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I = S - M

The modern way of thinking about economics has been I = M - S Where I is the I as in me, M is what is 'mine' and S is what ...


Presented at Performance Studies International Conference (PSI #12), London, June 16, 2006 with Matthew Goulish.

Dear Abhay,

What debt do we owe Mohandas K. Gandhi?

My question to you has many faces. What is the debt with which Gandhi has left us? Or: What forces did colonialism deploy that Gandhi rethought as debt? Or: What did rethinking colonial force as debt allow to unleash as a force of liberation?

Each version of the question contains, circulates around, this word: debt. I have revealed the end of my essay at the start. After all, I am attempting a brief venture into economics, not a mystery story. But this approach requires that I backtrack and explain myself.

Already, I have presumed the value of naivete. Nothing qualifies me to venture, however briefly, into the field of economics, or into the historical discourse bequeathed us by this figure of monumental significance, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Nevertheless, my proposed question is simple enough, if one understands its foundations. Its first foundation, a further presumption, is the proposal that economic thought might elucidate Gandhi’s actions. Its second foundation would then be this, another question: what is debt? What do I mean by debt, and why do I mean it? I owe you an explanation. Or shall we say at this point in my essay I am in debt to you in the amount of one explanation. In the debt economy, this is the debt incurred with nothing borrowed. I owe you an explanation, but not because you have loaned me an explanation first. I am not repaying you an explanation. I owe you an explanation simply because I have started talking, and you as listener can expect an explanation as your right. In the pecuniary parlay of outgoing and returning accounts, something must be returning in order for a debt to have accrued, even though nothing has been loaned. What might that something be when the exchange has not been entirely material, but conceptual and linguistic? Maybe we have entered into an arena of ethical debt, a balance of equivalences. If I own the house, and you occupy a room in it, you owe me rent, even though I have not first loaned you that rent. I have loaned you the place to live, and we have agreed that the rent is the equivalent of the shelter. Is that a fair assessment? So in terms of me owing you an explanation, shall we say the explanation is the equivalent of the attention you have given in listening thus far? Here I will give away another version of my ending in asking the question about Gandhi and debt. India lived in a house, which it found suddenly to be owned by the British Empire, which then told the people of India they needed to pay rent to continue to live there. Gandhi claimed that the British Empire had thus constructed a debt, which India was in no position to reject, but was in a position to pay. Thus his noncooperation was in fact, at least in the economic sense, its opposite: absolute cooperation, meta-cooperation, holding the British Empire to the promise implicit in its social structure, that such debt, once having been constructed, cannot be refuted. So the debtors can pay it off through manual labor, and buy their house back from the creditors. In such an undertaking, Gandhi invoked a notion of debt with its roots in the religion of the land. Here I am again venturing into a field foreign to me. So before I attempt that concluding venture, I will backtrack once again. It is only in backtracking that I do not trespass.

You are the economist, Abhay; I the self-taught and interested amateur. You were born in Bombay, and studied at Bombay University. I was born in Flint, Michigan and studied at Kalamazoo. I have trespassed into your territory in more ways than one with my question, but before I turn it over to you for an answer, let me complicate it. At least I can say I knew of Gandhi before Richard Attenborough’s movie starring Ben Kingsley. In high school I read the book that Thomas Merton edited of Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence. I wrote a history paper comparing Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. I got a B+. The teacher preferred my earlier work on the musical 1776. It was, after all, 1976, the bicentennial year. But I knew in my heart he was wrong, and I repeated to myself my newfound mental mantra: First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win, or some high school rewrite version that I will spare you. Be that as it may, I was soon thereafter cast as Fagin in the school production of Oliver! It was to be the role my parents still consider the apex of my career. Recently, in Roman Polanski’s film of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the Fagin part was played by Ben Kingsley, an actor some have told me I resemble. This digression proves the extent of my trespass: you come from the very land of Gandhi; I come from a place where I was thought to resemble the actor who played the part of Gandhi, an actor, incidentally, from Yorkshire. Now, a subdigression. It happened ten years later, when in my mid-twenties I delivered pizzas in Chicago, one in a small army of deliverymen who congregated nightly awaiting our orders in the backroom of a thriving northside restaurant. Another driver, named Patel, the butt of many jokes, spoke with a thick Indian accent. The other drivers in their diverse ethnicities – Polish, German, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Ukranian – made him their unwitting clown, since his limited English gave him only the vaguest sense of his own ridicule. I befriended a driver from Spain, Luis, older than the others, and not given to joking. I sometimes asked Luis about vocabulary, as I sat on the long drivers’ bench reading Faulkner or Carlo Levi, or whatever I read in those days. Once I asked him the meaning of dotage, and he explained it to me patiently as the happy old age of patriarchy. I don’t remember why, but in some conversation with Luis I mentioned something about Ben Kingsley. Suddenly I felt a vice grip on my bicep, and turned to find Patel, who had been standing next to me, clutching my arm and peering at me with a look of ferocious intensity. It seemed Patel had suddenly transformed into a kind of demon, and I had no idea what I had said to inflame him. He shouted at me: Exactly! Exactly! Exactly what, Patel? I asked. Exactly like Gandhi! Patel said. Walk like Gandhi! Talk like Gandhi! Look like Gandhi! Exactly! At that moment I realized he was speaking of Ben Kingsley. I looked to Luis for help. And Luis, with infinite wisdom, simply said, We understand you: Ben Kingsley was exactly like Gandhi. Exactly, said Patel, his passion calming. I noticed then that he had tears standing in his eyes. Ben Kingsley. The actor quoted the words exactly. Now I quote the actor’s quotations. Witness the extent of my echolalia. What debt do we owe Mohandas K. Gandhi? It is a question complicated with simplicity. Today I am the foreigner. And the journey of the question has been a 1,800 word walk to the sea, trespassing through your discipline and your country. Anyone who cares to join me on that walk may come along now to its end, where your answer will produce something useful as salt.

