Book Review: A New Economics of Cultural Cross-Fertilization

March 2012 / Book Reviews

A Review Essay on Ronnie Lessem’s and Alexander Schieffer’s Integral Economics (Gower, 2010)

Christian Arnsperger

Christian Arnsperger

The discipline of economics has fallen into a deep crisis, just as humanity is scrambling for a new – and, for the first time perhaps, completely global – worldview that will allow it to address the immense challenges of economic poverty, ecological and human sustainability, and geopolitical peace that the 21st century is sending its way. A crisis of economics at a moment of economic chaallenge may not sound like good timing. However, since crises are also opportunities, this may in fact be an auspicious moment. At a time when global issues such as poverty and trade, climate change and industry, or religious-spiritual diversity and planet-wide economic integration are forcing the world’s citizens and decision makers to broaden their outlook and to search for new resources for thought and action, a new brand of “world economics” is what we need.

In this context, Ronnie Lessem’s and Alexander Schieffer’s Integral Economics: Releasing the Economic Genius of Your Society is a truly fascinating piece of work. It would have greatly benefited from more careful copy-editing as well as grammatical and stylistic upgrading. Alas, the writing – apparently in part due to passages having been translated too literally from the German – more than occasionally gets in the way of the reader’s enjoyment. There is also, by and large, a tendency towards terminological overkill. I am not convinced the many acronyms and categorizations introduced by the authors are all absolutely necessary. But let’s not dwell on this. As a whole, this book is an extraordinary achievement offering what I would call an integral model of cross-cultural economic fertilization.


Be forewarned, however, that Lessem’s and Schieffer’s use of the term “integral” has nothing immediately in common with Ken Wilber’s AQAL model. There are four main economic “paths” investigated in this book, but this largely formal analogy with Wilber’s four “quadrants” should not mislead us. While the AQAL map analytically decomposes reality into the exterior and interior dimensions of the individual and the collective, Lessem’s and Schieffer’s “four worlds” map operates with a geographical-and-cultural matrix: they analytically distinguish between the Northern path of rationalism, the Western path of pragmatism, the Eastern path of holism, and the Southern path of humanism.

I suppose one could find commonalities between this and Wilber’s method. For one, both approaches share a basic presumption, which motivates the use of the word “integral.” Today, in an era where the contents of all cultural, philosophical, and spiritual traditions can and do circulate worldwide, each formerly separate tradition can only ever occupy the world stage as one ideal type among others – equally valid, but equally partial. As Ken Wilber is fond of saying, no one can be 100 percent wrong, which obviously entails that no one can be 100 percent right until they have deeply investigated what is right in all traditions. This is the grounding axiom of any integral approach. Lessem and Schieffer honor it by spreading out before the reader an impressive landscape of economic wisdom traditions from East and West, past and present, destined to gradually evolve into a new discipline of “world economics,” just like the 1980s saw the advent of “world music” out of a creative fusion of colorfully diverse musical traditions previously scattered all over the planet.

The authors’ basic presumption is, indeed, that once the barriers of mutual ignorance have been brought down between traditions, an irrepressible process is unleashed whereby – notwithstanding the development of pathologies along the way – they are called forth to fertilize each other in unforeseen ways. Is this process developmental? Is it evolutionary? I would prefer to call it a process of synergistic emergence: the traditions don’t simply merge, they come into contact and, each from its own specific core, start contributing to something new that can’t be reduced to, or deduced from, any of those traditions. This something new is what the authors call the “integral economy.” The key feature of this new economy is that it will “give each of the different worlds a distinctive voice of their [sic] own” (p. 11).

The four worlds or paths that make up the landscape of economic wisdom, according to Lessem and Schieffer, are: (1) the pragmatic Western path of realization and “doing,” which emphasizes finance, management, and enterprise, and potentially opens into a “living economy” centered around the private sector; (2) the rationalistic Northern path of reason and “knowing,” which emphasizes science and technology, and potentially opens into a “social economy” centered around the public sector; (3) the holistic Eastern path of renewal and “becoming,” which emphasizes culture, spirituality, and consciousness, and potentially opens into a “developmental economy” centered around the civic sector; and (4) the humanistic Southern path of relationality and “being,” which emphasizes nature and community, and potentially opens into a self-sufficiency economy centered around the environmental sector.

