Guest Blog: Integral Economics (by Christian Arnsperger)
March 14, 2008 15:37

(The following is being posted according to Ken's generous offer. The posting of a submission doesn't imply that Ken or the editors of this site necessarily agree with any or all of it. Thanks, -Eds)


Integral Economics: A Manifesto

Christian Arnsperger
FRS-FNRS, Belgium

December 2007

1. Introduction

Engineering an intersection between economics and the Integral approach—i.e., gradually fleshing out and promoting a truly Integral economics—may well be one of the most urgent tasks in social science today. At least, I myself (as a standardly trained economist who turned heretical at some point) believe it is, and that is why I have written this paper which, for all its defects, might stand as a “manifesto” of sorts for those of us who think it’s about time economics was pulled out of its current, arch-positivistic quagmire.

Let me emphasize that what I offer in these pages isn’t just a cheap juxtaposition of an economics that I find increasingly intellectually dissatisfying with an Integral vision that I find more and more promising. Although these two things are true, they wouldn’t be of much help if it weren’t for the fact that, on the basis of a (hopefully) thorough knowledge of the current mainstream of economic science, I believe I’ve encountered a more or less exact meeting place between the two disciplines—or, actually, between the discipline of economics and the meta-discipline of Integral methodology. This distinction is extremely important, especially in light of the fact that—within the realm of social science at least—economics has increasingly been claiming the status of a meta-discipline entitled to include and engulf all other disciplines such as sociology, social psychology, and so on. In fact, it may well be that forcing today’s mainstream economics to face up to the existence of an Integral framework out there is the only way to undo its pretension at becoming the (pseudo-)integral framework for social science.

The meeting place between today’s economics and the Integral vision can be found at the frontier where economists today are trying to co-opt disciplines such as anthropology, artificial intelligence, behavioral and cognitive psychology, computer science, evolutionary biology, history, and statistical physics in order to build up a “post-Walrasian” economics that would eschew the traditional equilibrium view inherited from Newtonian physics and replace it with the less traditional, disequilibrium approaches coming from post-Newtonian physics and from the natural sciences (biology and chemistry in particular). In view of the fact that this new economics that’s developing today is indeed less reductionist and less mechanistic than the old economics used to be, and claims to be embracing evolution and organicity as part of its grasp of economic phenomena, it seems especially crucial right now to contrast these efforts—laudable and legitimate as they might be—with a genuinely Integral embrace of the economic realm. 

2. Embracing the Integral Vision

Why do we need an Integral economics? For the same reason we need an “Integral everything else”: as Ken Wilber puts it, “an integral vision offers considerably more wholeness than the slice-and-dice alternatives. We can be more whole, or less whole; more fragmented, or less fragmented; more alienated, or less alienated—and an integral vision invites us to be a little more whole, a little less fragmented, in our work, our lives, our destiny” (Wilber 2000a: xii). The fundamental drive underlying the Integral vision’s development is a deep-seated allergy to hasty reductionism. Reducing certain aspects of our lives—whether individual or collective, personal or social—to either pure exteriors or pure interiors, and additionally reducing those to purely individual exteriors (“It”), purely collective exteriors (“Its”), purely individual interiors (“I”), or purely collective interiors (“We”) is bound to fragment and alienate us as we embark upon perceiving the multitude of occasions that make up our lives.

How do we know that we are fragmented, that we are alienated? Well, frankly, most of the time we don’t. That’s the whole problem with translating philosophy into personal and collective change—into effective ethics and effective politics. Most of us, most of the time, just don’t have any idea that we’re not living up to our fullest potential. How do we know what our fullest potential is? This has been one of the most hotly contested issues in the philosophical debates about “perfectionism,” “liberalism,” and “relativism.” Who is anyone to tell anyone else she’s not living up to her fullest potential?, has been a long-standing rebuttal of all green-meme thinkers and citizens. I’m OK, you’re OK has been a deeply entrenched slogan for decades now in Western democracies, and we all know what good things have come of it: tolerance, pluralism, civil rights, and so on. We seem—understandably—to be less aware of the negative repercussions: downward egalitarianism, anomie, and most of all rampant narcissicism (see Wilber 2000b).

