Globalising Trusteeship

Jem At Jallian Wala Bagh in April 2009
Jem Bendell visiting Jallian Wala Bagh in April 2009

On April 13th, ninety years ago, a British General ordered the firing on people peacefully protesting the repression of India. Mohandas K Gandhi was so moved by the massacre in Amritsar that he called for a special week to be observed every year – a Satyagraha Week. “Satya” means truth, “Graha” means both ‘involved in’ and ‘global’. Gandhi used satyagraha to describe a non-violent way of life, that does not participate in oppression wherever it occurs, and challenges it in non-violent ways. It became synonymous with India’s liberation movement.

Due to the work of Varsha Das and her colleagues at the Gandhi National Museum I was reminded of Gandhi’s teachings, and began re-reading what he said and did about life, politics and economics. As you probably are yourself, I was familiar with his famous phrases including that “we must be the change we want to see in the world’. But as I read on, I realised his views are very relevant to the current global economic crisis and the work I do on sustainable enterprise and finance.

The recent G20 failed to launch a deep reconsideration of the global economy, and some of its precepts, such as current concepts of property and a consumption-led economy. I suppose the pressures on the leaders for more-of-the-same were immense. But it has become clear that is up to us to begin a broader dialogue. Gandhi called for the Satyagraha Week to be one of fearless yet convivial dialogue about the truth of society and to redouble our efforts to live by that truth. Reading that affirmed some of the work I did this past year, with the Global Finance Initiative. After consultations with finance professionals and stakeholders in dozens of countries we concluded with a recommendation that dialogues on changes in financial systems are required that are:

  • Foundational, addressing profound questions about the purpose of the financial system and the principles that direct its actions;
  • Comprehensive, encompassing the connections between accounting systems, currencies, regulatory systems, economic structures and all parts of the financial system;
  • Inclusive, with processes reaching beyond traditional insiders, to engage responsible investors, multi-stakeholder groups working on finance issues, asset owners, labor, NGOs and critical academics, and be truly global;
  • Systemic, connecting financial stability to the real economy, social equity, and environmental sustainability.

This dialogue could be part of a global truth-seeking — a ‘Global Satyagraha’. Beyond his views on dialogue and truth-seeking, MK Gandhi’s views are relevant to the future of the global economy and our work on responsible enterprise and finance in at least four ways: economic equality, appropriate technology, self-reliance, and trusteeship.

Challenging both the caste system and negativity between religions, he promoted the equality of all peoples, which meant non discrimination in employment and economic affairs. He also believed that technology could be good if did needed work, but bad if it put people out of work. This philosophy led him to spend many hours working on the spinning wheel, a technology that was appropriate to the economic level of villagers across India at the time. Another important aspect of the spinning wheel was how it generated self-reliance. Gandhi spoke of ‘swadeshi’ or economic self-sufficiency, as the only way that India would achieve self-determination. He called on his country-people not to pay into the system of empire by buying foreign clothes. In our current context the implication here is not simply that we produce for ourselves, but that we seek to become independent of systems of exploitation for our own livelihoods and lifestyles.

Jem Bendell at site of MK Gandhi assasination, March 2009
Jem Bendell at site of MK Gandhi assasination, March 2009

These aspects of Gandhian economics are well documented and discussed. Like many business folk the world-over, many Indian executives do not see the relevance of these approaches to modern business, viewing them as anachronistic. Yet, in a resource-constrained and climate-threatened world, where hyper-inequality fuels violence, the need for principles and practices of equality, appropriateness and self-reliance to pervade business is clear.