These are, of course, ideal types, since in many Southern or Eastern areas there has already been an invasion of Western traits, while in all Northern and Western regions there are, even today, remnants and revivals of Southern and Eastern characteristics. Ideal types, or what Wilber calls guiding generalizations, are notoriously unpopular among self-proclaimed realists and empiricists, who always want to go immediately into the infinite details of each situation. I believe in the usefulness of broad pictures and I want to commend Lessem and Schieffer for having attempted to hold together so many elements of reality without getting lost in the fine grain. No map can claim to be a perfect replication of the territory, but what the authors have offered here is very useful.


What is eminently integral about their method is that they careful stay away from ideological stalemates. None of these four paths or worlds is taken to be in any way superior, in all dimensions, to any of the others. What is problematic is that one of the paths – namely, the Western path of private enterprise and finance – has effectively silenced the others and deprived them of a distinctive voice on the global scene. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of official and academic discourse is skewed towards a small subset of the Western tradition of economic thought that, very interestingly, the authors show to be itself much richer and more varied than what orthodox economists are teaching today. The widespread claim that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) to private-capital driven trade and finance globalization, infamously put forward by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, is based on a stark form of cultural and spiritual reductionism. Viewed from Lessem’s and Schieffer’s integral perspectives, this becomes simply laughable – and extremely preoccupying. In Wilber’s AQAL model, none of the four quadrants can be legitimately used to reduce or silence any of the others. If this is done, our perception of ongoing reality is simply mutilated, since in actual fact all four quadrants are by definition active all the time, whether we “like” it or not. In exactly the same way, in Lessem’s and Schieffer’s integral economic model, none of the four paths of economic wisdom can be legitimately used to reduce any of the others.

What the authors are calling for is a plurality of cultures of economic wisdom, leading to an integrated plurality of “economic worlds” instead of a one-size-fits-all set of economic institutions and behaviors being imposed intellectually and politically on all populations. This is an incredibly important question, since it also leads us to inquire about the lack of variety and plurality within our own, North-Western “developed” economies. Why are we, both in our teaching of economics and in our day-to-day practices (hence also in our legal frameworks), marginalizing or even diabolizing non-capitalist, non-patriarchal, commons-oriented ways of working, producing, consuming, and investing? Why are we relinquishing the wisdom inherent in Southern and Eastern cultures and severing the link between money and femininity, between consumption and serenity, between property and solidarity, between economic growth and spiritual depth? All such questions have been rendered nonsensical by two or three centuries of both intellectual and geopolitical imperialism. What is wrong with the Western culture of material progress and quantitative expansion is not its rationality or its materialism – these are perfectly legitimate components of an integral economic worldview, and they are badly needed in many regions of the planet where poverty and destitution destroy lives and make spirituality into a mockery. What is wrong is the focus on economic growth and efficiency as the sole and exclusive components of economic wisdom.

Lessem and Schieffer very interestingly trace this imperialistic worldview to a powerful process of intellectual and spiritual repression within Euro-American economic thought itself. The seeds of a more “Southern” self-sufficiency economy were present in ancient traditions (for instance, ancient Greek or medieval) whose remnants still linger on but have ceased to be used as living resources. Significant traces of a more “Eastern” developmental economy exist in medieval and Renaissance sources as well as in the German historicist school of economics; none of these resources are taught in mainstream economics departments. There are “inhibited and diverted forms” (p. 40) of a more “Northern” social economy to be found in the routinely overlooked corners of the work of such powerhouses as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, or David Ricardo, as well as in the neglected and rejected teachings of Karl Marx or Thorstein Veblen. And – perhaps most regrettably – even the “Western” living economy itself, characterized by organic dynamism and the flourishing of personal initiative, has been distorted beyond recognition by mainstream economics’ focus on a very narrow set of assumptions (isolated agents, instrumental rationality, static equilibrium, etc.), agency principles (cognitive minimalism, insatiable wants, inability of agents to criticize the economy they live in, no existential or spiritual self-perception, etc.), and institutional settings (capitalist markets, statist “top down” public sector, a single all-purpose currency, etc.). So when a Western economist looks at her own intellectual tradition and realizes its impoverishment, she shouldn’t be to surprised by the fact that, having been spread over most of the planet in the form of policies and regulations, this impoverished tradition also causes poverty and inequality worldwide due to capitalism’s inability to distribute incomes well and to the market’s incapacity at taking everyone’s interests into account. To offer us a perspective from which to come to this realization is a very important contribution of this book.