The extremely promising avenue opened up by the Integral vision is that it’s a thoroughly empirical, concretely-based approach: sure, it postulates that deep down there is just One Spirit of which all humans and all cultures at all times and in all places are particular manifestations—but it doesn’t thereby imply any uniformization and “anything goes” attitudes. It’s universalistic but by no means egalitarian, and it strongly affirms hierarchy of a specific kind: evolution hierarchy, or “holarchy,” and not domination hierarchy (see Wilber 1995). This means that while all cultures and all spiritualities—all existential positionings—are ultimately manifestations of the One Spirit (that’s the egalitarian part), nevertheless some of them are clearly more evolved manifestations of the One Spirit than are others (that’s the non-egalitarian part). A is at a more evolved stage than B if A transcends and includes B. Not “negates B,” or “scorns B,” or “makes B look ridiculous”—just transcends and includes B, meaning that B is a necessary precondition for A but not the reverse, so that the states of consciousness that have become traits in A are only occasional, fleeting states in B. In each existential positioning there are evolutionary lines of development, and each existential positioning has historically emphasized certain lines more than others. That’s simply the way certain cultures or religions or spiritualities have evolved—usually over centuries and even millennia—before they came into living contact with other, different cultures, religions, and spiritualities. So the Integral vision doesn’t just grasp the idea of “our fullest potential” out of the air, for instance by deducing it from some transcendentally valid, absolutely abstract philosophy of what it means to be a fully realized human being. Rather, it induces our fullest potential from the empirical observation of the most highly realized exemplars coming from each culture, religion, or spirituality. It claims that such exemplars can be made into paradigms, that is, into experientially reproducible life trajectories (states evolving into traits  as the individual evolves through necessary stages) that anyone of us could walk if we have the right dispositions and the right practices.

Of course, this means that as humanity evolves, so does the very notion of “fullest human potential.” It’s never completely fixed and definitive, even though it too—as the idea it is—goes through certain irreversible stages. Such an evolutionary perspective on the notion of full human potential does not, however, imply in any way that hierarchy and the some clear judgments about “more evolved” and “less evolved” ways of life fall away. On the contrary, at each historical epoch there are bound to be criteria—evolutionarily determined and, hence, not unsurpassable—for saying that some of us, or most of us, are living fragmented, alienated lives. To characterize the unified, non-alienated life, we could use the term “authentic,” but it has had a pretty bad press since Heidegger and, even more so, since the advent of green-meme egalitarianism. Nowadays, saying you’re not living a authentically human life is felt to be a put-down rather than an encouragement—which it used to be in otherwise less evolved spiritual and religious climates. So let’s try instead to say that we’re not living our lives up to our fullest human potential, as measured by the stages of biological development, moral consciousness, material wealth, and cultural richness already attained in certain parts of the world and/or at certain past times by certain human beings and/or human societies.

Such an inductive attitude makes for a very open-minded and open-hearted approach to cross-cultural and cross-systemic analysis. It might—to take a hard and sensitive issue—show us that along certain lines of moral or psychodynamic development, Soviet Russia in the 1960s, or Cuba in the 1970s, was clearly superior to the United States of the 2000s in the sense that, for instance, Soviets and Cubans had developed a more communal attitude in some sectors of social life (though by no means in all…) and also that communist principles implied that basic social provisions, lodging, 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 US mentality makes unthinkable. Obviously, the USSR of the 60s and Cuba in the 70s were also, along other developmental lines, significantly less evolved than, say, Renaissance Florence or, for that matter, 1980s Britain. The basic point is that Integral developmental thinking of the sorts advocated by Wilber and, e.g., by Don Beck allows us to honor both the idea that evolution has a directionality and that the present is not necessarily more evolved than the past. That alone is immensely precious because it shields us against both naïve postmodernism and inept traditionalism.

Unfortunately, these deep insights have up to now made little headway into economics, which is still basking in a very naïve view about “progress” (in the form of material “growth”) and in a very rudimentary conception of what “rationality” means when it comes to people living together within an economic system. My basic critical assessment is that, as I’ll in more detail presently, today’s economics is, even at its most cutting-edge frontier, an exclusively Right-Hand endeavor that loses out on any and all occasions to embrace precious insights and methods coming from Left-Hand quarters.

