The view from the forest canopy

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Entering the Worlds of Integral Economics

Article 2: The view from the forest canopy

In the first of these articles exploring the unusual and, potentially, revolutionary world of Ronnie Lessem and Alexander Schieffer’s Integral Economics (2010), I invited you to follow me over a rope bridge. The metaphor is obvious. It connects the economic and social world with which we are familiar, under the conditions of late capitalism, with a world which is startlingly like ours but looks radically altered. For those of you familiar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy you will get what I mean.

But, I don’t employ this metaphor casually. Lessem and Schieffer also begin their work with an invitation to embark on a journey. It is one that needs to be followed along four different ‘economic paths’, which are lodged in four (corners of the) worlds. The worlds are: the self-sufficient economy of the natural and communal South; the developmental economy of the cultural and spiritual East; the social economy of the scientific and technological North; and the living economy of the finance and enterprise based West.

Students of phenomenology or ethnomethodology will be familiar with the idea of socially constructed reality. Where you stand, how you look, the world view with which you frame the scene you’re observing and the conditions under which a situation is contingently configured, each change the observer’s standpoint and the reality of the moment being observed. So, how come the ‘liberal free-market’ economics of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon West has become perceived to be the only economics that there is? There is an implicit assumption that economics is a science with laws like physics, as if such ‘hard science’ never encountered shifts of paradigms (Kuhn, 1962/2012), so that there can only be a choice between this economics and a pre-modern world of superstition and magic.

In fact, that’s a neat trick. Exclusivity has its benefits. Define all economics in Anglo-Saxon terms and you can clean-up, if you’re a beneficiary. By contrast, Lessem & Schieffer’s economic paradigm is inclusive, indicating that when the best of each world is brought together – in a quite precisely ordered way – the outcomes in terms of entrepreneurship, innovation and human development are surprising. From the POV which I operate – as a teacher-observer-developer of social and ethical enterprise – this is important because ‘the social economy’ operates at the intersection of public (integral North), private (West) and third sectors (East).

But Lessem and Schieffer conceive the economic South – representing the environmental sector – as the source of economic being and the basis for all new circulations, which are rooted in sustainability. This is why I speak about taking you to the forest. Being is rooted in the South, it is the foundation for building community, it has the capacity to develop insight which is relational and it enables economic self-sufficiency. The South is where the integral journey begins.

This insight is partly drawn from the recent work of Joel Magnuson (2008) on Mindful Economics. The South focuses the natural production capacity – the being – of the planet. Rooted in sustainability we can develop healthy consumption patterns that feed our inner life and consciousness, together with our material corporality. This capacity has developed in the East, albeit not the Eastern world that has chosen the route of liberal capitalism, thus distorting its own economic gene-ius (see previous article).

The consequence of a developed economic consciousness (East) – rooted in the natural productive capacity of the planet (South) – can be the distributed through the rational social processes that have evolved the scientific and technological economic world (North), with its systems, rules, laws and capacity to generate a social economy. Finally, Magnuson (and Lessem & Schieffer) sees the West as having an appetite for consumption that is more like a cancer. But, if healthily developed out of the, in integral terms, Southern, Eastern and Northern world contributions, the West can lead a global ‘living economy’ of sustainable finance and enterprise. And so, investment in the South can occur which is the gene-ius for a new cycle.

So far, so interesting, but is this of any relevance? Of course, such a high-level view may seem divorced from practice. But, the argument of Lessem & Schieffer is that such a pragmatic, utilitarian viewpoint arises out of an ignorance of the inner moral core of economics. This, itself, has a fourfold cultural manifestation, which should have us sitting-up and taking notice of their argument. And, if there is one aspect of economics which has failed, in a corrupting way across the West, it has been the inability to connect economics and morality, business and ethics.

The problem is that Western Anglo-Saxon economics has persuaded most of the world that economics is supposedly culture-neutral. I direct something called The SEED centre. And the analogy that Lessem & Schieffer use is apposite. The assumption of Western, globalisation theory is that “whether you start out in life as an African baobab, or a European acorn, an oak tree you will become”.

By contrast, the integral approach indicates that a single linear path of development, from past to future and from primitive (Africa) to postmodern (Amer-Europe) is a false interpretation of global economics. Indeed, Toyota, for example, has become a dominant motor manufacturer largely because of the linkage of Zen Buddhism (kaizen) and W Deming’s PDSA cycle in the late 1950s. Cultural integration and the four-worlds economic cycle can be seen in a multitude of situations and cases.

But, how does the process of economic transformation occur? Next time we will venture into the heart of the forest, to see how the economic seeds take root, grow, develop and give themselves back to the ground of being – gene-ius!

Kuhn, T. (1962/2012). The structure of scientific revolutions – 50th anniversary Edn., London: University of Chicago Press
Lessem, R. and Schieffer, A. (2010). Integral Economics – releasing the economic genius of your society, Farnham: Gower Publishing Limited
Magnuson, J. (2008). Mindful Economics, New York: Seven Stories

Tony Bradley is Director, The SEED Centre (for Social & Ethical Enterprise Development), Liverpool Hope Business School, Liverpool Hope University

3 Comments on The view from the forest canopy

  1. I enjoyed reading this article as Tony challenges us to look at economics, not just from how we perceive it in the west, ours being the dominant as we see it, but from the perspective of different cultural norms. Why can’t we look across the piece and learn from the best of each other? It might just be that we can construct a better economic approach; despite how we see it, we are not getting it right here in the west.

  2. I’m finding the definitions interesting but my gut feel is that things aren’t as clearly defined as compass points. I look forward to seeing how the delineations, presumably created to aid understanding, are brought together to create the integral solutions inferred in Lessem and Shieffer’s book.

  3. Great start Tony. Very interesting, especially the intrinsic culture of a region and its proposed influence on “business” activities. I, too, have encountered these general “types” or at least common practices. I try not to assume that behaviour of individuals (let alone enterprise) is absolutely tied to culture but there are definiate legalites, structures, laws and methods that prevail in “compass” regions and will be very interested in seeing how these lines blur or how the connections join these multi-cultural issues.

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