No doubt, Lessem and Schieffer would concur that the same is true for any of the ideal types. That is, if out of revolt at the Western traditions having been spread by the point of the sword over the past centuries, we were to hope for the “alternative” spread of a Southern or Eastern or Northern economic worldview, corresponding processes of impoverishment would ensue: too much self-sufficiency and too little trade would lead to localist isolation; too much developmental holism and too little material efficiency would lead to resigned poverty within an inefficient economy; and too much socialization along with too little private initiative would lead to a sclerosis of economic exchanges and a lack of collective creativity in solving crucial social and environmental problems. We know of examples from the former Soviet block, as well as from contemporary South America, Africa, and Asia, where such pathologies of Northern, Southern, or Eastern reductionism are manifest. Any tradition implemented outside of the dynamics of integral cross-fertilization will tend to develop an impoverished and impoverishing orthodoxy. An integral economy would be one in which the “genius” of each path of economic wisdom is equally honored – not in the sense that they all get fused within one single, indistinct whole, but in the sense that each of the four centers of gravity is opened up to be jarred loose and shaken back and forth by the three other centers it is, itself, contributing to jar loose and shake back and forth…


As the whole book evidences, the four paths or worlds of economic thought and practice are not going to become a unified six-lane highway anytime soon. Each tradition has its specificities, and in each case they need to be purified from repressed denials, deeply understood, and integrated into a full-blown path of economic wisdom: a Southern path, a Western one, an Eastern and a Northern one. Only then – once we have built a “maximal-potential” archetype for each of the different paths – can we envisage their integration and their mutual cross-fertilization. We will never have one single world economy, but rather separate economic worlds connected with each other through a synergistic process:

each society has to draw on the world as a whole, to become economically integral, albeit that it will give special emphasis to its own world. To that extent, each society has its center, as well as its South, East, North and West, albeit that, for example in Africa, the “South” and “grounding” will be pre-eminent. (p. 15)

So it is hardly surprising that Lessem and Schieffer spend the largest portion of the volume’s 380 pages submitting the somewhat dizzy reader to a festive, erudite firework of references, names, and ideas coming from all parts of the globe and from various points in history. To understand the structure of the central 16 chapters (numbered 5 to 20) we need to grasp the – somewhat convoluted, perhaps needlessly complicated but certainly stimulating – model the authors offer for the honoring of the “genius” of each path.

Each path or world of economic wisdom, they suggest, possesses its own specific “genius.” Etymologically, this Latin word designates the guardian and guiding deity that watches over a person from birth; by extension, it means that specific internal driving force which inhabits those who are single-mindedly driven towards a goal to which they seem predisposed.  In a play on words and letters that I personally find somewhat contrived and artificial, but with which I’m prepared to go along since it appears to be rooted in their earlier work on innovation, transformation, and change,[1] Lessem and Schieffer propose the acronym GENE-IUS. Each of the letters has its meaning. Here is how they formulate it:

