subsistence and self-support. The guiding principle would be sarvodaya, a cooperative commonwealth that truly ‘floats all boats’. One should not, however, overstate the communitarian aspect of Gandhian economics. Consistent with his naturalistic outlook, Kumarappa regards personal autonomy as the foundation of satisfaction in work. Self-interest can be enlarged voluntarily, but altruism cannot be imposed. Liberty and non-violence go hand in hand.
It goes without saying that once in power, the Congress Party followed a different philosophy. Mother India has become a military, financial, and industrial power, but her children are continually menaced by class divisions, economic insecurity, and violence in many forms. Kumarappa has not been forgotten, however, and his ideas, both religious and economic, possess a timeless and universal quality. An economy of permanence, which is to say an economy based on truth (satya) and non-violence (ahimsa), requires a profound act of self-renunciation. This can only take place in individual hearts. But the heart, as Gandhi said, is where truth resides. And while hearts are many, the truth is one.