Ritam "A Theoretical Basis for an Aurovilian Economy"

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August 2004

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A Theoretical Basis for an Aurovilian Economy

By Jean-Yves

The aim of its economics would not be to create a huge engine of production, whether of the competitive or the co-operative kind, but to give to men – not only to some but to all men each in his highest possible measure – the joy of work according to their own nature and free leisure to grow inwardly, as well as a simply rich and beautiful life for all.
– Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle

Our ideas on the economy of Auroville are quite vague, we do not have the key of an economy other than that which we know, that is, of a commercial exchange. The social project of Auroville cannot be manifested by means of a commercial exchange since it is based on self-giving. Can we, therefore, find an economy through which human activity could be reorganised in a way happier than the present commercial one prevalent today on our planet?

A Criticism of Commercial Exchange

The classical liberal economy is the expression of a philosophical view of human life: in his search for personal satisfaction the individual must make use of his reason to optimize his satisfaction. Such is the individual goal of human life and such is also the source of collective happiness, since individuals, in managing their respective advantages, end up by complementing each other and by creating an optimum balanced use of the available resources. According to this view, it is of general interest that everyone should behave selfishly and the competitive appropriation of rare and desirable resources be the ethics of homo economicus.

This vision, characteristically defines the human being as a being of desire, whose instinct of acquisition is legitimate and whose reason has become nothing more than a calculator of gains and losses. As a result, the goal of an economy’s activity is no longer to free man from material servitude by catering to his material needs, but rather to always produce more desirable objects, in order to keep wants alive from which originates the desire for acquisition. This constant renewing of desire has become the main factor of economic growth and employment, and a greed for profit along with the fear of loss – fuel of financial markets – but, at the same time, the cause of unprecedented wealth for some, at the cost of poverty and economic oppression for others, as well as of great ecological damage. The ancient Upanishadic description of life as food and hunger is given here an unprecedented illustration. Moreover, growth, when based on frustration, desire (kama) and competition, cannot but destroy all ethical norms (dharma) which are based on self-control and lordship over the possession of things, because such values limit its development. For, if desire is to find its place at all in human life, it has to be uplifted by ethical and aesthetic ideals. Otherwise, it tends to fall back on its more instinctive and socially destructive forms of selfish acquisition, thus going against social cohesion, against any possible humanness. The long-term viability of such a model, at the level of ecological costs as well as at the level of basic values embedded in any civilisation, is no longer a matter of doubt. What can be a matter of doubt is whether an alternative may exist. Then, what would an economy based on giving look like and what would be its relationship to money?

Money and the desire for acquisition

The instinct of acquisition evolves a strategy of value-increase by holding back: only what is desired by one and held back by another becomes a measurable and negotiable value. In other words, the value of an object, its price, is not its production cost, but its desirability. The more I keep a desired object, the more its value increases. Therefore, whatever is rare becomes valuable since a publicised scarcity will activate the desire to possess it. Something that cannot be possessed has no commercial value. Money comes in as a means to measure the value of desirable things and price is the adjustment between the power not to give (scarcity of the offer) and the intensity of desire (demand). To an economy producing desirable utilities, money is indispensable to gauge whatever is desirable and to compare desirable values. This system goes along with a call to hedonistic freedom, to decide between several objects of desire. Such a reduced idea of happiness to a free enjoyment of multiple objects is the price paid to this freedom and the race for money its inevitable outcome. As a result, the function of labour becomes geared to the acquisition of an indispensable instrument of freedom to consume: the salary. Thus, by the very fact that the owners can refuse to circulate the money they own, money itself becomes in turn an object of greed and scarcity. As a justification of this power of withholding, Capital is said to be a factor of production, just as Labour is, and therefore it has to be remunerated. What is misconstrued is that it is not the Capital per se which is remunerated, but rather its owners, their right to withhold their money instead of circulating it, and this is not a factor of production. The refusal to give is here remunerated by interest and dividend; it is a tax levied by egoism for everyone’s right to pursue selfish aims for the “so-called” greatest happiness of all. Thus, there is a strong interaction between the desire for acquisition, paid labour and money, by which commercial exchange is defined. An economy based on giving would make the total difference.

Demonetisation and giving

An economy of giving exists in all societies, but it is not accounted for: domestic and volunteer work is a far more important factor of social cohesion than commercial economy and public services. But because it is based on giving, it is never expressed in terms of money. Yet this work is a fundamental part of the social, and it allows the private and public sectors to develop. But, because it is invisible, its contribution to the total created value of production remains unknown.

In an Aurovilian economy, we would observe a similar phenomenon: the added value produced by work, given but not billed, would not appear in the accounts. What would appear would be only the cost of purchased goods and labour; the given labour would remain unassessed. The economy of giving tends to be invisible because it demonetises economy itself. This implies that any link between produced value and monetary remuneration would disappear, and this would become possible only if work would acquire a new function. It would no longer be a servitude, aiming at getting money needed for the acquisition of desirable things, but rather the place of progress and self-becoming. Only a change of consciousness and of vision would make such a qualitative leap possible, and Auroville was created precisely for this attempt. But is replacing bargaining by mutual giving enough for an alternative model to emerge? When one studies the act of giving as a social link, it does not appear so simple.