He defeated colonialism by accepting it, his acceptance as radical as it was mundane. We have been colonized, he said, and that has put us in debt. To escape the colonization, we must pay off the debt. Once we work our way out of it, through manual labor, we will arrive at a zero point. We will owe nothing, and no one will owe us. That point will be our independence.

I told you it was a simple idea.

But complexity lies in the radical acceptance, for after all, what had Gandhi accepted but the ownership consequences of criminal acts? Such was the culture of colonialism: making India pay for something that was India’s by right; taking it from them first by force, and withholding it to demand payment returns. The rejection of colonialism’s criminality, one could argue, lay in the acceptance of its code of ethics – of ownership through labor, as if the house had been built on foundations of illusion, and the criminality dispelled by the strict adherence to the illusion’s laws. We have locked you in a debtors prison by virtue of our strength, says Empire, and your only recourse is to work your way out for the next 1,000 years, to which the prisoner responds, I will begin my work today, and in the purity of the task I will enact my perfect escape.

Furthermore, in the method of the payment, the perfect act of purified labor, was a profound refusal – a refusal to accrue more debt, not just economic, but ethical, which is to say, and this is the point about religion where I left off: karmic – a debt not of, or not only of, material and labor. The debt economy is the symptom; the cause lies in an economy of deeds and actions. Because man, according to Brahmanism, is born “as debt.” Debt marks his mortal condition. This does not mean that an original sin determines human nature. Debt is neither the sign nor the consequence of a fall, nor does it result from a contract. It simply and directly places man in the condition of debtor. This status is made concrete and diversified in a series of duties, invoked, in the Hindu laws, to justify the rules which organize material administration. It is a karmic approach to debt, as a connection and drawing together of heaven and earth, into which we humans buy our destiny by pouring into the celestial treasury the bad money of sacrifice.

Thus the action of working off colonialism entwines with the action of working off one’s human condition, and such working must be nonviolent, that is, with violence turned only inward on the self, since externalized violence would produce more debt, would multiply that debt we have been born as, under heaven or under empire. Nonviolence does not spend currency it does not have.

Dear Abhay, forgive me my intervening into this subject, my presumption mediated only by my role as interlocutor. What debt do we owe Mohandas K. Gandhi? What debt has Gandhi left us with? What forces did colonialism deploy that Gandhi rethought as debt? What did rethinking colonial force as debt allow to unleash as a force of liberation? And finally: What forces of liberation does such thought – shall we call it our Gandhiology? – allow us to unleash now?

I look forward as always to your response.



Gandhi on Non-Violence ed. Thomas Merton, New Directions, New York, 1964.

On the Name by Jacques Derrida, “Passions: ‘An Oblique Suffering’”, note 3, pages 132 – 137, with extensive quotations from Benveniste and Malamoud, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1993.

My dear Matthew,

A young female disciple in the Ashram has a dream which she describes to Gandhi the next day:

I was lying in your lap, Bapu, and you were breast-feeding me. I said I had had enough milk but you kept saying, have more have more have more. Milk squirted into my mouth continuously.

In the language of economics, debts are a function of deficits and credits. A fresh deficit increases the debt. A fresh credit decreases the debt.