What stunned me was the resonance of his views on ‘trusteeship’ with the latest thinking within the corporate responsibility movement. More of us have come to understand that we need to redesign the systems of corporate governance and finance in order to create more sustainable and responsible economies, and that business executives can and should engage in public policy debates to promote that redesign. In my latest book, I develop the concept of “capital democracy” to describe an economic system that responds to this understanding. I write:

Corporate Responsibility Movement, Bendell et al, March 2009
Corporate Responsibility Movement, Bendell et al, March 2009

“In a democratic society, property rights should only exist because people collectively decide to uphold them; they are not inalienable but are upheld by society as a matter of choice. Therefore, if society confers us the right of property, then we have obligations to that society. Today property rights have become so divorced from this democratic control that they are undermining other human rights. A reawakening to a basic principle is required: there can be no property right without property duties, or obligations. From such a principle, it should not be left up to the powerful to decide if they are responsible or not, or if they are carrying out their obligations or not. Instead, the focus shifts to the governance of capital by those who are affected by it” (Bendell, et al, 2009, Pg 33 to 34).

The Mahatma’s view of trusteeship is the same, but elegant in its simplicity. It arises from an understanding that everything is owned by everyone, and wealth is owned by those who generate it. Thus the one who controls an asset is not an owner but a trustee, being given control of that asset by society. Gandhi wrote “I am inviting those people who consider themselves as owners today to act as trustees, i.e., owners, not in their own right, but owners in the right of those whom they have exploited.” In the Harijan paper his views on trusteeship of property were later documented to clarify “It does not recognize any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare” and “under State-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction or in disregard of the interests of society.” He also wrote that “for the present owners of wealth… they will be allowed to retain the stewardship of their possessions and to use their talent, to increase the wealth, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the nation and, therefore, without exploitation.” All those years ago the Mahatma was proposing an economic system that many people are only beginning to conceive of today. If you have my book, I apologise for my prior ignorance of Gandhi’s trusteeship concept. If you don’t have it under your trusteeship yet, hey, it’s still worth reading!

Sangeeta Das of the Gandhi Smriti Museum revealed to me how some Indian industrialists supported many of Gandhi’s ideas and applied some to their own business. Upon reading the views of some current Indian business leaders I see the concepts of equality and trusteeship have informed their voluntary corporate responsibility efforts. However, I am left with a sense that the concept of trusteeship has much untapped potential as an economic system, codified into public policy and regulation. The current crisis demonstrates the need to globalise trusteeship, or capital democracy, as an approach that can be debated and interpreted into new principles and policies for economics, finance and enterprise. In addition it is clear that concepts of appropriate technology and self-reliance have much more to offer both to corporate strategy and public policy than currently the case. I wonder whether Indian business leaders could play a role in bringing this insight to the world.

The life of Gandhi is important not only for his views on economic systems but also on how to bring them into being. In my book I argue that the global challenges we face mean those of us who work to make business better must start thinking and planning like a movement. “The corporate responsibility movement is a loosely organised but sustained effort by individuals both inside and outside the private sector, who seek to use or change specific corporate practices, whole corporations, or entire systems of corporate activity, in accordance with their personal commitment to public goals and the expectations of wider society.” (Bendell, et al 2009, pg 24). As a movement leader, we could learn from Gandhi’s mastery of symbolic communication combined with personal authenticity, his embrace of both dialogue and direct action, his respect for people no matter the differences, and his demonstration that we must ourselves disengage with systems that uphold a lie. More of us can mobilise our networks and knowledge for transformative ends. And if it means changing our lives to be less economically dependent on the status quo, then that’s what we must do.

The recent violence from authorities against protesters and bystanders (and the truth) at the G20 is yet another reminder of the need to learn how to engage in a transformative non-violent movement that provides people diverse ways to participate while sucking energy out of violent systems. On the 90th anniversary of the hundreds who died in Jallianwala Bagh, we can remember how their memory inspired millions in the pursuit of truth and freedom.

I will be discussing some of these ideas in a webinar, online, and seminar in Geneva, called: “The Corporate Responsibility Movement: Where are we going and why?” Seminar: Thursday May 14, from 12.30 to 14.00 Swiss time, Uni Mail, 40 bd du Pont d’Arve, Geneva, room MR 150 (ground floor, opposite the cafeteria). Register:  Webinar: Tuesday May 19, from 16:30 to 18:00 UK time, organised by CSR International. Venue is “online”. Register:

The Corporate Responsibility Movement, Jem Bendell et al. March 2009 ISBN 978-1-906093-18-1

Thx to Suzy, Satjiv, Inderpreet, Nandita, Varsha and Sangeeta for unwittingly guiding my serendipitous journey in India.

