Reforming Asian economies: peer to peer, threefolding, and associative economics

I participated in a very stimulating exchange between the tradition of thought and practice of Assotiative Economics, linked to Anthroposophy, and the ideas around peer to peer networks.

Hans van Willenswaard, who together with his wife Willapa operates an indepedent publishing house in Bangkok, recently sent me the following report, which captures very well the open atmosphere of this encounter, and the yearning of Asia to find its own particular adaptation to modernity, in a way that safeguards its own historical identity and focus on community.

Here is most of the report, with the conclusion highlighted in bold.

Hans van Willenswaard reporting on the Economics and Threefolding workshop – The importance of ‘community spirit’, held on 29 April – 1 May 2007, Thailand

A first Economics and Threefolding workshop was held in the hilly landscape near Khao Jai National Park, Thailand, and brought 24 participants from Asia and other regions of the world together for two days.

The workshop was convened by Suan Nguen Mee Ma publishing house, a small-scale social enterprise that also re-vitalized a 40-years old bookshop in the inner center of Bangkok, where it has its office in a traditional Thai book distribution company.

The communication in the workshop started from an analysis of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programme co-facilitated from the bookshop in Bangkok. A family farm near the border with Burma, North-West of Bangkok, organizes weekly deliveries of organic vegetables to subscribers in the city. The family coordinates a network of small-scale farmers, belonging to the ethnic group of Karen. The farmers gradually dedicate vegetable production, away from ‘the market’, to the growing membership in Bangkok resulting in a pattern of trust, security and customized production.

The workshop exchanges then continued with mapping in concentric circles ‘alternative’ economic initiatives in South-East Asia and beyond, via the personal stories of the participants. Rural and micro-enterprise development in Burma/Myanmar by a Christian NGO; government driven organic agriculture practices in China and gardening connected to Waldorf school initiatives; consultancy on marketing and certification according to IFOAM standards in agriculture , and social standards upheld by Fair Trade, undertaken in the South-East Asia region from Penang, Malaysia; organic vegetable production to support health care in Singapore and Australia; and the economic success story of organic agriculture in New Zealand with a pioneering role of the bio-dynamic movement.

Participants from the Eastern shore of the Pacific, USA, described the meaning of organic agriculture in therapeutic Camphill communities; and the need to strengthen the role of the consumers in changing economic paradigms.

Paul Mackay and Cornelius Pietzner, members of the Executive Board of the Anthroposophical Society, based at the Goetheanum in Switzerland, facilitated continued in-depth analysis, in the light of spiritual research. A perspective from an angle quite different from organic agriculture was offered by Michel Bauwens, Belgian entrepreneur based in Chiang Mai, the North of Thailand. His career and its disappointments led him to fundamental reflections on the global economic system and consequent penetration into the world of ICT (information and communication technology). We still live in the illusion of a world with infinite material resources while we impose more and more restrictions on the abundant spiritual world and give it a finite character through intellectual property legislation. The answer of the future can be found in peer-to-peer or ‘P2P’ patterns of economic cooperation as pioneered in open computer networks. Participants in these open networks keep a balance between using the facilities, and adding to / improving them with their specific skills. Individual interest becomes congruent with common interest.

This stream towards merging scopes of interest resonates with the core message of the book Economics. The World as One Economy based on lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1922 : breakthrough of economic change will not occur because of morality but as result of economic logic, if all factors are to be taken in fully by human awareness.

This new logic can already be recognized in fair trade where markets become subjective to ‘peer arbitration’.

Cornelius Pietzner referred to the principle of ‘six degrees of separation’ which implies that via six layers of personal acquaintance each individual virtually has a relationship with all individuals in the world. Human relationships may not follow exact mathematical patterns, the insight of inter-connectedness among all sentient beings has always been a cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy. However translated as inter-connectedness, inter-dependence or ‘inter-being’ , it makes a difference whether the principle is intellectually known from traditional teaching at one hand as well as from contemporary reasoning, or experienced as a spiritual and social fact.

An intriguing element of the workshop was the unexpected contribution of Venerable Samanalakkhano who gave an overview of the Santi Ashoke movement founded in Thailand and branching out to other Asian countries. Members of the movement follow the monastic discipline characteristic for Therevada Buddhism, but – contrary to traditional practice where monks live solely on donated food – are fully in charge of their own livelihood through organic agriculture and small-scale enterprises. Growing communities of lay people shape themselves around this alternatively styled monkhood. The Santi Ashoke movement practices an outspoken ‘engaged’ or socially responsible Buddhism, including the mobilization of consumers away from a consumerist life-style. Together with the Sufficiency economy philosophy as proclaimed by H.M. the King of Thailand, and Thai grass-root movements like the Assembly of the Poor, the Santi Ashoke stream represents an important impulse towards economic change in Thailand. Renewed reference is made to ‘Buddhist economics’ in line with the book Small is Beautiful. Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher (who himself was not a Buddhist). The often reprinted book (1973) is based on Schumacher’s experiences as an economic advisor in Burma.

The broader perspective of a transformed economic system in the future does not immediately release practitioners from taking all the dilemma’s to be decided on in daily business life, within the cultural, political, economic realities of today, including in Asia. Important issues here are: the role of the ‘middle man’ or trader as the trait d’union between rural producers and urban consumers. Effective responses to the trend of ‘economies of scale’ which in general always means enlarging the scale of economic operations towards mass production, loss of identity and human interest. The complex legal and financial mechanisms surrounding certification and standards, whether by self-regulation or government rule, often implying enormous burdens for producers; the need (or not) for ‘localization’. The dynamics of ‘branding’ in conventional terms and opportunities for manifestations of spiritual identity in economic performance, and the danger of abuse. And the forced dumping of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by business without a conscience and military oppressors in ‘virgin areas’ like in Burma that were not touched by modernization until recently.

Many of these questions were formulated in the closing session moderated by Christopher Houghton Budd, historian of economics, as a long list to be dealt with in future gatherings.

In terms of ‘threefolding’ one might conclude that a special mission of Asia could be the revitalization of ‘community spirit’ as a guiding principle for economic activity of the future. Compared to western countries Asia by and large lags behind in maturity of democratic structures and the appropriate regulation of social and environmental responsibility in the business sector. However, the continued relevance of the extended family; the influence of monastic communities (in Buddhist terms the Sangha); persisting traditional indigenous communities though under serious threat, and emerging new ‘intentional’ communities; decision making by consensus; and eagerness towards modern open sourcing (often perceived as illegal in the west) may ultimately result in an opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ societies where industrial revolution originated. This may manifest itself as the spirit of Sangha in its broadest sense ; community spirit in economic life. A creative factor embedded in Buddhist culture is the experiential concept of freedom transcending the divide between the individual and the collective. In the same time an often puzzling contrast between proclaimed self-denial and simultaneous un-restrained ego-centrism raises questions about cultural integrity.

Reflections after the Economics and Threefolding workshop lead to the formulation of a great diversity of research questions and impulses for change. Several more exploratory meetings will be needed for the questions to further crystallize.

Anthroposophy and Buddhism are similarly growing towards universal streams of awareness that can come to fruition in specific cultural or professional situations.

A small-scale Community Supported Agriculture initiative in Bangkok may be too small to be a significant factor of change. By initiating and nurturing networks that inter-connect economic transformative activity – be it within the mainstream and gradually replacing it, by converting the mainstream, or by realizing alternatives – the spiritual strength of wholeness can manifest itself.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.