All worlds are needed for a full cycle of transformation to occur. The GENE is a fourfold cyclical process starting from grounding (G), to emerging (E), onto navigation (N) and finally effecting (E). As the GENE implies, different worlds co-creatively engage with each other. Transformation, for us moreover, also—and paradoxically—links the inner ‘I’ (moral Inspiration) and the outer ‘U’ (Universal truth), through a Synergetic process (S), hence GENE-IUS. The ultimate outcome would be a transformed economic approach in action:

a)     by drawing inspiration (I) from your moral core;

b)     by aligning this core with your own individual and collective grounding, emergence, navigation, effecting (GENE); and

c)     by releasing your full GENE-IUS by synergizing (S) the moral inspiration (I) with a universal (U) truth. (pp. 14-15)

Got it? No? I’m relieved, because at first I didn’t either. This goes to show that one should probably never let a German build a systematic account of anything. Alexander Schieffer is German. Ken Wilber thinks the German philosophers Hegel and Habermas are great theorists of everything – and just look where that’s led him. I’m German, too. That should warn you about my own work on Integral Economics…

Seriously now, I believe the authors are on to something important here. Their aim, remember, is emphatically not merely to explain the state of diversity currently prevailing in the world of economic ideas and practices. That diversity is indeed being stifled and their work fulfills an important function in bringing this to our awareness. However, their ultimate goal is to offer us a model of integrally informed economic innovation. In other words, how can I – if I’m a Western economist or, say, Minister of economic affairs – be firmly grounded in my own context (G), gain a deep understanding of what my own Western path throws up in terms of emerging problems to be solved (E), navigate the whole spectrum of the world’s economic paths to create a synthesis among Western knowledge and other traditions of economic wisdom (N), and develop a new way of solving Western economic problems based on this broader synthesis, rather than on a partial and narrow use of merely Western ideas and practices (E)?[2] In a sense, the whole spectrum of planetary cultural resources is (as far as that’s possible) made available such that the path of Western economic wisdom can become more authentically Western. But that also means you can’t innovate in the West without letting the other traditions – South, North, East – develop their own authenticity. If you forcibly Westernize all the paths, effectively reducing them to what you as a Westerner already know (in a still largely inauthentic version of your own path, though), you’re going to lose a huge amount of information resources that would have enabled you to better formulate and solve your own economic problems.

Imperialism impoverishes the imperialist, one could say – and one lesson that is to be drawn from Lessem and Schieffer’s model is that China and India (to take the Eastern archetype) have probably learned much more from the West’s influence than the West has learned from them, and have been able to build models that now threaten the West on its own terrain. Nevertheless, neither China nor India seems to have safeguarded sufficient portions of its own wisdom path in order to offer the West new resources. All America and Europe are doing now is trying to stem the tide of these Asian giants’ Westernized strength as they use our own path in a way that is going to be problematic for us as well as for them, ultimately. Both the Western and the Eastern path have been rendered inauthentic by the deleterious manner in which we, in the West, have imposed our values and narrow self-understanding on the planet through globalized mechanisms and institutions. It would have been better to develop an authentic Eastern path as well as an authentic Western one, each of them contributing to the authenticity of the other.


Ergo, we need to study each archetypal path or world of economic wisdom for itself – study its “Path GENE,” as the authors call it – so that it may be fruitful for us all in authentic cross-fertilization rather than rivalry-motivated imitation. But what initially offers an anchor to judge authenticity? According to Lessem and Schieffer, each path or world of economic wisdom is rooted in what they call a central “moral core”:

It is in this inner core, so our argument goes, where we seek initial inspiration . . . In other words, an economy, in order to flourish over the long term, needs to be aligned with the innermost belief systems of a society or community. . . . Hence, for a society to build its economy into an integral one, it is crucial to reconnect to its inner moral source, or sources, to be found in its center. (p. 47)