3. Materialist reductionism and the “macro-management” origins of economics

Integral economics is, in a very strong sense, unavoidable. It’s already on the march despite many mainstream economists’ stark ignorance of all but the Lower-Right quadrant. In some cases, the Upper-Right is making a timid entry into economics, with neuro-economics and brain science attempting to enrich—and often succeeding in enriching—an emerging paradigm now called “generative economics.”

Usually, as to what regards interiors, economics is simply nowhere. Even the mild departures from the strictly rational and self-interested homo economicus that are currently taking place in some quarters are geared to upholding the dominant dogma—that material growth, measured by the aggregate amount of Stuff available and circulating, is what matters ultimately to economic investigation. Growth and development along non-material, spiritual, cultural, semiotic, etc., dimensions is simply  shunned by the mainstream of economics. Part of that dogma is that whatever elements of the other quadrants—education levels, cultural traits, and so on—are helpful in boosting material growth rates can be included as exogenous variables in the models. At best, some of these elements may even be made endogenous, with the economist reflecting on which “incentives” (material incentives, that is: income, wealth, stuff) she could put into place so as to make them even more conducive to high material growth. Most of the so-called “cutting edge” of today’s economics is, in fact, still geared to this dominant dogma, focusing on how a more explicit account of “It” (neuroscience, behavioral psychology, and so on) and “Its” (complexity economics, nonlinear dynamic systems, etc.) can add to our understanding of GDP growth. (See Beinhocker 2006 and Coyle 2007 for recent and largely apologetic updates.)

Now, in order to be fair and knowledgeable—instead of just throwing around pamphlets and caricatures—it’s really important to understand why economics is structured the way it is, and why it has been for well over two centuries. Let’s start out with the basics from introductory economics, in order to detect the very most basic presuppositions economists bring, and have for decades brought, into the analysis of phenomena.

Sociology and anthropology, at least traditionally, put significant emphasis on the interior-individual dimension of economic events. Individuals are “prisms” through which society-wide rules and norms become concrete and can be interpreted. That’s why language and fieldwork is so important in traditional sociology and anthropology, and that’s also—I suspect—why the use of mathematical modeling is virtually absent from these fields. Now, economics makes extensive use of mathematic. That’s not a problem in itself, of course. It does mean, however, that the economic approach gives the individual-interpretation dimension, the language-mediated experience of the person, a very different place. In fact, I would claim that economics  intentionally and systematically aims to overlook the “interior” dimensions of economic phenomena, both the individual-interior dimension (interpretation) and the collective-interior (culture), and to focus instead on the exterior dimensions: individual behavioral logic and collective systemic logic. Let’s try to see why.

To get a clear understanding of what standard economics is trying to do, we need to reach back to why “political economy” appeared in the first place during the 16th and 17th centuries in England and France. Political economy and les économistes—as the Physiocrats were called back then—was initially part and parcel of the overall governance of the emerging nation-states. The rulers needed technicians—economic engineers, if you like—who could tell them what variables they had to change in the big complicated machine that was the economy so that they could generate enough tax revenue for their various wars and conquest expeditions while, at the same time, feeding the population sufficiently so that there wouldn’t be too much discontent. (You could always crush a revolt with the army, but maintaining an army is costly, too. In some cases, it’s cheaper to give up a little royal wealth and give it to the people, rather than divert military resources from more lucrative enterprises in order to crush a rebellion somewhere in the kingdom.)

So originally, the raison d’être of economic science was the macroeconomic management of growing political entities. Basically, the way you manage a macro-entity is to fit all the micro-pieces (i.e., people) into the micro-positions (i.e., jobs and functions) in which—so you believe—they will best contribute to the macro-entity’s “performance.” In order to efficiently produce and distribute goods, and later services, you basically have to get the best functional fit between your population and the economic tasks at hand. Thus was economics born, as the social-engineering science that dealt with the allocation of efforts and rewards within a system of functional interdependence. Note that, from the beginning, the efforts required were (obviously) both physical and intellectual, while the rewards were exclusively material: they were measured by the amount of goods and services that your material rewards made accessible for you.

