Free Market Philosophy is Not Integral

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Integral thinker Jeff Salzman, posted a link the other day on his Facebook page with the tagline, Integral consciousness emerges: A British Lefty argues for free market capitalism.

The article Salzman linked to is this one by Tom Doran. Salzman didn't expound any further on what he meant by saying this view was integral. But I have to say if this piece by Doran exhibits integral consciousness then integral consciousness isn't probably very helpful or important--at least when it comes to economic and political policy. And worse, it may not be all that bright. 

I want to focus in particular on this passage where Doran criticizes the current view of the Labour party in the UK concerning itself (and its recent past in particular).

Doran writes:

"That problem is not, as it was in the 1980s and '90s, a sentimental attachment to socialist dogma. The trauma of four successive election defeats finally empowered the modernising forces within Labour, under Tony Blair, and made the party embrace capitalism. So far, so good. But the embrace was reluctant. The left accepted New Labour's newfound market socialism (best expressed by Peter Mandelson famously being "intensely relaxed" about the accumulation of wealth), but only as a last resort, a tacit admission that nothing else had worked. This ambivalence betrays itself in the widespread attitude towards Blair himself. Where Conservatives continue to lionise their last leader to win three elections - sometimes to a self-parodic degree - many, perhaps most, Labourites regard their most successful leader ever with an air of sheepishness ('ah yes, that time when we were in power for over a decade. A grisly business') or worse."

Um, couple of points here. One, I would imagine Labourites in the UK are uncomfortable with Tony Blair in no small part because of his leading role in the debacle of the Iraq War.

For example, consider this one?

"Mr Blair admitted that he deliberately avoided apologising when questioned about his role in the conflict at the Chilcot Inquiry earlier this year because he could not face the prospect of seeing the headline: 'Blair apologises for war' the following day."

As a parallel, US Democrats love Lyndon Johnson for passing the Civil Rights & Voting Rights Acts, as well as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other elements of the Great Society program. And yet Democrats are also uncomfortable (rightly in my opinion) with Johnson's overall legacy for his massive escalation of US involvement in Vietnam.

Two I could imagine some Labourites are concerned about New Labour's policies of deregulating industries, particularly the financial services industry, which played such a central role in the recent worldwide economic collapse.

Doran then goes on to criticize current Labour Leader Ed Miliband. Doran helpfully links to (and even quotes, if in a somewhat snarky mode) this interview of Miliband in that raging leftwing publication, The Telegraph.

Here are some of the crazy radical things Milliband says:

'Tony [Blair] and Gordon [Brown] were products of their historical circumstances.' They had to break with the past, but in the process, New Labour became too credulous about business: 'The consensus around regulation ['light touch'] turned out to be really problematic.' The project became 'too easy and accepting' about globalisation: 'It's just not true that all the top CEOs will leave the country unless we pay them whatever they demand'.


"I believe capitalism is the least worst system we've got...It is ironic, says Mr Miliband, that Mrs Thatcher's reforms, which attacked many vested interests, created new ones: they need to be taken on. There are too few banks, and six companies control 99 per cent of energy supply: 'This is about the free market working properly'. It just isn't enough to deregulate the private sector. Wealth is created by 'the private sector working with government. We shouldn't be ashamed of wanting an industrial policy.' There are 'different capitalisms' – Scandinavian as well as American."

On the other hand there's Doran:

A straightforward, Blairesque embrace of free enterprise is out of the question; it has to be couched in righteous equivocations to meet the approval of the party faithful.

great depression in color

We're only a few years out from the most devastating global economic collapse since the Great Depression. Hell we're still in it. And Great Britain very much so. The current Tory government has implemented an austerity budget which has left the UK in continued recession (or near recession). Which is by the way exactly what the US Republicans were proposing in the latest election cycle. The US Democrats, under Obama, pursued a Keynesian stimulus package, which while imperfect, has seen the US, without a doubt, be in a stronger position than the UK.

So the problem then is somehow Ed Miliband saying fairly run of the mill left-center social democratic things like he wants capitalism to be more responsible? He thinks monopolies are problematic because they can (surprise!) overly concentrate power in the hands of few which can then lead to systemic failure when those few become dominated by groupthink--when they appear to be unaccountable and can force governments to bail them out if they fail, encouraging risky betting? Doesn't Miliband at least sound not completely crazy given what's happened these last few years?

I guess not. Clearly what we need is integral consciousness that is totally pro-free market? WTF? Being even more free market is what integral must be all about--we surely don't want any left-wing thinking infecting our brains. 

Problem is even Doran doesn't really believe this simplistic one-sided view. Here's how he ends his piece:

This essential truth does not oblige those of us on the left to become uncritical free market fundamentalists. On the contrary: for all its genius, capitalism will continue by its very nature to have victims and losers, and they aren't going to get any sympathy from the right (as the current government makes abundantly clear). Labour can and should be proud of the welfare state it did so much to bring into being. But we are obliged to recognise the facts. Namely that, for most voters, especially Labour's core vote, the market is not a cold tyrant or a cruel exploiter. It is a liberator, perhaps the greatest in history.