The moral economic core of a path is what allows it to be both coherent and rooted (in tradition), and open-ended and forward-looking. There are essential moral roots specific to each path, inherited from a time when the traditions were scattered and separate – Protestantism, including Quakerism and the New Reformation, as a root for Western liberalism and capitalism; indigenous worldviews and spiritualities, as a root for Southern “creation economics;” Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian metaphysics and ethics, as well as Islamic morality, as a root for Eastern cooperative and holistic economics; and Catholicism as well as personalism, as a root for Northern distributivism and social democracy. The subtle and stimulating idea defended by the authors is that, from an integral perspective, each inherited moral core can be “revitalized” through synergy with all the others, without thereby losing its specificity: “The archetypical West, so our argument posits, becomes only truly effective if it builds on the other worlds. In other words, you need to uncover the South, East, North and West, metaphorically, not geographically, of your society, while also, and in the process, drawing from these worlds.”[3] So each “Path GENE” – the proper unfolding of a given path’s authenticity – originates in what Lessem and Schieffer call a “Four World GENE,” which is the ongoing process of uncovering of each path’s authentic moral core. This Four World GENE, as its very name indicates, can only occur as a process of mutual revitalization of all moral cores together.

So actually, none of the four paths or worlds of economic wisdom are ever completely disjointed from each other. They interpenetrate each other both at the root – at the level of their respective moral cores – and at the branch ending – when they become part of an integral “world economics,” yet to be specified (the “IUS” in the authors’ convoluted terminology).

Emerging out their respective revitalized moral cores, the four paths undergo a GENE process that’s different for each one. In that way, each path releases its own specific economic genius, its contribution to an integral landscape of economic wisdom. I can’t possibly recap all of it here, since that discussion occupies all 16 chapters of Part 3, covering about two-thirds of the whole book. Each chapter corresponds to one path (Southern for chapters 5 to 8, Eastern for chapters 9 to 12, Northern for chapters 13 to 16, and Western for chapters 17 to 20) and to one stage (Grounding for chapters 5, 9, 13, and 17; Emergence for chapters 6, 10, 14, and 18; Navigation for chapters 7, 11, 15, and 19; and Effect for chapters 8, 12, 16, and 20).

The journey through this vast landscape is both dizzying and exhilarating. The reader is hit with the realization of how wealthy humanity’s heritage actually is when it comes to resources for economic thought and action. We are initiated into such diverse currents as Mfuniselwa Bhengu’s African economic humanism, Vandana Shiva’s eco-feminist “Earth democracy movement,” Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen’s and Maria Mies’s “subsistence economics,” Muhamad Yunus’s “social business” current, Richard Norgaard’s “co-evolutionary economics” and the whole approach of ecological economics, E. F. Schumacher’s Buddhist economics rooted in the “Small Is Beautiful” principle, the school of associative economics influenced by such diverse minds as Rudolf Steiner and Christopher Houghton Budd, the Japanese Kyosei philosophy of sound business management, Mark Lutz’s and Kenneth Lux’s “humanistic economics,” the newly arising stream of network and complexity economics championed by thinkers such as Manuel Castells and Eric Beinhocker, the “open society” economics inherited from Karl Popper and put forth by Amartya Sen in academia and George Soros in the financial world, the Mondragon philosophy of cooperative economics rooted in Catholic personalism, the “new economics” emerging today from such diverse minds as Hazel Henderson, Manfred Max-Neef, Herman Daly, James Robertson, or Susan George, and which stresses sustainability and stationarity, the economics of new wealth and money developed by Riane Eisler, David Korten and Bernard Lietaer, who stress the importance of Jungian archetypes and also of the Chinese yin-yang process, and the “sustainable enterprise” movement promoted by people such as Ray Anderson and Paul Hawken.

In chapter 21, each of the four paths is shown by the authors to unfold into a series of questions that can be asked to any economist, entrepreneur, decision maker, or citizen who wants to make one of the four paths more “integral.” For instance, if you are a Western economist contemplating how to make capitalist markets and finance less unjust and more sustainable, here are a few questions that the other paths could help you address. The Southern path would, at the IUS level of the moral economic core, ask: “To what extent are you economically driven by a Southern source of moral inspiration (for example, Ubuntu), which is at the same time enriched by a compelling universal truth (for example, Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’)?” (p. 328). The Eastern path would, at the GENE stage of Grounding, ask: “To what extent is your society economically grounded in its particular culture and how do culture and economy co-evolve within your society?” (p. 330). The Northern path would, at the stage of Emerging, ask: “To what extent is your society open for learning, responding to the economic opportunities but also to the social challenges posed by a network society?” (p. 333). Your own Western path, revitalized by its authentic moral resources, would, at the stage of Navigating, ask: “To what extent is your society oriented towards generating and measuring real wealth, and is it institutionally configured, and educationally oriented, accordingly?” (p. 335). And so on.