In such a context, it should be noted, “society” is first and foremost—and often exclusively—seen as the system of governance schemes designed to order a potentially disorderly set of individuals scrambling for material rewards. Society, in such a view, is something that’s designed by people—but mainly and even exclusively by those people who are “in charge” of looking after the Whole and to keep it in a measure of internal order. This rather hierarchical view (which is often left implicit in economics) has important implications for our understanding of the notion of “incentives”. Seeing society as a system of order-maintaining governance schemes implies that those who are in charge of looking after these schemes will tend to view the population of agents as a more or less homogeneous statistical whole. The reasons is that top-down management of the overall system requires a positivistic (exterior, surface-oriented) attitude towards the components of that system because the manager simply can’t take into account all individual specificities. In fact, the more homogeneous the components—or, at least, the more interchangeable—the easier it will be to manage the system. It will be complicated enough, mind you! But at least you won’t have to worry about individuals standing up and asking for things like recognition, respect for their subjectivity, and so on. You can use statistical tools and fairly transparent formal models in order to see through the chaos.

I want to claim that these actual and, in themselves, respectable requirements of system-wide management of component functions are what initially made economics into the sort of science it is: a discipline focused on observable behavior (not on verbal expression or existential testimony) and on functional fit (not on symbolic or cultural representations). With respect to labor policy, for instance, this means that the economist’s main task—which can be found in all quarters of economics, be they Monetarist, Keynesian, or even Marxist—is to “fit the components into the appropriate boxes” so as to ensure social order. To do this, he had to understand how workers choose their jobs, how firms choose their workers, and how workers choose the goods they buy from the firms.

It seems fair to say that—partly on the basis of historical experience, and especially the conjunction of Communist oppression and the Great Depression—economists gradually viewed social order as having three main components: full employment, price stability, and maximal economic growth. All three of those components are system-wide, statistical objects, and it’s no surprise that the increasing role played by economists in governance went hand in hand with the increasingly detailed statistical tracking of social functioning, in the form of various national institutes of economic statistics. In fact, one of the founding fathers of social statistics and econometrics, the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet, believed that human beings were homogeneous enough so that one could study “Humanity” without studying individual humans—all one needed to do was gather statistics on observable things like bodies, behaviors, and so on, and to conflate them into aggregate statistical data (see Ball 2004). One would, in this way, obtain a picture of the “average human creature” that could be used to design policies and to detect trends and predict events.

It’s urgent, nowadays, to criticize this somewhat naïve positivistic bias. At the time, however—this was the 19th century with its hope of a triumph of enlightened Science over blind fate—it was a major victory of the human mind. It meant one could hope to design policies and system-wide mechanisms that would channel masses of people into the “right” activities, i.e., the ones that contributed most to full employment, low inflation, and strong growth.

So the dominant dogma still has it that material growth—More Stuff—is the centerpiece of economics, and at best we can just ignore non-material dimensions to the extent they don’t help us explain material growth. However, there is a growing margin in which this dogma is no longer acceptable. Material growth—narrowly confined to GDP per capita—is increasingly seen by some as what it should never have ceased to be, namely as one instrument among many others that might facilitate humanity’s progression through various stages of development all through the four quadrants. Somewhat reluctantly, the economics profession—as witnessed, for instance, by Ben Friedman’s book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (Friedman 2006)—is coming to grips with the idea that more isn’t always better (wow!) and that exclusive emphasis on material growth may, in some cases, be detrimental to our “moral” dimension.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pioneered what he calls a “capability approach” to the measurement of human welfare (see Sen 1999). He claims that material goods are just one of the very many things we require to lead fulfilled lives, and he too—like the Integral community—offers a largely inductive approach to determining what a fulfilled life is. He appears to fall short of Integral, though, because he mostly adopts a green-meme pluralism that characteristically shuns hierarchy and ends up denying that some ways of life can be viewed as more evolved than others. In some places of his work, he even adopts an orange-meme position from which he pities people who have “downwardly adapted” their preferences to their material poverty, qualifying (in Marxian fashion) the spiritual attitudes that led to such adaptation as alienating. So there are some elements of hierarchy in Sen, but they usually coincide with the view of a secularized, market-driven, materialistic Western man.