Zooming back out from the Doran piece, I want to return to why this view would in any way, shape, or form herald the emergence of integral consciousness. My only guess is that we are yet again seeing yet another simplistic frame around integral that goes something like this:

Modernism promoted free-market capitalism. But then postmodernism went overboard, in a dialectical fashion, by negating capitalism. Therefore post-postmodernism (or integral) will re-value capitalism. A left-winger who likes free markets? That must be integral.

There's no rejection of capitalism in Miliband. In that Telegraph interview Miliband continually points out that he thinks quite differently than his father (who was a famous, full on Marxist). The argument is about how best to deal with the reality of global capitalism. Miliband is taking a slightly more left of center position than New Labour of the 90s/00s. He's not returning to the much more full throated socialism of 70s and 80s Labour. Doran doesn't agree with that position--he seems to prefer Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's approach--that's fine. Members of the Labour party can have their intra-party fight. But what exactly is integral about Doran is saying?

free market problemsFor all loose talk among certain integral thinkers of there being some great rejection of capitalism among postmodernists, where exactly is that rejection? Global capitalism is running amok everywhere. Some stereotypical post-structuralist Boomer hippes in university philosophy departments aren't stopping it. So why is integral now supposed to be about re-entrenching free market neoliberalism?

If Jeff Salzman (or whoever) would like to make an argument for free market capitalism they are of course free to do so. It's not clear what free markets ever really mean in practice given the enormous amount of taxation, social subsidies, and legal advantages that exist for certain business interests. Not to mention that places like the US and UK where free market philosophy is strongest didn't actually practice free market economics when they rose to power. Nevertheless, folks can make the free market argument on its own terms. But this blithe equation of such an economic view with integral is really weak and unsubstantiated.

So I'm not saying Ed Miliband is now the integral thinker. I don't think having debates about which one economic or political view is the integral one and which others aren't is a particularly useful exercise. Miliband, Doran, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron all clearly fit within already existing labels of political and economic theory. Labels, by the way, that actually clarify what views those individuals do and do not hold. Something saying they are integral (or not integral) does not. And there are all arguing within the overall framework of neoliberalism. There are differences in their views but there is also a huge amount of overall agreement. 

In other words, the views of those individuals (and the groups they represent) are quite easy to figure out. There's no need for outside systems like integral to explain them. I don't think a model drawn from psychological developmental systems is particularly helpful when it comes to labeling and understanding political-economic perspectives. At least when used in this simplistic spiralling kind of way. Regardless I just don't see how a pro-market Labourite Tony Blair/Gordon Brown-esque perspective is integral. 


Update I: There is good work that's been done applying integral theory to economics. I recommend this piece by Daniel O'Connor as well this one by Christian Arnsperger. These are very nuanced arguments and neither is a simple pro-free market fundamentalist stance. 

Update II: I guess I have to say this least I get blasted in response. I'm not anti-markets. I do think markets should be highly restricted in terms of their scope. I think we've allowed a major influx of market-based values into political and social arenas where they do not (I think) belong and therefore have corroded our discourse and value systems. This is by the way a view held by Adam Smith, who like all the original economists correctly understood that economics should be a sub-branch of moral philosophy rather than mimicking physics. 

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  • Comment Link David Marshall Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:47 posted by David Marshall

    Interesting blog, Chris. I agree that a simple embrace of free-market capitalism as it is these days is not such a great idea and couldn't be considered post-postmodern or particularly evolved. There needs to be a way of reforming private-sector culture, for one thing, from within and without as necessary. What is your vision of the post-postmodern economic system?

    Also, where does Smith say that "economics should be a sub-branch of moral philosophy rather than mimicking physics"? I agree that that would be consistent with his thinking, or at least that free-market philosophy doesn't itself qualify as moral philosophy, as many on the right would have it. But I'm just wondering if he ever wrote about how the two go together explicitly because I haven't come across it yet.

    I'm a little skeptical about the idea that integral was a "model drawn from psychological systems" and is therefore not applicable to economic issues, however. Probably most of the attention in integral circles so far has gone to psychological/spiritual issues, but it's my understanding that the quadrant model was devised as a way of integrating all of human knowledge, including systems, culture, biology, etc. (recall the story of all the different maps spread out on Wilber's floor) rather than being drawn simply from psychological models. Some of the rest comes from philosophies outside of the psychological systems as well, though the emphasis probably has been on the UL.

    It seems to me that a quadrant model would help Doran as well. When he writes that, "The market is not a cold tyrant or a cruel exploiter. It is a liberator, perhaps the greatest in history," he is missing how interior factors (UL/LL greed/benevolence) affect how the market operates and that it worked better when corporatists were more restrained, between the 40s and 70s, basically (not that there was ever a heyday, all things considered). He has a point that the free market has helped us come a long way, but the free market could hardly be called a "liberator" with the kind of attitude so many executives have today.