What is crucial to understand in the authors’ methodology – at least that’s how I’ve understood it – is how contextual, problem-based, and open-ended it is. A person walking an authentically Eastern path of economic wisdom will not answer questions coming from the Western path in the same way a person on the Southern or Northern path would. What matters is not so much that all answers converge – in fact, in a healthy globalized world they shouldn’t – but that all questions are heard and accepted as authentic. In an analogous way to what happens when you start taking Ken Wilber’s four quadrants fully into consideration, Lessem’s and Schieffer’s methodology opens up an unheard-of horizon of plural answers to economic problems.

Not that this horizon is totally eclectic. Let’s suppose you’re on a Western path – say, you want to understand how to balance capitalist, mutualistic and cooperative firms in North America.[4] You can’t naïvely pretend to simply step over and start treading a purely Eastern or Southern path, believing you need “only” transform globalization into self-sufficiency or transform atomized selfishness into communal mutuality. This is what non-integral (in the sense of Lessem and Schieffer) approaches to “alternative” economics tend to do; they often neglect the twin fact that (a) our own Western moral core already contains elements that, if renewed, could ground an ethic of cooperative labor and solidaristic, sustainable production and consumption, but (b) the Western version of Southern and Eastern properties will have to spring from individuals who have been raised in a culture of self-interest, mutual isolation, and competition, but are rediscovering these lost cultural sources inside themselves – rediscovering their “inner South” and their “inner East” as Westerners.[5]

Some similar endogenous assimilation process is required if, say, an Indian economist or an African entrepreneur wants to address poverty and inequality. This may indeed require her to rediscover an “inner West” within her own tradition, such that aspects of efficiency, competition, or financial profitability come into play as she builds an Indian or African path towards poverty reduction. I want to emphasize very strongly that this process of synergistic cross-fertilization suggested by Lessem and Schieffer is completely distinct from the standard, overtly or covertly colonialist way of purporting to solve India’s or Africa’s economic problems by “importing” Western recipes.[6] This book, once digested (and that’s not a small task given its bulk and its sometimes convoluted formulations and concepts), may offer a powerful antidote both against those who favor the so-called Washington consensus and against those who want to criticize it from a purely Western angle. Here it’s worth quoting in full the authors’ rebuttal of Stiglitz’s critique of the Washington consensus (with apologies for the poor style and grammar which mar this book all too much):

In their recent book on The Washington Consensus Reconsidered: Towards a New Global Governance, economists Narcis Serra and Joseph Stiglitz, commented that a successful development strategy will firstly have to involve those in the developing world in an important and meaningful way. Secondly, one-size-fits-all are bound to fail. Thirdly, there are areas where economic science has neither enough evidence nor a strong enough theory—there is no evidence that rapid liberalization, especially in a country with high unemployment, will lead to faster economic growth. Fourthly, successful development requires a balanced role between market and state. Finally, success needs to be measured not only in terms of GNP, but also include environmental and social measures.

That is as far as the conventional wisdom on the limitations of the Washington Consensus goes. While what Nobel Laureate Stiglitz and Serra have to say has merit, and resonates to some degree with our own position, you can see the limits of their reach. Not only do such mainstream critics of the conventional economic wisdom remain committed to “development,” rather the developmental, the social or the self-sufficient, not to mention a moral economic core, but also they have nothing to offer that clearly differentiates them from the classical “Western” economic way. In fact, they don’t even draw on anything near the fullness of that conventional offering (p. 326)

Lessem’s and Schieffer’s interesting idea is that, were we as Western economists to draw on the “fullness” of what our own economic wisdom tradition has to offer, we would almost automatically set off the Four World GENE process for the construction of our own solutions – and this would, in fact, lead us to encourage Southern or Eastern economists to revitalize their own paths and come up with original solutions of their own, combining the Eastern, Western, Southern, and Northern archetypes that are specific to their respective paths.