3 thoughts on “Globalising Trusteeship”

  1. I have read through this article briefly as the word ‘trustee’ caught my eye, coming from a legal, private client background and having a strong interest in governance. The idea moves away from individualism towards community and collaboration as do many new concepts which are gaining in circulation these days. These concepts overlook a fundamental aspect of human consciousness, call it what you will, which requires that we have a strong sense of self before we can be effective with others. I hold that there is all the difference between individualism and selfness which I find being dismissed as synonymous with individuality/indivualism.

    Happy to discuss further,

    Kind regards

    nicola Jones

    1. Agree, we need to be centered not self-centered, self assured not selfish. I do not agree that “these concepts overlook a fundamental aspect of human consciousness”. We need to specify which concepts. The one I am talking about above is trusteeship/capital-accountability. In the case of Gandhi he spent as much, perhaps more, time and talk on matters of personal spiritual development as political prognosis. However he also thought that such self-work is never ending as so we should not delay our action in the world due to the ongoing self-work, and the two interact, to make either genuine.

      The following is an excerpt from my new book “The Corporate Responsibility Movement” which discusses the limitations of any new economic or political system, and the importance of personal consciousness.

      Pg 40-41

      It is unclear whether a system of capital democracy would create an environmentally sustainable society. As capital democracy involves making more economic decisions accountable to those affected by them then this process would promote environmental sustainability to the extent of people’s awareness and commitment to that aim. Perhaps the democratic spirit of people would be cultivated through an experience of democratic institutions and practices, and the resultant more equitable sharing of resources, and so concern for collective challenges such as environmental ones would be addressed better than now. However, there are some limits to the framework: the concept of intergenerational equity does not fit within a framework of democratic principles and rights. However, given current lifespans, the rights of children should require us to consider the potential impact of today’s decisions on the situation in eighty years time. Whether capital is managed with a longer time horizon would depend on the views in society.

      A democracy and human rights framework does not protect either the welfare of non human life, or its freedom from extiction. However, human concern for these matters would translate into their view of what aspects of the natural world should be capitalised and how that capital should be owned and managed. Therefore, the extent of concern for animal welfare and biodiversity would depend, once again, on levels of human awareness. There is no guarantee, either, that a more democratic economic system would calm consumerism sufficiently for the economy to exist within the bio-capacity of the Earth.

      Capital democracy will not be the panacea, and to attain global wellbeing and restore the biosphere will require a democratisation of other aspects of life – involving an awakening of all to our connectedness, to each other and the planet we live on. My involvement in world summit protests, NGOs, business, the United Nations and academia helped me realize that we would miss the point if we blame a particular economic or political system for everything, or propose another system as the total solution. Some systems are better than others, feed certain aspects of human character not others. But ultimately the outcome of any social or organisational system will depend on us. Over the five years I witnessed common characteristics in people and groups working in all the arenas I engaged. Everywhere there was compassion, humility, and inquisitiveness. Yet everywhere there was also pride, fear, manipulation, and ego. Everywhere including in myself. For instance, as the old Left woke up to the global protests, they set up front groups that brought hierarchical we-know-what-you-really-want-and-how-to-win politics. Theirs was a politics of envy not personal liberation. This naturally led to splits and aggressive criticism from those who rejected instant political solutions freeze-dried in the 19th Century, and the bickering reduced the ability to engage the public more broadly.

      Pg 42

      …My hope today is that a spirit of democracy and global citizenship is carried into the spheres of belief, religion and spirituality to lead to a transformation of consciousness that will make any new political-economic systems we create function for the well-being of all life on Earth.

      We must be careful not to focus on the personal at the expense of the systemic, and vice versa.


  2. I hyave found the concept of gandhian trusteeship very intersting.I would therefore request you to givbe me some basic ideas as to the relevance of this concept in modern times

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