4. Honoring the Four Quadrants?

The basic issue, really, is what kind of economics we need to develop in order to honor the four quadrants. “AQAL economics” is still far off, both because it would collide with the dominant dogma of material growth and because—a second reason less obvious to the non-initiated—it would also clash with the dominant view as to what it means to do “science.” To put it in a nutshell, contemporary economics is a thoroughly positivistic, Right-Hand affair. No interiors: neither culture nor subjectivity can be quantified and modeled. That’s why today’s mainstream economists are so keen on behavioral psychology, neuroscience, and complex-systems approaches. They uphold their vision of what “scientific” means; cultural case studies, hermeneutics, and psychoanalysis don’t because they’re simply not much use in building up a fully-fledged social physics! You can study cultural features as an economist, but only if you initially superimpose on them a language—nowadays, it’s often the elaborate and beautiful toolbox of non-cooperative game theory—that’ll relieve you of interiors, language, and interpretation. Culture has no interior, so you don’t need to spend months as a participant observer; what you need to do is be able to design clever “game situations.” Human subjects have no interiors, you don’t need to spend weeks talking to them (on a couch or elsewhere); what you need is to be able to design powerful “pattern-recognition” algorithms. Behavior is all there “is” in that respect, and if you want to be a true scientist you’re better off encoding and decoding behavior patterns using the most elaborate mathematical and computational tools available: evolutionary game theory, cellular automata, complex algorithms. Thus are born game-theoretic cultural studies (Henrich, Boyd, Bowles, Camerer, Fehr, and Gintis 2004) and agent-based, computer-driven “generative social science” (Epstein 2007). These are all important and fine. But they’re exclusively Right-Hand.

What would Left-Hand economics be? Even to ask the question is embarrassing when you look at it from the mainstream’s perspective. Seeing economies—and the economics profession itself!—as cultural, evolved artefacts peopled by subjects with interiors (low or lofty desires, tenacious fears, states of consciousness, violent drives, illusory self-images, and so on) is apt to jeopardize the “social-physics” ambition, or at least to make it appear as an abstract, empirically irrelevant—because exceedingly reductionistic—way of trying to understand economic life. Left-Hand economics is bound to be more verbal, less formalized, more context- and narrative-anchored, less “scopic” and more “interpretive” (i.e., less linked to top-down, theoretical seeing and more to bottom-up, existential experiencing). Some—and even much, and most—of it is currently going on outside of the mainstream economics profession, especially in social psychology and in sociology where psychoanalysis, social history, and life-narrative approaches are combined with existential philosophy and critical theory in order to study aspects of the alienation and fragmentation of individuals within contemporary capitalism. (See Schor 1991, Sennett 1998, Arnsperger 2005.) The reason mainstream economists reject such work as “not being economics” is, precisely, that it’s Left-Hand work whereas they obsess about exclusively Right-Hand issues and methods.

Of course, ultimately, Integral economics should be an integration of both Right- and Left-Hand ways of working. One of the basic starting points of the Integral approach is, “Every occasion in the real world has (at least) four aspects, or quadrants—objective exterior (LR), objective interior (UR), subjective exterior (LL), and subjective interior (UL).” Integral economics would start out from the recognition that every economic phenomenon, every economic “occasion,” is endowed with “I,” “We,” “It” and “Its” dimensions. Integral economics is any set of utterances about “the economy” that heeds these four quadrants to the fullest.

Whether such an integration would be predominantly juxtaposition or predominantly interpenetration remains to be seen. Given the current power relations within the profession, it’s hard to imagine how “honoring the four quadrants” in the study of economic phenomena could—these days—amount to more than each side being coerced into recognizing the other, and more precisely Right-Hand positivists being obliged to make some fair room (both in teaching curricula and in research projects) for Left-Hand hermeneutists. The main problem, of course, is that economics is largely funded publicly, and that those who pay out the public funds have frequently themselves been co-opted into the Right-Hand camp. Ironically, if a sufficiently consistent “Integral Business” community were to take shape within the world of business firms (see Kofman 2006), private funding of economics might actually offer more opportunities for truly Integral approaches than would today’s public funding, which has to go through rigid structures peopled by many individuals who have themselves been subjected to Right-Hand economic education.