Sure enough, this book doesn’t offer a reassuring, ready-made recipe for how such a multilateral cross-fertilization process would play itself out. As the authors claim at the end of chapter 20, in a statement that’s sure to disappoint many a staunchly Western reader, “to sustain a fully Integral Economy, all its elements need to be in continuous dynamic interaction, making the entire system an ever-changing, ever-evolving one. Such a process, of course, can only partially be mapped and planned” (p. 341). Actually, however, this open-endedness is part and parcel of the approach. Lessem and Schieffer offer several concrete examples throughout the book of how the Path GENE and the Four World GENE processes, combined with the IUS process, can make organizations more integral. These examples are the Sekem community enterprise in Egypt (chapter 4), the Grameen banking group in Bangladesh (chapter 8), the Canon corporation in Japan (chapter 12), the Mondragon cooperative group in Spain (chapter 16), the U.S. modular carpet manufacturer Interface (chapter 20), and the Sarvodaya grassroots organization in Sri Lanka (epilogue). Each of these cases is, obviously, completely different in the sense that Mondragon remains archetypically Northern despite Western, Eastern, and Southern elements, while Sarvodaya remains archetypically Eastern despite involving Northern, Southern, and Western traits. The originality of each initiative is that it both remains contextually rooted and takes crucial elements from other moral economic cores and other economic wisdom paths. Each is integral in its own specific, culturally rooted, and problem-driven way.

Chapter 22 and the epilogue offer pointers – which also connect, in part, with the subject matter of the other book, Integral Research and Innovation – as to how a given project can be conducted so as to “release its economic GENE-IUS.” The content is rather unwieldy and somewhat hard to integrate because, frankly, by the time the reader gets to page 343 he or she is nearing indigestion in terms of lists, tables, acronyms, concepts, algorithms, graphs, and processes. But going back to the five examples helps very much to gain clarity and to get a sense of the authors’ well-deserved enthusiasm about the broad horizon they have uncovered.


I came to Integral Economics through Ken Wilber’s four-quadrants AQAL model and developed an approach I call “Full-Spectrum Economics.”[7] Compared to Lessem’s and Schieffer’s “Integral” model, mine smacks of Wilberian orthodoxy,[8] since it sticks closely to the arithmetic of quadrants, lines, and levels, embracing the controversial notion of “growth hierarchy” and thinking of economic progress in terms of an upward-moving integral field on which cultural (lower-left), systemic (lower-right), organic-biological (upper-right), and psycho-spiritual (upper-left) factors interact in multifarious ways. At first glance, such an orthodox take on Integral Economics might have led me to disparage Lessem’s and Schieffer’s approach as being exclusively “lower-quadrants,” with a bias towards the lower-left quadrant. I confess that when I received their book a while ago, this was my initial reaction. Now, having read it and come to the end of this long – but, I hope, useful – review essay, I am inclined to think otherwise.

What these two thinkers have done is offer us what may well be a pluralistic, multicultural meta-grounding of Wilber’s post-metaphysical quadrants. (Wow. That sounds pretty cool. Should I make that phrase into a registered trademark, I wonder?) What I mean is this: Perhaps the four AQAL quadrants will have different contents, and will play out their upward-moving dynamic differently, depending on which of the Four Worlds one is in. Lessem and Schieffer haven’t been nearly thorough enough in actually showing us how, along the GENE-IUS process, each of the four archetypal paths or worlds of economic wisdom accommodate AQAL development – i.e., how the quadrants interact horizontally and how that interaction creates a vertical development process. What they have done, however, is to open up the possibility that each integral (in their sense) economic project, whether at the micro- or the macro-economic level, be modeled and understood in its fine grain through Wilber’s AQAL approach.[9]

So while I have no instinctual inclination towards being too ecumenical, I do believe that since, to repeat Wilber’s motto yet again, no one can be 100 percent wrong  – my “Full-Spectrum Economics” and Lessem’s and Schieffer’s “Integral Economics” are deeply complementary. The next stage in developing a truly Integral economic science may well consist in engineering the coupling of our two approaches. Both of them are bound to come out modified in the process, but the prospect is one I find truly exhilarating.