A Criticism of an Economy of Mutual Giving

Any act of giving creates de facto an obligation, a debt. The payment with money is a way of cancelling the debt and of freeing oneself from the obligation. Suppressing this freedom could send us back to a patronising type of society: some who could give more than others would be in a position of creating a “clientele” of people put under obligation. They would gain in influence and power what they would lose in wealth. Giving is not so simple; there is always a more or less conscious expectation of being given something in return, even if it is only as recognition. This is what may be called the alienating aspect of the giving, to a person or to a group: the more I give the more I am entitled to demand, the more I receive the more I am put in obligation. But this is a denial of the sovereignty of the soul. Evidently, this cannot be a model for Auroville’s economy. If giving there is, it must be impersonal, so that it does not create an obligation. Here comes in the need of a transcendence that no group or individual can make his/her own. Ultimately, to what do we owe ourselves? From what do we receive and to what goes our debt of existence? Is not the Transcendent the only guarantor of our freedom and possibilities of becoming? These philosophical questions assume an economic dimension as soon as one wants to manifest them in the material organisation of life. Is it possible to give one’s work to That which transcends all mutual obligation between individuals, or between individuals and groups, as an offering to our common transcendence? Is it possible to receive goods and services needed to our development without feeling that we owe them to any human authority? And how shall we define everyone’s needs as well as the rules of resources allocation? The answer to these questions requires the examination of the notion of value production and to redefine the function of work in an economy of giving.

The Origin of Produced Value

Any economic unit produces added value (added to a purchase) with labour and tools. Profit can be defined as the part of the added value which remains once the said labour has been remunerated. The more work is organized, the less it is needed for an equal production. Then, there is an increase of value with equal labour. This is what is called productivity. The tendency to replace human beings by machines is an expression of an increased power in organising matter, under the form of automatisms which multiply human labour’s productivity. Thus, productivity can be defined as an increased input of information or of consciousness in material manifestation.

The value thus added has to be acknowledged by market forces. This requires a work of imagination, a creative act of consciousness to design new products. Moreover, there are several dimensions to a product that make up its final value in the user’s eye. There is, of course, its practical side but, more and more, this side is complemented by vital and mental values which bring it into the realm of the desirable, even of the ideal: products become more and more the support of images, dreams, identifications, immaterial components increasing their commercial value and becoming almost their constituents. The production and distribution of objects and services are now inseparable from a lifestyle, from a social self-image. Ultimately, what is really exchanged, by means of objects, is a way of life, of being, of which material goods are only occasional supports. In an economy, there is an input of information, of meaning, of consciousness. This cumulative input of immaterial values in material ones increases the added value.

Thus, we find, as the source of the added value surplus, productivity and creativity, both being two activities of consciousness. What is remarkable about it is that it is a resource which is multiplied by its use. It is the result of a cumulative investment in education, not a limited resource consumed in the course of the productive process. Its moneterisation, in the form of a salary, is due to the fact that labour has taken up the function of earning income. Competence has thus become an object of desire, of acquisition and consequently of monetarised evaluation, but there is not necessarily a link between work and money. In fact, the reduction of knowledge to a technological competence is an impoverishment of man’s creative possibilities. The giving up of one’s self-determination and free invention of the world is often the price paid for an economic integration in our commercial society. In a society based on giving, the ultimate purpose of work is different, it does not demand self-abdication.

A Redefinition of Work

In a learning or aspiring society, work is first and foremost a field of progress: to stop meeting others and the world is to stop becoming. If work is to find its true function, it has to be completely dissociated from a salary, freed from its enslavement to the production of desirable utilities. It must be linked to self-education, through which it increases its capacity of manifesting consciousness which, as we have seen, is the origin of the created value surplus.

If we go back to the Vedic conception of work, we find that sacrifice (yajna) is considered a process of self-becoming. Any energy of my nature offered to That which is greater than myself makes me grow in knowledge, power and joy. In ancient Indian psychology, this was identified with a descent of the gods in response to the sacrifice and the ascent of man into the realms of the gods. This being an endless growth, the human being was considered a place of constant becoming rather than of a fixed nature, ascending towards an ever-transcendent status. That is why the sacrifice of works must be offered to a transcendence and not to the collectivity; so that it will not be self-immolation but self-accomplishment. Redefined in such terms, an economy of self-giving opens onto a becoming and an endless self-education. There is a necessary link between self-giving, demoneterisation and self-education.

A society whose aim is “a constant progress, an endless education and a youth that never ages”, would discover anew this principle and would view work in terms of education and progress, for that would be the shortest way to increase in a cumulative way its possibilities of endogen development. In such a context, any rating of work in terms of productivity only would be counterproductive, for learning implies experimenting, discovering, inventing. This would imply getting rid of all our mechanisms of sanction, judgment, exclusion. From this point of view, this is an anti-idealism: its method is essentially pragmatic and experimental. To remain always in a state of constant progress is the only question we are required to answer. The enslaving link between work and the production of desirable utilities would then be broken; what would be freed is a process of constant progress, a true process of true development.

Such a possibility to progress endlessly, to increase one’s capacity of self-discovery and of self-mastery, is the main remuneration and reward of work, its natural outcome, and this is priceless. The freedom to embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-perfection is a luxury money cannot buy and the main wealth of Auroville. For many in the outside world it is an inaccessible dream. Although desirable greed cannot possess it, for this dream requires giving up the utilitarian freedom to buy everything in order to enjoy everything at a minimal cost. That is why this ideal cannot be imposed, it finds its true value only when freely chosen. What must be “sacrificed” is the attachment to a “freedom” which enslaves us to the objects of desire and their possession by means of money, so that we may be born to a greater freedom.

The fact that this economy can only be manifested when it is freely chosen implies a coexistence with the commercial one. Then would there be a possibility to compare the output of each model in terms of development and costs. Our bet is that such a society based on the search for constant progress, in which labour costs are disconnected from increasing productivity is, in the long run, a winner – whatever its humble beginnings. It would probably be the forerunner of the only viable model that can really be extended to all human beings on the planet.

See also