    A lot of people seem to miss how much has changed in capitalism over the past 30 or 40 years. Because of a change in culture(s) and some differences in the individuals that emerge from that culture(s) and various environmental pressures, capitalism has changed quite a bit and not usually for the better.

  • Comment Link Hokyo Joshua Routhier Wednesday, 14 November 2012 01:28 posted by Hokyo Joshua Routhier

    Bam!!! Someone said it besides me.

    Free Market capitalism assumes the same fallacy that Authoritarian communism does. That being that the people are all at the same stage and will behave appropriately. An integral view cannot support that notion at we know that everyone moves through every structure. Thus systems like FMC are still likely to breed bouts of unhealthiness within them.

    My take is that a hybrid socialistic/capitalistic systems is a start especially one that takes food, shelter, water, education, and health care out of the market.

    A truly integral perspective would set up systems that allow people to get out of survival mode. FMC simply can't do that.

  • Comment Link Lincoln Merchant Wednesday, 14 November 2012 01:35 posted by Lincoln Merchant

    Ken Wilber says that Clinton/Blair Third Way politics is integral. Thus it is so.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 14 November 2012 01:59 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Adam Smith's first book was of course Theory of Moral Sentiments. Economics hadn't at that point moved to ape physics but I think the basic thrust of his argument is that economics is a question of justice and morality. I don't totally agree with him on all points but he at least understood that one clearly.

    I do at the end link to some other pieces that are reflective of helpful ways to drawn integral thinking into the realm of economics. I probably wasn't totally clear but the reason (I believe) that we see this simple equation of free market and integrals is, as I said, unilinear scaling system. That's where I think a parallel of a psychological model to economic thinking is problematic.

    Thanks for asking what my vision of a more just, integrated economic order is. I'll have to think some more on that one (it's a biggie and a goodie!).


  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 14 November 2012 02:03 posted by Chris Dierkes


    heh. pretty much. I think there's been a kind of fetishizing of individual politicians. I would prefer to talk about movements, perspectives, political/economic philosophies. The Third Way at least named itself correctly it was a third way between right wing free market fundamentalism and more (I guess the word is statist) 70s/80s leftwing social democratic political economy. But I don't think splitting differences and centrism is integral. I know people try to say it was transcend and include or whatever but I don't think it included nearly enough of the protections the left sought to maintain. And as a result we've seen the rise of the market-state over the nation-state.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 14 November 2012 02:08 posted by Chris Dierkes


    thanks dude. bam it is.

    Even within the mainstream of economics, behavioral economics came along and said uh not everyone is a rational maximizing agent. This was seen as pretty radical (wow, really, no s#@! guys!). But whatever they have to have their quantifiable numbers to accept the assertion and at least behavioral econ did that. It just opened the door however slightly ajar.

    Christian Arnsperger's work (I link to an article of his in the update section) talks about how economics does not take into account human interiors. I think his point about economic philosophies (whether Marxist, Keynesian, Hayekian, whatever) is they simply try to fit people into various slots. Also they can't do things like make distinctions on general wellness as opposed to general economic output (regardless of moral, health, ecological, social, spiritual, or political impact). That's a serious problem.

    If we are thinking about what would be more just, a good place to begin would be asking what would help humans flourish?

  • Comment Link Lincoln Merchant Wednesday, 14 November 2012 02:56 posted by Lincoln Merchant

    Centrism is just going to have a hell of a time getting anywhere in a two-party system governing a continent of over 300 million people. Local interests and idiosyncrasies,nationalized moneyed and/or movement based special interest groups, and personal ambition all work against the centrist technocratic ideal in a winner-take-all, tribally partisan "democratic" system that's hobbled by arcane and anachronistic institutions like the electoral college and the Senate.

    "No Labels" and "Americans Elect" were both interesting Centrist efforts this past year, but they both fell flat. Being able to see both sides of the argument is a good thing, but you can't govern that way in our system. But you can in one-party China which guys like Thomas Friedman are always eager to point out.

  • Comment Link David Marshall Wednesday, 14 November 2012 04:47 posted by David Marshall

    Thanks, Chris, and thanks for reminding me about those links at the end. I will look into those.

    Yes, I think Smith justifies a free-market system on moral, collectivist grounds, unlike the Randians. By "mimicking physics," do you mean looking at economics in terms of "its"?

    Also, where do you disagree with Smith?

    I look forward to your vision of a more integrated economic order!

  • Comment Link theurj Friday, 16 November 2012 00:32 posted by theurj

    Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution anyone?

  • Comment Link theurj Friday, 16 November 2012 00:55 posted by theurj

    Btw, Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum has threads on both Arnsperger* and Rifkin,** if anyone is interested.



  • Comment Link theurj Saturday, 01 December 2012 13:59 posted by theurj

    Some more ruminations on fitting consciousness to socio-economics can be found in this recent post.

  • Comment Link Edward Berge Saturday, 15 December 2012 16:50 posted by Edward Berge

    How about The Simpler Way?

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