Saturday, June 06, 2009

P2P Wiki - Importance of neotraditional approaches in the reconstructive transmodern era

Excellent article on the necessity of the emergence of Buddhist Economics in post-Capitalist world. This is from Michel Bauwens - we desperately need this kind of forward thinking to avoid illusory change in the economic structures that will simply lead to more of the same.

Importance of neotraditional approaches in the reconstructive transmodern era

From P2P Foundation

Article: The importance of neotraditional approaches in the reconstructive transmodern era. Michel Bauwens.

Written for a delayed Buddhist Economics conference planned at Ubon Rajathanee University, Warin Chamrab, Ubon Rathchathani, Thailand, for December 5-7, 2008 and rescheduled for April 9-11, 2009.


I see the emergence of Buddhist Economics as part of a broader canvass of initiatives, thought streams and social practices, that could be broadly termed ‘neotraditional’. My aim in this essay is to offer a hypothesis of why their emergence is important, and what role they could play in movements aimed at reforming and transforming the current political economy.

The Main Argument: the common immateriality of traditional and post-industrial eras

It is not difficult to argue that modern industrial societies are dominated by a materialist paradigm. What exists for modern consciousness is material physical reality, what matters in the economy is the production of material products, and the pursuit of happiness is in very strong ways related to the accumulation of goods for consumption. For the elite, its powers derive essentially from the accumulation of capital assets, whether these are industrial or financial. Infinite material growth is really the core mantra of capitalism, even if it happens through the medium of money.

But this was not the case in traditional, agriculture-based societies. In such societies, people of course do have to eat and to produce, and the possession of land and military force is crucial to obtain tribute from the agricultural workers, but it cannot be said that the aim is accumulation of assets. Feudal-type societies are based on personal relations consisting of mutual obligations. These are of course very unequal in character, but are nevertheless very removed from the impersonal and obligation-less property forms that came with capitalism, where there is little impediment for goods and capital to move freely to whomever it is sold to.

In the more traditional societies that we have in mind, both the elite and the mass body of producers are united by a common immaterial quest for salvation, and it is the institution that is in charge of organizing that quest, like the Church in the western Middle Ages or the Sangha in South-East Asia, that is the determining organization for the social reproduction of the system. Tribute flows up from the farming population to the owning class, but the owning class is engaged in a two-fold pursuit: showing its status through festivities, where parts of the surplus is burned up; and gifting to the religious institutions. It is only this way that salvation/enlightenment, i.e. spiritual value or merit in all its forms, can be obtained. The more you give, the higher your spiritual status. Social status without spiritual status is frowned upon by those type of societies. This is why the religious institutions like the Church of the Sangha end up so much land and property themselves, as the gifting competition is relentless. At the same time, these institutions serve as the welfare and social security mechanisms of their day, by ensuring that a part of that flow goes back to the poor and can be used in times of social emergencies.

It is still a little bit harder to argue in Asian than in the West, but the current era, despite the rapid industrialization and ‘materialisation’ of East Asia, is undergoing a fundamental shift to immateriality.

Material goods still need to be made, and Asia is furiously industrializing, but nevertheless, for the world system, important shifts have already happened, which are most readily visible in the West.

Here are just a few of the facts and arguments to illustrate my point for a shift towards once again a immaterial focus in our societies.

The cosmopolitan elite of capital has already transformed itself for a long time towards financial capital. In this form of activity, financial assets are moved constantly where returns are the highest, and this makes industrial activity a secondary activity. If we then look at the financial value of corporations, only a fraction of it is determined by the material assets of such corporation. The rest of the value, usually called good will, is in fact determined by the various immaterial assets of such corporation, it’s expertise and collective intelligence, it’s brand capital, the trust in the present and the future that it can generate.

The most prized material goods, such as say Nike shoes, show a similar quality, only 5% of its sales value is said to be determined by physical production costs, all the rest is the value imparted to it by the brand (both the cost to create it, and the surplus value created by the consumers themselves).

The shift towards a immaterial focus can also be shown sociologically, for example through the work of Paul Ray on cultural creatives, and of Ronald Inglehart on the profound shift to postmaterial values and aspirations.

For populations who have lived for more than one generation in broad material security, the value system shifts again to the pursuit of knowledge, cultural, intellectual and spiritual experience. Not all of them, not all the time, but more and more, and especially so for the cultural elite of ‘cultural creatives’ or what Richard Florida has called the Creative Class, which is also responsible for key value creation in cognitive capitalism.

One more economic argument could be mentioned in the context of cognitive capitalism. In this model of our economy, the current dominant model as far as value creation is concerned, the key surplus value is realized through the protection of intellectual properties. While Asia is still (mostly) engaged in producing cheap industrial goods (though it is changing fast), the dominant Western companies can sell goods at over 100 to 1,000 times their production value, through state and WTO enforced intellectual rents. It is clearly the immaterial value of such assets that generate the economic streams, even though it requires creating fictitious scarcities through the legal apparatus.

However, it must be said, and we will develop that issue later, that this model is undermined through the emergence of distributed infrastructures for the production, distribution and consumption of immaterial and cultural goods, which makes such fictitious scarcity untenable in the long run. The immaterial value creation is indeed already leaking out of the market system.

Read the whole article.

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