We were allotted 30 minutes to read our latest letters of which you, my dear Matthew, took 14 to ask your question, leaving me with the possibility of one answer 16 minutes long. Or 16 answers each a minute long. An answer that takes less than a minute creates a credit, one that takes over a minute, a deficit. I have 16 minutes to repay my debt to you.

I am supposed to start speaking. I am standing in front of 300 students and teachers of Jamnabai Narsee School. The headmistress who is secretly known as Dolly by the teachers is motioning to me to start. Speak, she now whispers. But I simply stand there silently. I have been unable to memorize the speech written for me by Divya Shah’s father. It is 1976 and it is Gandhi’s birthday and I stand silent in front of the assembly. I can not even get to the opening sentence: He was known as the naked fakir.

Later, my father spends days talking to me about Gandhi. Having studied at a school started by freedom fighters, he has read every word Gandhi has written in his native Gujerati. Thus begins a dialogue on Gandhi between father and son that lasts seven years, until father dies, unexpectedly. The opportunity to say more about Gandhi does not arrive for another thirty years. Until today.

1976 is also the year my family does not move to Bangladesh. My father turns down an offer from a United Nations agency to serve as Chief Economist there. I remember him saying, the Bangladeshi question must be answered by a Bangladeshi.

Leading classical economist Robert J. Barro can not understand why countries want political freedom when their material conditions are poor. “It sounds nice to try to install democracy in Haiti or Somalia, but does it make any sense?” He obviously does not think so. According to him democracy should come later, as a sort of reward for materialist development.

I am 13 years old. I have just joined the original Aurobindo Ashram founded by the Maharaja of Baroda. I am here to learn yoga but my teacher likes to talk about bicycles and economics and rna or debt as he sips goat’s milk from a tall glass.

Like Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of karma are about actions and reactions. People and nations come together to repay past rna. If I steal from you, Matthew, I only complete an action that you once started. My act does not create a fresh karmic debt for me.

It is only by my ego-identification with the act that I create rnanubandhana or debt bondage.

The old physics professor is with us. We are on the last train to Virar, the end of the line at the foot of the mountain we will climb early in the morning.

The old physics professor is slow and mild mannered. From time to time he tries to get me and Bento, my fellow economics student, into a discussion of the contradictions of classical economics. “You must read the works of the great radical economist A. G. Frank. He distinguishes between underdevelopment and undevelopment. Undevelopment is the natural state of a country that has not harnessed its economic resources. Underdevelopment on the other hand is a state of economic distortion created by colonialism.” Frankly, we are not interested in any of this.

It is so dark that I can not see more than a shadow when I hold my hand out in front of me. Little circles of light crisscross the wet ground. We are moving in one uniform group when a lone figure separates itself from us. Would any of you join me? It asks. Join me in teaching people in Taragoan village to read and write.

Bento and I mumble something about literacy being an itemized entry in the 6th Five Year Plan and ignore the old Gandhian.

Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar defines fantasy as the gap between the many desires, formulated as demands on the environment and the environment’s inability or unwillingness to fulfill them.

What strikes me about this definition is its exact correspondence to classical economics: the gap between unlimited demands and limited resources.

We may say,

classical economics = fantasy

The Indian economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated that famines are not a problem of underproduction. In fact during the worst year of a famine, food availability is often at an all time high. The problem is not lack of food but rather what he calls entitlements and capabilities. The poor, now unemployed as a result of the famine are unable to purchase food.

Sen has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that political freedom is a precondition to the elimination of mass starvation. No democracy with a relatively free press in history has ever suffered a famine.

The economics of colonialism starts with the logic of competition which ensures that any producer who lags behind in investment is run to the ground. If we accept the notion that dominant values in society are always the values of the ruling class, then thrift, which is for the producer a necessity for survival, becomes the value of the great middle class. Production and savings begin to outweigh the capacity of the economy to absorb them and must be directed abroad.

How well does this model fit the data? Consider this: From the time India became a colony to the outbreak of the Great War, one half of British savings were invested abroad. Flow of dividends and interest alone provided 10% of British national income.

Classical economics views debt with the same mixture of pleasure, guilt, disgust, and feeling of power that a young child exhibits towards its feces.

We may say,

Debt = feces

The young disciple asked Gandhi to explain her dream. Gandhi said, it means that you can trust me.

Sudhir Kakar has called Gandhi a brilliant amateur analyst.

In classical colonial economics, credit is first directed towards the richest segment of society, then on to inhuman extensions of the capitalist’s ego: machinery, and finally abroad, to the colonies.

