An economics based on Integral Theory is far off, says Christian Arnsperger in “Integral Economics: A Manifesto”, neither being resonant with the materialistic dogma of unlimited economic growth nor sounding sufficiently like “science”, which to economists is generally a thoroughly positivistic and reductionistic affair. If modern economics is flatland – stripped of interiors of individual and cultural whole-parts (holons), the rising of a more Integral economics would put humanity back into the economic discipline.
By including interiors excluded by flatland, Arnsperger theorizes, economics would be populated with people who are real subjects with desires, fears, states of consciousness, stages of consciousness, irrational drives, illusory self-concepts, etc. Economics could include disciplines like psychoanalysis, social history, and life-narrative models of social action … even existentialism and critical theory. What Christian is envisioning is a peculiar science, one with living subjects and literary modes and meaningful facts in four quadrants and all levels of consciousness.
To get closer to this ideal, Integral thinkers need to start by taking seriously economic data and interpretations that have been widely overlooked by positivist economists. This includes the realm of spirituality. Arnsperger writes:
Today’s real capitalist agents—as opposed to the abstract, disincarnated homo economicus of evolutionary game theory and of complex-systems modeling—have deep-seated fears, desires, instincts, cultural preconceptions, and so on, which account both for the high performance and for the awful effects of global capitalism. On the normative side, work on a Buddhist economics, on a Christian economics, or on an “Enlightenment” economics would be extremely helpful to delineate paradigmatic ideals of economic organization and economic agency towards which conscious evolution might be geared in a liberation-oriented economy. These would be ‘paradigmatic’ in Wilber’s extended sense, i.e., they would be based on actual evidence that being a Buddhist, Christian or generally enlightened agent is possible, and that building a caring, compassionate economy is feasible, because such things has happened in actual fact and because there are accounts of such individuals and systems throughout human history. It’s about time we reached for such paradigms in order to consciously evolve toward our highest potentials.
It is from something very close to Christian’s integral economics manifesto that I think we need to approach and appreciate Charles Eisenstein‘s important book Sacred Economics. Eisenstein is an author, speaker, and “de-growth activist”, not a card-carrying Integral theorist. So obviously we ought not to read Sacred Economics expecting to find a fully fleshed out AQAL-compliant Integral vision of our economic life – heck, few integralists have even dared to go there.
I propose that what we can expect to find in Sacred Economics is an illuminative, sustained, and thoughtful attempt to apply largely healthy but rigid postmodern wisdom and approaches to baffling and critical problems in the world. As integral thinkers will instantly recognize, I am not exactly heaping unqualified praise on Charles’s achievement: by noting that its worldview strongly emphasizes highly partial values (Green), sadly it is bound to reverberate in the world in self-defeating ways which counter its potential effectiveness.
Eisenstein’s postmodernism blends positive aspects of many of the Green meme’s most prominent desires: a high level of responsiveness to human needs; an affiliative sensibility based on organizing a new gift economy; a somewhat relativistic approach to values (situational and pragmatic, not absolutistic). More problematically, it also features an openness to Romantic philosophical ideals such as an optimistic view of human nature and an unrealistic idealization of indigenous spirituality. (By neglecting to address perspectives on Native American history that run counter to the popular “crying Chief” stereotype, he forgets to keep it real.)
Unlike Marxist varieties of Green philosophy, Eisenstein’s approach is more spiritual, even containing philosophically unitive and non-dual spiritual aspects. It is no contradiction to identify Sacred Economics closely with one meme (Green) while affirming that it contains deep, authentic spiritual realizations because Charles is evidently transmitting some genuine spiritual states, filtered through the postmodern prism, and expressed philosophically throughout the book.
By changing our conception of money, Sacred Economics wants to re-create in the world a new relationship to divinity, replacing secular money’s “evil magic” with a two-fold spiritual transformation: (1) a unitive notion that we are a collective of uniqueness and connection, similar to the notions in the Integral community of Unique Self and We Space, which link the self and collective to a theory of Enlightenment – “If the sacred is the gateway to the underlying unity of all things, it is equally a gateway to the uniqueness and specialness of each thing.”, and (2) a non-dual relationship between spirit and material reality – he seeks to repair the fact that “money is divorced from its origins, from its connection to matter.”
Sacred Economics contains a multi-faceted program defined in reflections on not paying debt, a critique of usury, wealth redistribution, economic “de-growth”, plus smart critiques of both socialism and New Age notions of “money as energy”. It may be best summed up in Eisenstein’s formula for describing the new money system he wants to create:
Sharing instead of greed, equality instead of polarization, enrichment of the commons instead of its stripping, and sustainability instead of growth. As well, this new kind of money system will embody an even deeper shift that we see happening today, a shift in human identity toward a connected self, bound to all being in the circle of the gift.
It seems possible that Eisenstein is describing the evolution of money from an Orange (broadly capitalistic) to a Green, quasi-socialistic society (gift oriented), one in which a critical mass of the population has grown in consciousness from modern to postmodern self-sense, replacing the Cartesian-defined self with a “connected self” common at Green altitudes. This is a timely and visionary message in countries like the USA at a time where the nation’s culture has been seen to be showing signs of growth from an Orange to Green center of gravity (or at least it had been moving this way before the Trump self-correction).
Normative, spiritual ideas based on postmodern mysticism are not the usual fodder for economics, but there’s a place for them as part of an Integral synthesis. They don’t really provide complete answers or even roadmaps for getting to the promised land, but the ideas in this book can model experimental, non-totalizing prototypes for revisioning a wide variety of aspects of our economic life, bringing our materialistic desires and spiritual ideals into greater harmony.
If some of these ideas cannot get off the page and into real life, it is because Eisenstein is talking largely to other Green postmodernists and doesn’t offer a compelling way to persuade readers at other value memes to climb on board the train. And if some of these ideas are doomed in execution, it is because they have failed to understand the depth of the grip of pre-Green value memes on human civilization, especially aggressive self-interested economic activity (Red/Orange).
Wouldn’t an economy based on sharing be defeated militarily by an alternative empire based on warrior (pirate) values that sought to exploit its peaceful nature? Don’t look to Eisenstein for an answer to this simple question; it doesn’t seem to concern him. Like most people who bring Green values to the forefront of economics, he hasn’t fully grappled with the problem of evil and the propensity of human beings to value self-interest over communal values until they have already reached a relatively high level of ego-maturity and ethical development.
But nevertheless Sacred Economics can offer inspirations for remedying some of our pressing problems, especially if its best ideas are successfully integrated into a meta-systemic vision alongside other, complementary religious or spiritual paradigms. In particular, I think the notion of creating space for the value of sharing needs to be taken up into the mainstream of discussions around how we organize our world. Sharing isn’t just a “Green value”; it is an indispensable antidote to the ethical sickness which ails our world and has created manifold conditions of extreme inequitability.
At the same time, we must avoid latching onto a new economic ethos of “de-growth” as a remedy for our maladies. Not because it is too extreme a measure, but because it may be too weak a response to the complexities our current situation. Our core problem isn’t that there is too much wealth being created through industry; it is the lack of an operational Global-Mind with institutional authority and a market-based and regulation-tempered program for alleviating the quagmires posed by unchecked economic development. At the end of the day, there is no conveyor belt to such a higher-level consciousness contained in Sacred Economics, only a melange of well-intended ideas that may offer a mirage rather than an exit from our most vexing problems.