One of the often neglected aspects of economics is that any theoretical utterance is an artefact (in the same way as Wilber says an anthill, a painting, or a product is an artefact). It is many other things, too (for instance, a claim to truth), but it is definitely an artefact, and a subtle one at that—an artefact crafted with words and concepts. Therefore, there has to be an author of the artefact—and that’s the economist. Economists fabricate artefacts and variously group them into what they claim is “economics.” One of the fascinating issues that I have been busy with lately (see Arnsperger 2008: 217-274) is the question of whether the way in which economics as artefact gets fabricated is affected by the recognition that any utterance about “the economy” is itself an artefact within the economy and therefore has UR, LR, UL, and LL facets. In particular, does it make any difference to an economist’s work that she recognizes herself to be the simultaneously subjective and objective author of an objectivity-claiming artefact?

This brings first and second-person considerations (who does economics? To whom does she address it?) into third-person habits (we do economics about “the economy”) and thus breaks up the smug alliance between positivism and “science.” Economics is a science in a way that physics isn’t: when you say something about an iron bar, the molecules don’t react to what you say; when you say something about the economy (perhaps about unemployment or the trade deficit), some or all economic agents will react to what you say because it’s partly about themselves and/or about how they see the economy, and so you need to inquire about your own (first-person) reasons for saying what you say about the economy. That’s part of being a responsible economist, and it’s also part of doing consistent economic science.

So Integral economics is bound to be—from the mathematical economist’s viewpoint, that is—a messy affair. It’s as if you were doing physics with molecules that constantly look up inquisitively and shout, “Hey, why are you saying that! I don’t agree. You should say …” A positivist’s nightmare! At least until the positivist recognizes that, as Ken Wilber expresses it, by honoring the four quadrants you actually do a much more comprehensive positive science than by remaining stuck in a Right-Hand fantasy world.

5. Ingredients for an Integral economic science

Why do I say today’s economics portrays a fantasy world? Isn’t that unnecessarily offensive to all those earnest individuals laboring at the margins of a demanding discipline? In a sense, it is, and I would apologize if it weren’t for the fact that these same individuals usually denounce Left-Hand work as fantasy; that’s offensive, too. Or, for the more sophisticated among them, they don’t outright denounce Left-Hand work but simply claim it can ultimately be reduced to Right-Hand categories—if not, that’ll show it was not much use as far as scientific work goes. So we shouldn’t be too courteous vis-à-vis those hard-laboring individuals, because they harbor an intellectually dangerous agenda; they would devise macro- or micro-policies—to implemented on us—subject to the “working assumption” that our interiors don’t “really” matter.

These are often hard-hearted, uncompassionate policies which deride human frailty and ambiguity and make it sound as if, when you are unemployed or poor, there is something wrong with your functional fit into the system; “incentive schemes” should be built up so that, on the basis of simplistic behavioral stimulus-response models, you can be expected to react in such a way that it will be your rational choice to fit back into the system, regardless of whether the function then assigned to you is a humanizing, potential-deploying function. That’s not part of social statistics, and it’s not part of cutting-edge neuro-economics and bio-economics, either. Keep It Simple is the standard economics instructor’s motto when he educates budding economists—and it means: keep it mathematically and/or computationally tractable. Who needs interiors when exterior macro-management of the economy, and hence parsimonious “explanation-to-manage,” is what’s ultimately involved? No, we shouldn’t be too nice to such economists, without needing to put into doubt their intellectual abilities or their professional integrity; it’s just that they’re permanently stuck in Right-Hand territory, for historical reasons few of them have ever bothered to investigate, let alone question.

If we want to go beyond mere denunciation, what sort of economics might we start building? We might certainly start from the recognition that, were Right-Hand economics to be empirically relevant, it would imply that we’d need to be a kind of individual we’re not. An interior-less economic agent is an automaton that goes through routines and optimizes without any awareness or consciousness of what she’s doing (see Arnsperger 2008: 22-101). In particular, such an agent—unlike any of us—has no ability to form a judgment about what’s wrong with her life in the ongoing economy, or about what aspects of that economy should be changed if her life is to be truer to what, through her religion, spirituality, and/or culture, she views as her fullest human potential. In other words, such an automaton-agent is able of neither existential nor critical judgment because for reasons of mathematical tractability she is assumed—counterfactually, to say the least—to be devoid of an individual interior (Upper Left) and to be foreign to any collective interior (Lower Left).

So, as a first step, Integral economics has to make room, within the notion of “economic rationality,” for existential rationality (see Arnsperger 2005: 108-154) and critical rationality (see Arnsperger 2008: 105-227). It can only meaningfully do so if it eventually constructs the Left-Hand equivalent of the Right-Hand feedback mechanisms between the quantitative properties of individual economic behaviors and dispositions (It) and the quantitative properties of economic systems (Its)—namely, a specifically Left-Hand set of feedback mechanisms between the qualitative properties of individual economic existence (I) and the qualitative properties of the prevailing economic culture (Us). 

One of the main implications of this is that economics has to become evolutionary in a way that’s it isn’t yet today: it has to embrace our ability, and our (often stifled) desire, for individual work on what it means to be “economically rational” and for collective work on what a truly “human-potential-enhancing” economic system would be—in short, economic evolutionism has to fully honor our ability and desire for conscious evolution,whereas today’s mainstream economic evolutionism is still stuck within a narrowly adaptive and computational form of consciousness. The scary aspect of this is that, going against virtually all canons of narrowly construed positivism and scientism, we’ll need to persuade enough academics that work such as that, among others, of Keating (1999, 2006), Myss (2007), Thurman (2004), Das (2007), or Cohen (2000, 2002) is not just an optional extra for economists’ reflection on economic rationality, and that work such as that of Leifer (1997), Thurman (1998), or Ardagh (2005) is not just an optional extra for economists’ reflection on economic culture—that, on the contrary, such work is an integral part of what economics is about, 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’s 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.

Another crucial implication of the above is that economics as a discipline cannot consistently uphold its internal monism. Today’s economics is a far cry from being pluralistic enough; in fact, 90% of the published literature and probably 99% of PhDs are being written within the ambit of a precise, two-tier reductionism: Lower-Right systems theory can only allow for very limited and strongly controlled emergence phenomena based largely on the interaction of individual agents whose “contents” are specified by narrow Upper-Right criteria; so “the economy” is reduced to a Lower-Right system peopled by “individual agents” reduced to Upper-Right behaviors. Integral economics necessarily will have to drop such a reductionist stance and open up the possibility for work on Upper-Left and Lower-Left issues to be counted as part of “scientific economics.” Ken Wilber’s decade-long endeavor to construct a viable Integral framework is enormously inspiring in this respect. In Arnsperger (2008) I offer a criterion for pluralism within economics which I call “Critical Political Economy,” and which is based on the twin idea—argued at length in the book—that in an emancipation-oriented economic system peopled by emancipation-oriented, critically rational agents, the economic science that studies such an economic system can only be deeply pluralistic, lest it be a deeply inconsistent science. Although that book is a far cry from what a fully Integral economics calls for (since, in particular, it focuses mainly on Lower-Left issues and leaves aside many of the Upper-Left issues I address more in Arnsperger 2005), in the final pages (see Arnsperger 2008: 288-292) I call on Wilber’s Integral vision as an example of what my criterion for pluralism aims to do—namely, to provide a meta-discipline, Critical Political Economy, that can serve as a reference point for any theory or paradigm within the economics discipline to determine whether that theory or paradigm respects the necessities of emancipation-fostering methodological pluralism.

Again, my work on Critical Political Economy on the one hand, on Existential Economics on the other, is only a small part of what a genuinely Integral economic science would have to embrace. Ideally, Integral economics should be an agent-based, complex-systems approach in which agents have evolutionary states of consciousness and which, consequently, evolves not only through positive and negative feedbacks from system to automata but also—and mainly—through the agents’ own existential and critical reflection on what a meaningful, human-potential-enhancing economic life could be within liberating and consciousness-fostering economic institutions. This would imply an economics that’s constructively critical of material reductionism and of capitalist, growth-oriented and wage-employment-oriented, competition-driven markets—an economics that couldn’t possibly just take up old, outdated reductionisms of the Marxist kind and that would fully heed the need for spiritual issues and religious paradigms (see Wilber 2006) to be part and parcel of what economic science is about.

On the positive side, integrating Upper-Left and Lower-Left dimensions into the analysis of modern capitalism is sure to alleviate some of the terrible shortcomings which today’s mainstream economics displays when it comes to empirical relevance. 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.

As I said earlier, such a project is sort of scary because the power relations within the economics profession are such that even much more timid forays, say, into behavioral economics or nonlinear dynamics are quickly labeled “heterodox” even though they’re still (almost) fully compatible with Right-Hand science. What, then, of Left-Hand issues? Do they stand any chance of being considered seriously by those economists who are in power? My diagnosis is that they won’t be recognized as important immediately, and probably still not for a couple of decades; but eventually they will, and you can already see signs of a change in the writings of aging mainstreamers who’ve received Nobel Prizes and can now let go of some of the Right-Hand posturing they needed to get ahead in their younger years—see, for instance, Amartya Sen’s latest writings to date which, although not quite Integral in the sense of Wilber, are certainly no longer Right-Hand and even blast the established borders between economics and other social and human sciences (Sen 2005, 2006). This makes me confident and has me convinced that if we hang in there—as I’ll certainly try to do—with the support of the whole Integral community, Integral economics (and Integral social science more broadly) has a bright future indeed.


Ardagh, Arjuna. 2005. The Translucent Revolution: How People Just Like You Are Waking Up and Changing the World, Novato, CA: New World Library.

Arnsperger, Christian. 2005. Critique de l’existence capitaliste: Pour une éthique existentielle de l’économie [Critique of Capitalist Existence: Toward an Existential Economic Ethics]. Paris: Le Cerf.

———. 2008. Critical Political Economy: Rationality, Complexity, and the Logic of Post-Orthodox Pluralism. London: Routledge.
Ball, Philip. 2004. Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, London: Random House.

Beinhocker, Eric. 2006. The Origin of Wealth: How Evolution Creates Novelty, Knowledge and Growth in the Economy. New York: Random House Business.

Cohen, Andrew. 2000. Embracing Heaven and Earth, Lennox, MA: Moksha Press.

———. 2002. Living Enlightenment: A Call for Evolution Beyond Ego, Lennox, MA: Moksha Press.

Coyle, Diane. 2007. The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Das, Surya. 2007. Buddha Is As Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices For Enlightened Living, New York: HarperCollins.

Epstein, Joshua. 2007. Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Friedman, Benjamin. 2006. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. New York: Knopf.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis (eds). 2004. Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence From Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keating, Thomas. 1999. The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, New York: Paulist Press.

———. 2006. Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life, one-volume re-edition, New York: Continuum.

Kofman, Fred. 2006. Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Leifer, Ron. 1997. The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons That Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.

Myss, Caroline. 2007. Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul, New York: Free Press.

Schor, Juliet. 1991. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure. New York: HarperCollins.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development As Freedom. New York: Knopf.

———. 2005. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History, and Identity, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

———. 2006. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, New York: Norton.

Sennett, Richard. 1998. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: Norton.

Thurman, Robert. 1998. Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, New York: Riverhead Books.

———. 2004. Infinite Life: Awakening to Bliss Within, New York: Riverhead Books.

Wilber, Ken. 1995. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala.

———. 2000a. A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

———. 2000b. Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free. Boston: Shambhala.

———. 2006. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Integral Books.

An important, but partly separate, issue is whether the “economic realm” itself can really be set apart from “the social whole.” This is in fact highly doubtful, and it might imply that ultimately, Integral economics might not be autonomous with respect to an even more embracing Integral social science. However, in this paper I’ll stay away from this question for mere reasons of space, and because I want to focus on economics proper—i.e., the discipline as it is still today conceived by economists, namely as a specific, autonomous (and frequently imperialistic) subset of social science. Again, this doesn’t mean I shy away from the broader issue, or that I take it to be secondary—quite to the contrary.

This theory of Left-Hand feedback mechanisms is something that’s direly missing from the two books I’ve published. It’s something I’m working on now and plan to develop in the near future in order to be able to model—verbally at least, and qualitatively—an economic system’s existential performance (how people experience their deeper existential dimensions within the system) and its critical performance (to what extent the system allows the agents within it to develop, and act upon, critical abilities).


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