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Spirituality, Economics, and the Global-Mind
A Look at "Sacred Economics" by Charles Eisenstein
(Photo: Ben White on Unsplash)
An economics based on Integral Theory is distant, says Christian Arnsperger in “Integral Economics: A Manifesto” (2007), neither being resonant with the materialistic dogma of unlimited economic growth nor sounding sufficiently like “science”, which to economists is a thoroughly positivistic and reductionistic affair. If modern economics is stripped of the interiors within individual and cultural whole/parts (holons), the rising of a more Integral economics instead would put humanity back into the economic discipline.
By including such interiority, Arnsperger theorizes, economics would be populated with people who are real subjects with desires, fears, states of consciousness, stages of consciousness, irrational drives, shadows, etc. Economics could include disciplines like psychoanalysis and social history … even existentialism and critical theory. What Christian is envisioning is a science with living subjects and literary modes and meaningful facts in all major perspectives (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. In this regard, it is worth quoting Arnsperger at length:
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.
Arnsperger’s vision is an example of a more evolved style of economics, one that can pave the way towards an economics of the Global-Mind (turquoise). Global-Mind, i.e., mature Integral consciousness, has the potential to attend to all aspects of life and work for individuals, neighborhoods, nations, and global holons. It would know the human being as having a holistic spiritual intelligence — an understanding of human nature that is truly beyond the selfish egos of modern economics and the tribalistic collectives of postmodern economics.
Reconnecting Money to Spirit and Matter
It is from something very close to Christian’s integral economics manifesto that I think we need to appreciate and critique Charles Eisenstein's important book Sacred Economics (2011). Eisenstein is an author, speaker, and “de-growth activist” who has written an illuminative, sustained, and thoughtful attempt to apply postmodern (green) wisdom and approaches to baffling and critical problems in the world. Unfortunately, it leaves the Integral reader sometimes frustrated and concerned with regard to its potential use in the real world.
“Postmodernism” in my usage today is basically a worldview which emerged in the late modern era in opposition to many of modernity’s disasters: its crony capitalism, its coarse materialism, its cultural imperialism, its exploitation of the environment, and so on. Eisenstein’s postmodernism includes many of postmodernism’s most prominent dignities: a high level of responsiveness to human needs, an affiliative sensibility based on organizing a new gift economy, and a somewhat relativistic approach to values (situational and pragmatic, not absolutistic).
More problematically, Charles’s philosophy also features an openness to Romantic ideals such as a thoroughly optimistic view of human nature and an unrealistic idealization of indigenous spirituality based on caricatures. By inappropriately idealizing his sources of inspiration, he runs the risk of offering unrealistic solutions in his own right.
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”. The task ahead for humankind 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.
From an Integral perspective, Eisenstein is basically describing the evolution of money from a modern (orange) perspective to a postmodern (green) perspective. He pictures a critical mass of the population growing up in consciousness from a modern to postmodern self-sense, replacing the Cartesian-defined self with a “connected self” common at more developed stages.
When Eisenstein’s book was first published (2011), there was more optimism in America for believing in a progress out of materialistic modern capitalism to a gift-based postmodern communitarian vision. Alas, Donald Trump’s presidency brought a devolution or “evolutionary self-correction” (as Wilber puts it). Therefore, we must remember that evolutionary progress is not guaranteed, it is only a possibility to be obtained through striving and destiny.
The Prophet and the Systems Integrator
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. Sacred Economics doesn’t really provide complete answers or even roadmaps for getting to the promised land, but its ideas can help to 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.
However, it is difficult to see many of these ideas actually getting off the page and into real life. One important reason for this is that as a postmodernist, Eisenstein is talking largely to others who share postmodernism’s values and he doesn’t offer a compelling way to persuade readers at other value memes (e.g., traditionalist and modernist) to climb on board the train.