[1] See, in particular, chapters 2 and 3 of their book Integral Research and Innovation: Transforming Enterprise and Society (Farnham: Gower, 2010).

[2] I reconstructed this formulation with the help of Lessem’s and Schieffer’s Integral Research and Innovation, op. cit., pp. 33 and 63.

[3] Integral Research and Innovation, op. cit., p. 64.

[4] As is suggested, for instance, by Joel Magnuson in his book Mindful Economics: How the U.S. Economy Works, Why It Matters, and How It Could Be Different (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008). Lessem and Schieffer quote Magnuson in their first chapter.

[5] For a quite extraordinary piece of work on intercultural economics, which complements Lessem’s and Schieffer’s model and may find its theoretical grounding in their methodology, but alas has not yet been translated into English, see Thierry Verhelst, Des racines pour l’avenir: Cultures et spiritualités dans un monde en feu (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008). Verhelst, a Dutch-speaking Belgian living in the French-speaking part of the country, fluent in English, has worked and lived extensively in Africa and Asia and co-headed an intercultural development NGO called Cultures & Development. He is also a priest in a French-speaking Orthodox Christian church that merges Oriental and Occidental spiritual paths – a genuinely integral personality in the sense of Lessem and Schieffer, to be sure.

[6] The Brussels-based NGO “Echos Communication” specializes in precisely this renewed, non-standard view of development as a process to be built up from local wisdom and knowledge, through cross-fertilization with Western methods (such as entrepreneurship and finance) but without any pretense to replace Asian or African paths by a Western one. In fact, that NGO puts a lot of energy into showing people in the South and East that they need absolutely not seek to simply emulate or imitate Westerners when it comes to conceptions of development, wealth, or well-being. Lessem’s and Schieffer’s model might well offer such an NGO the theoretical grounding it needs for its initiatives.

[7] See Christian Arnsperger, Full-Spectrum Economics: Toward an Inclusive and Emancipatory Social Science (London: Routledge, 2010).

[8] Although, as far as economic paradigms go, it is certainly quite “heterodox.” Just ask most of my mainstream colleagues what they think of my approach. And please don’t tell me what they said, in detail, or what vocabulary they used…

[9] In putting things that way, I draw inspiration from discussions I have had with my good friend Anne Caspari, an Integral coach and consultant currently based in Basel, Switzerland. Anne’s fascinating and highly regarded work with private firms, public administrations, and groups involves, among many other tools, Beck’s and Cowan’s “Spiral Dynamics” approach. She has been adamant in our exchanges that each color in the Spiral – which denotes a level of personal or collective development – takes on a different concrete content depending on whether one works with people in the South, the North, the East, or the West. I hadn’t quite grasped the full extent of her point until now. But I believe she and other Spiral Dynamics consultants (among other practitioners) might find in Lessem and Schieffer’s work quite important sources of conceptual inspiration and grounding.

About the Author

Christian Arnsperger, PhD in economics, is a Senior Research Fellow with the Belgian National Science Foundation (F.R.S.-FNRS) and teaches at the University of Louvain near Brussels. His research work focuses on the economics of post-carbon and post-growth transition, the philosophy of economics, economic epistemology, and Integral economics. He has authored numerous articles in scientific journals, as well as several books among which Critical Political Economy: Rationality, Complexity, and the Logic of Post-Orthodox Pluralism (Routledge, 2008) and Full-Spectrum Economics: Toward an Inclusive and Emancipatory Social Science (Routledge, 2010). He is also the creator of the widely visited “Eco-Transitions” blog, where he explores in detail the avenues for transition to a more sustainable economy ( Email: