Building an Integral Economic Science

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* Article: Christian Arnsperger, “Building an integral economic science: Opportunities and challenges.” Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 3:5, Winter 2008, pp. 1-16.



“Along some lines of moral or psychodynamic development, Sweden in the early 1980s was clearly superior to the United States of the late 2000s. For principles implied that basic social provisions, housing, health care, etc., were to be provided freely to all citizens, regardless of their ability to purchase these things on markets—something the less evolved U.S. mentality makes unthinkable” (4).

“An integral part of what economics is about [is] namely to contribute to not only a positive description of how today’s capitalism works but also to a critical description of how tomorrow’s economy ought to work if it is to be a support for the conscious evolution of all of us (or as many of us as possible) along all (or as many as possible) developmental lines” (11).

“This would imply an economics that is constructively critical of material reductionism and of capitalist, growth- and wage employment–oriented, competition-driven markets—an economics that would shun outdated reductionisms and would fully heed the need for spiritual issues and religious paradigms” (11).

“On the normative side, work on an economics that might embrace elements from the mystical traditions of Buddhism or Christianity, and/or from the humanistic tradition, 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”


Edward Burge:

In his 4/4/10 interview called "Capitalism is experiencing an existential crisis" Christian Arnsperger says:

"The brilliant and diabolical logic of capitalism plays on the confusion between 'needs' and 'cravings.' That's why we run after consumption and accumulation. Consequently, it's a system that creates repetitive compulsions for most of us - in any case, for those who have the means to treat themselves to certain things - and that simultaneously creates structural inequalities."

This sounds like a Buddhist economic criticism, that craving is the cause of our suffering. And that this cause is facilitated by this particular economic system with the inevitable result in inequality. He goes on:

"One cannot do without the economy, but one can and one will have to do without capitalism. This existential crisis of the economy is a truly essential crisis of capitalism, the symptom of a profound malaise."

Hmm, he is not here proposing that we elevate capitalism via consciousness. He is not an apologist for the types of integral capitalism criticized above. What then could possible replace our much vaunted capitalism that feeds our cravings and causes such suffering?

"I propose the implementation of three kinds of ethos. First, an ethics of willful simplicity, a return towards a much more frugal conviviality ... The second ethos: a radical democratization of our institutions, including our economic institutions, proceeding to the democratization of companies ... And third: an ethos of profound equalitarianism, going so far as 'a universal allocation,' that is, an unconditional base income paid to all citizens."

He argues that this change will not come from the top-down through political leaders but must be a people's movement from the bottom-up. We must take responsibility for our consumption and work toward and create democratic businesses which enact values such as a living wage. Only then will this filter into political legislative support. Part of this worldview change is moving from individualism to an examination of our autonomy.

"The general idea is that we must recreate a critical conviviality. Each person must personally conquer his autonomy; each person must do the work of de-conditioning himself; perform a self-critique of his own complicity with the system. That occurs through an anchoring in the locality and in power-sharing, in an ethos that I call neither communist nor communitarian, but rather a 'communalist' ethos that leads to willful simplicity and radical democratization that result in a relocalization of the economy." (


"Generating constant economic growth within a framework of constantly expanding globalization—this is, in a nutshell, the capitalist project when it comes to economic development. I want to argue that such a view—the massively dominant view—of development is existentially move towards a genuinely post-development view, we need to tackle the issues raised by existential economics. For us in the rich, Western countries, capitalist, growth-oriented development has been a three-century-old cultural choice. It has been based on specific anthropological premises. It has been an anthropological and spiritual disaster.

"The identification of growth with development comes from a deep-seated conviction in the Western cultural landscape: more stuff is better than less stuff. By 'stuff' I mean material goods but also all sorts of non-material objects such as services and images. The Western human being is a being who has made consumption into an existential imperative.

"Don’t expect me to draw...a well-meaning denunciation of economic materialism in the name of 'spirituality.' If I did that, I’d be ignoring the very roots of modern economic thought. In reality, in fact, the great thinkers of economics were working very consciously for the salvation of humanity.... I think we need to go as far as saying that economic thought has a strictly spiritual root.... The economy is, therefore, less a technical-operational domain than an existential-spiritual one.... Economics, part and parcel of theology—not only neo-liberal economics (as some left-wing critics claim, using the word 'theology' as a degrading term), but all of economics to the extent that it ultimately seeks to liberate Man. Marx, Keynes, and Hayek were, literally, the most influential theologians of the 20th century; I say this not by analogy or as an image, but as a literal description of what their study of economic activity was about.

"What is post-development? It is, essentially, a move from capitalism to post-capitalism in all parts of the globe. This includes pre-capitalist economies which still exist. These economies are no longer viable; the existential critique of capitalism should never be an alibi for a nostalgic—and completely illusory—return to pre-capitalist forms. The idea, instead, is that poor countries need not necessarily go through a capitalist 'stage' in order to go beyond the misery which we, in the West, have bestowed upon ourselves through the massive growth of our wealth.

"Capitalism functions on what I call imaginary scarcity: what makes accumulation, competition, and consumption 'work' is the fact that each of us somehow feels he never has enough. Wanting to get more just deepens the feeling of 'never quite enough.' This process is never-ending; it never exhausts itself; more not being enough, it calls for even more, and this creates growth and the need for growth to create existential reassurance.

"Now, real scarcity could, in principle, be eliminated through a form of egalitarian capitalism. You could try to 'channel' the dynamism and incentives of capitalism into a system where we produce, distribute, and consume (and even 'exploit' each other, which is inevitable whenever there is division of labor)—a system that would establish one single barrier to capitalist rationality: everyone should be protected from real scarcity, so that there should be massive and constant redistribution. But alas, egalitarian capitalism is an unstable creation; when you establish it (as did the promoters of social democracy in the mid-20th century), it gets attacked from all sides by those who have no interest in it. Why? Simply because capitalism and equality are like oil and water: you can mix them up vigorously, but if you don’t coerce them into staying mixed they will separate again. The basic reason is that egalitarian capitalism eliminates real scarcity but is incompatible with imaginary scarcity.... [We need] a profound change in our theology, a change towards a new fundamental reflection on what it means to be human beyond liberal individualism... Capitalism can’t transcend itself.

"In a truly post-capitalist world, human beings should be free from both real and imaginary scarcity. The idea that constantly growing aggregate wealth can be stimulated only through relative poverty—an idea that lies at the heart of capitalist market incentives—has to be replaced with the idea that moderate wealth can be maintained through relational and social investment.

"One thing that is very urgently needed is development aid to the First World from the Third World—to the extent that the Third World hasn’t itself already given up its traditions.... What the Third-World traditions are still rich in, and what we tend to have become very poor in, is spiritual resources to deal with existential anxiety in 'adjusted' ways—integrating death into the rituals of life.... Spiritual resources would allow us to see things differently, and to live differently, giving economic wealth production its rightful—and relatively minor—place and giving relational and social investment the priority." (