For example, Charles wants to see “equality rather than polarization” in the new order, but is this equality of opportunity or equality of results? Does prioritizing the value of equality mean rejecting ideas of merit or bulldozing value hierarchies? Traditionalists, modernists, and many others would probably have many reasons to balk at the economic program.
The progressive postmodernist’s values are not everybody else’s values. Perhaps there is a way to for thought leaders to harmonize notions of equality enough across value memes so that they could be useful for shared economic programs among traditionalists, modernists, postmodernists, and others, but Charles does not seem interested in that, except to lift the spirituality of premodern religions out of context for appropriation.
Eisenstein is best seen as a prophet of systemic doom of the old economic systems (and the fires are indeed burning!), not as a meta-systemic integrator of new economic and spiritual dimensions. Generally speaking, postmodernists think systemically; Integral thinkers think meta-systemically. Integralists can’t just say “To hell with capitalism!” and demand that all systems in existence need to be shut down, they have to attempt to show how multiple intertwined socio-economic and cultural systems can interoperate and segue.
Like elite I.T. systems integrators, Integralists must concern themselves with the health of many different systems running on many different operating systems, and somehow get them all to talk to each other because the older systems must continue to be viable and operable for many decades to come. All have to be operating in good working order for the whole system to function (at least until finally, much longer than anyone ever anticipated, the legacy mainframes can finally be retired).
Note that because Integralists see the value of preserving a whole tier of co-existing systems, postmodernists often paint them as “conservatives” on this account. Though the greens would say it as a smear against the teals and the turquoises, such conservation is nothing to be ashamed of. All the value memes across the whole spectrum of consciousness have dignities of their own which must be respected and defended.
Even if Eisenstein’s economic program could be tested, I’m afraid that the key ideas would be doomed in execution. Postmodernism fails to understand the depth of the grip of other value memes on human civilization, especially aggressive self-interested economic activity, the sort known as Warrior Culture (red). Its failure stems also from a conception of human nature without sufficient regard for evil or sinfulness.
A question: 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 others who bring postmodern values to the forefront of economics, he hasn't fully grappled with the propensity of human beings to value self-interest over communal values until they have already reached a relatively high level of ethical development. What is the beautiful gift economy with its glorious economic commons to do when it is overrun by freeloaders, grifters, trolls, vandals, and unethical hackers? Surrender, apparently.
Postmodern thinkers usually insist on anti-capitalism and some sort of collectivism. This gets some things right and other things wrong. There are elements of postmodern economics that can be lifted up and incorporated into an Integral economics that is methodologically plural, one that allows roles for all sorts of actors (local, national, global) at all levels (orange capitalists, green communitarians, etc.) while we work, sometimes seemingly at cross-purposes, for new systems to emerge beyond the old models (teal/turquoise).
Integral economics not as anti-capitalism or anti-socialism, but as post-capitalism and post-socialism.
At the end of the day, there is no conveyor belt to such a higher-level consciousness contained in Sacred Economics, only a mélange of well-intended ideas that may offer a mirage rather than an exit from our most vexing problems. Latching onto Eisenstein’s new economic ethos of "de-growth" is no complete remedy for our maladies. Not because it is too extreme a measure, but because it may be too weak a response to the complexities of our current situation.
Our most fundamental problem isn't that there is too much wealth being created through industry; it is the lack of an operational Global-Mind (turquoise) with institutional authority and a market-based and regulation-tempered program for alleviating the quagmires posed by unchecked economic development. Perhaps this is a distant pipe-dream, or perhaps the next great and indispensable step towards its realization is as near as your next act of surrender, acceptance, and synergistic way of being in the world.
We stand in need of a new Integral economics which brings the interiors of individuals and collectives, including sacred matters, into the analysis of social goods. Our hope ought to lie not merely in shifting a Cartesian self into a “connected self” but in the rising up of the Global-Mind, a mature post-postmodern consciousness, one that has learned to apply its evolutionary awareness and holistic spiritual intelligence to the solving of urgent global problems through collective action.