Into the forest’s heart

tony-balcony.225x225For those of you, dear readers, who have been following this journey into the innovative, unusual economics of Ronnie Lessem & Alexander Schieffer, you will know that last time (3rdi magazine, February, 2013) I promised that we would venture from the forest canopy into the very heart of the economic jungle. This may sound as if it could be a parallel journey to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novella, or the more contemporary translation, by Francis Ford Coppola, into the nightmarish world of Cambodia’s war, in company with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter E Kurtz. But, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is, more to the point, the Western economic system, with its fetishization of the marketplace and sources of financial domination, from the surface, that more resembles Kurtz’ world-gone-mad. To venture into the heart of each economic system, from the four worlds pathways of South, East, North and West, is to seek to discover and interpret the moral core of each system. That is the central basis for the GENE-IUS approach of Lessem and Schieffer.

To understand the moral core, the Inner, Universal and Synergetic truth, of each economic pathway, is to begin to see how the Generating (South), Emergent (East), Navigating (North) and Effecting (West) paths can become integrated together. As such integration occurs, in the correct sequence, we see the products in radically new economic models, research endeavours, social enterprises and human dynamics. Those are for later articles, but first, to take our botanical metaphor further, what moral plants are at the heart of the four-fold forest community?

The Heart of Lightness

We may be surprised to discover ‘religion and humanism’ as the basis of the moral economic core. Religion does not have a good press currently, especially in the West. To an extent, Lessem and Schieffer are following a well-travelled road, epitomised by Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (1930/ 1959) thesis, in making this claim. But, whilst they, firstly, identify the conventional cores of each world, they, secondly show how the ‘religious’ (I prefer, myself as an Anglican priest, the term ‘spiritual’) dimensions are re-shaping an integral world. It is one that sheds a clear light onto the four economic pathways.

The West owes a debt to Adam Smith, albeit one that took his ‘invisible hand’ and misused it to play a mischevious ‘self-interested’ tune, far from the moral sentiments of its original author. The Southern pathway is intimately bound to an ethic of respect for the natural world, which Lessem and Schieffer describe as ‘creation’. From the Eastern pathway we recognise the goals of ‘self-realisation’ (Hinduism), co-operative energy (Buddhism) and balance (Confucianism), which have an economic dimension.

In addition, the Northern pathway presents us with a goal of progress that is connected to justice, order and the pursuit of a ‘greater humanity’. These are the four roots of the economy which each “needs to be aligned with the innermost belief systems of a society or community” if it is to flourish. This is the basis of my forest metaphor, which refracts the light of the moral core in shafts that should support flourishing, but which have become obscured in today’s economic jungle.

Recovering the moral heart

If the moral sentiment of Adam Smith, with his emphasis on the role of conscience tempering self-interest, has been neglected, so has the religious fervour of Karl Marx, according to Lessem & Schieffer. They see the messianic strand of prophetic Judaism as central to Marx and the Marxists. This has been largely lost. So, it is to the ‘creation economics’ of indigenous people that they look to begin a recovery of the moral core.

Creation economics stands in contrast, best seen as underpinning, the European tradition in four respects: community underneath individuality; place under time; ecology under (human) species; and topophilia (attachment to particular lands) under mercantilism (these are my word summaries of extensive discussions). The implications of this are a focus on reciprocity, honouring the land, giving back more than is taken away and maintenance of balance, which respects the panentheism (sacred life in all things) of the natural world, of which humanity is but one part.
The essence of the Eastern religious emphasis is on ‘cosmic consciousness’ rather than ‘earth community’. In the various Eastern traditions there is a bi-polarity of the individual and the universal, which are not a duality, as in the West, but an integrity that can lead towards self-realization. Furthermore, this is a feature of the economic, which is taken further in Buddhist economics.

The Western reification of ‘the self’ is seen as a false objectification that requires an alternative path to be travelled (cf Scott Peck) towards a deeper understanding of the economic. This involves production to be seen as an overall increase in well-being rather than in consumption goods and services. As such there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong consumption’, with the former being based on health of mind and body. And the basis of production and consumption is co-operation rather than competition. In this respect, we can hear distant echoes of the great Buddhist economists in so much contemporary discourse about ethical consumption, stakeholder governance and new models of corporate ownership.

Within the Northern tradition, that Lessem and Schieffer connect (somewhat surprisingly) with Catholicism, the failure of neoclassical economics is seen to be its separation from justice, equity and distribution. The basis for this model is the Catholic Social Teaching, built on the scholasticism of Aquinas, which emphasises the ‘use value’ of land, property and capital rather than its ownership. From this basis stem such ideas as the ‘just wage’, ‘land reform’ and ‘worker associations’, together with the more contemporary notion of ‘the tragedy of the commons’.
In this respect the circle turns, so that these various alternative economic models give rise to new expressions of Western market forms. One of the most visible of these is the Mondragon Co-operatives within the Basque Country. In turn, this picks-up some of the moral core of Western economics, based in such religious miens as the Quaker foundations of the 19th century co-operative movement, which is experiencing such a strong, contemporary revival. Confectioners such as Rowntree and Cadbury engaged in social activism, research foundations and innovation. Despite their recent takeovers a new Western co-operative spirit is growing, to renew the moral core.

Despite this whistle-stop tour of the moral core of the four worlds what emerges clearly from Lessem and Schieffer is that in the economic jungle we can begin to see the wood for the trees. And the solid wood is the distinctive moral core of each world, into which each societal economic system should root. This is not a recipe for some syncretistic melding together of ‘global economics’, but for identifying and recognising the distinctive contributions of each culture and system to a process of economic transformation.
It begins at the core, which has an ethical heart. But, what does this mean in practice? Well, there are some very strong trees growing from the roots of the forest into the canopy. These are the centred enterprises, such as the Egyptian Sekem. It is to these towering social businesses that we turn next time.

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

Lessem, R. and Schieffer, A. (2010). Integral Economics – releasing the economic genius of your society, Farnham: Gower Publishing Limited
Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958 [orig. 1930].

2 Comments on Into the forest’s heart

  1. karen birch // March 5, 2013 at 9:52 am // Reply

    A great explanation Tony. I wasn’t sure that I would be in tune with the compass points of Lessem and Schieffer, real life seldom being that simple, but the different spiritual and economic paths that different quadrants of the globe have, in the main, taken does seem to present a useful platform from which to view future ecomonic integration.

  2. Anne Casey // March 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm // Reply

    This way of looking at economic systems feels fresh and therefore interesting. We have become so disenchanted with the current economic models; to stand back and view them in this way allows you to think more dispassionately and realise that it does not all have to be rotten.

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