Gandhi’s radical rethinking was to apply credit to the poorest strata of society, then to machines that were small, powered by human effort and requiring mental and physical dexterity and alertness. Finally, credit would flow to one’s neighbors.

In 1976 while I wrestled with the idiotic Gandhi speech, Bangladesh was under severe famine. Muhammad Yunus, a young economics professor at the University of Chittagong put together his life’s savings and made credit available to 42 hard-working but severely impoverished neighbors in Jobra village. The total credit was dispersed by him personally, using all his own resources, which amounted to a total of $27.

In doing so he started a bloodless revolution. Yunus, in that act, repositioned his country from a state of underdevelopment to a state of undevelopment.

Thirty years later Grameen Bank has dispersed over $5 billion in credit to 4 million borrowers, 96% of them women.

Consider two of his most recent ventures:

1. Extending credit to women to buy cell phones, not for personal use, but effectively creating a public call office in even the remotest of the poor communities, linking them to neighbors, and the rest of the world.

2. Credit is being extended to 26,000 beggars in rural Bangladesh who now on their daily begging rounds from house to house carry with them sweetmeats and toys for sale. Where once the beggars faced irate householders throwing money and food at them from small windows, they now have families who have set up stools for them to sit on during their daily visit. Children come running out of the houses to see the latest candy and toys that the beggar has brought. Yunus has turned social deficits into social credits.

A remarkable study of rural money lending in Pakistan by Irfan Aleem has found that default rates amongst the very poorest who have been extended credit are amongst the lowest in the world at around 2%.

“Dear Prime Minister,

You are reported to have the desire to crush the ‘naked fakir’, as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a fakir and that, naked – a more difficult task. I therefore regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.

Your sincere friend,

M. K. Gandhi”

Muhammad Yunus has one more dream. He wants to make credit a human right. “We all consider it normal that banks exclude 80% of the world’s population,” he says, anger brimming just below the surface. “I want the United Nations to include the right to credit in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The ability to accept a debt is the next frontier of human rights.

When the child comes to realize that the passing of resources through its bottom is related to the further taking in of nourishment from its mouth, it has learned the economics of Mahatma Gandhi.

We must reword our equation to say,

debt = milk

And in deference to Gandhi’s dietary choices we may modify the equation one last time and say,

debt = goat’s milk

Your friend,


Aleem, Irfan. “Imperfect Information, Screening, and the Costs of Informal Lending: A Study of Rural Credit Market in Pakistan,” The World Bank Economic Review 4(3) 329-349 (1990).

Barro, Robert J. Getting It Right: Markets and Choices in a Free Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).

Fenichel, Otto. “The Drive to Amass Wealth,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 7:69-95 (1938).

Gandhi, M. K. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vols. 1-6. (Bombay: Navajivan Trust, 1968).

Heilbroner, Robert. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. (New York: Touchstone: 1999).

Kakar, Sudhir. Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

Kanth, Rajani. Paradigms in Economic Development: Classic Perspectives, Critiques, and Reflections. (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1994).

O’Bryon, Linda. “Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the World’s Poorest Citizens Makes His Case,” O’Bryon interviews Muhammad Yunus, Nightly Business Report, March 9 (2005).

Schumacher, E.F. Gandhi Memorial Lecture, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Varanasi, 1973.

Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1989).

Sen, Amartya. “The Economics of Life and Death,” Scientific American 268(5) 40-7 (1993).

Svoboda, Robert E. Aghora: At the Left Hand of God (Albuquerque: Brotherhood of Life, 1986).

Visscher, Marco. “The World Champ of Poverty Fighters,” Ode 3(6) 26-31 (2005).

Weber, Thomas. “Gandhi, Deep Ecology, Peace Research, and Buddhist Economics,” Journal of Peace Research 36(3) 349-362 (1999).


The most powerful operational use of sacrifice in economics is Marx’s concept of Surplus Value. It is the ultimate sacrifice made by that invention of industrial-capitalist society: wage labor.

Labor in a capitalist society earns a fraction of what it creates. Most products and services command their value-in-exchange. Hence a product utilizing twice as many resources will usually cost twice as much. However labor only commands its value-in-use. It is paid what is needed to reproduce itself, what Marx called the subsistence wage. The remainder, which is the bulk of the value created, is what Marx called Surplus Value, all of which flows to the owners of capital.

From a letter written by Abhay for the Four More Years of Economics correspondence project with Matthew Goulish.  See www.year-of-economics.blogspot.com