New Dawn for Humanistic Economics – Our Commons Future

What is economics?

Daniel Schmachtenberger puts it as follows: economics is our value system codified as value equations that incentivizes behaviors. Consider this: if the live whale is perceived to worth nothing in the ocean but dead one is valued millions of dollars on a fishing boat, there will be continuous illegal whaling. Economics is powerful. It influences media to influence people’s sensemaking (incl. purchase behaviors and life’s choices); it influences education to prepare them for the workforce; it influences governance to coordinate human activities. The systemic reinforcer of the bad status quo - zero sum game and top down organization- creates multipolar traps where good is outcompeted by the more selfish counterpart leading to race to the bottom. Essential to understanding economics is having power literacy.

One good source to develop power literacy may be a six-hour documentary – Can’t Get You Out of My Head – produced by filmmaker Adam (funded by BBC), which was released early 2021. It examines power dynamics, how it shifts, hides and shapes the world we live in. There is some criticism on its exaggeration and misrepresentation of what happened, but this is common whenever an alternative view of history presented challenges the mainstream understanding that is usually enforced through education and/or mass media. Note: this documentary does include a large part of bloody history of the past century covering Soviet Union, China, US, Middle East and other regions; please watch it at your discretion.

In fact, as Schmachtenberger and other leading thinkers would emphasize, in the information age, it is extremely important to seek multiple perspectives to form a new synthesis. Rebel Wisdom’s series on War on Sense-Making is a good place to (re)learn how to think in today’s fast-news post-truth context. Sensemaking is actually very hard. Ask yourself: how much of ‘your’ ideas is truly yours when we are subjective to conditioning of family, language, culture and large socioeconomic context we are in. To understand the world, what’s critical is the intellectual and spiritual capabilities to navigate narrative landscape aka psychogeography, stress-test arguments and seek to understand logics/assumptions and their associated weighting/confidence margin (note: does not mean we need to agree with the statements) along with having the capacity to love people for who they are – even the psychopaths who are often traumatized from the childhood or some life’s adverse circumstances unhealed. As a matter of fact, it can be called an inner disease, a disease of life, if one is unable to manifest compassion and love. This is not to empower wrongdoers but to cultivate an open heart to understand their stories, hidden traumas and external factors converging on them, and possibly make a cause for their true humanity to emerge. There may be some healing principles that can aid humanity to get out of the vicious circle. In the work of system design, it is increasingly acknowledged that systems and infrastructures, “hardware”, can predisposition human psychology “software” as well as incent/encourage pathological behaviors. Thus, it requires spiritual practice to deeply connect to one’s greater self, where all the solutions flow in the interconnectedness of life, un-swayed by different dimensions of the world. Our grand task is to be true humans together and create an environment conducive for all to do so. That is why, ontological design, where designs that ‘design’ us back and related design thinking is important when we (re)build systems for great good for the 21st century (at minimal, it should avoid perpetuating imbalances in wealth and power while also promptly formulating a remediation plan for new inequality rising in the implantation stage). The interaction between human psyche and outer environment create linguistic landscape that transforms how we think and institutional systems that we upgrade our infrastructures to solve problems & meet our needs.

In the end, economics or politics, they are made of social agreements, not something that is written into the Law of the Universe. In fact, evolution of economics is inseparable from the evolution of human consciousness. Knowing this, we do need to make efforts to heal – individually and socially – and whole ourselves as Carl Jung states, “the best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others." Unhealed person or unconscious person should refrain from taking a leadership position, for he/she will project inner shadow wide in the society. The human history is packed with the evidence as Adam’s documentary also illustrates. Truly commendable people possess the spirit to understand one’s own shadow, continue improving and learning from all, and that is, in itself, true kindness toward others.

Earth Dance (2018) by Clare Attwell

43.5” x 36.75”, Hand dyed & painted sheer fabric, wheat paste; machine stitched

Humanistic economics place high value on healing over development and consider growth in a much more nuanced qualitative context. Everyone is fighting a battle that is unknown to us. Personal healing towards wholesome self is an important step to collective shadow integration so that whatever we build does not reflect back the wounds repeating histories of human misery and sufferings. It takes community building to close the separation and divide (ecological divide, social divide and spiritual divide). Our conscious desires for commonning – to be connected, to co-create, to support one another – should not be systematically suppressed by structure and systems (e.g. narrative of rational self-interest maximizer in the Economics of Separation, creating Prisoner’s Dilemma that goes against physical/spiritual truth of inner-connectedness; they are merely mathematical/computational convenience for technocratic solutions of the society). Humanistic economics is fundamentally commons economics that promote resource stewardship, right livelihoods, social priorities and collective enterprise. In time of continued unconsciousness of the market economy (in which no retrofits suffice to change the underlying win-loss game paradigm that creates perverse incentives and multipolar trap), of the short term thinking inherent in elected governments as well as the concerns of the market/state duopoly, the commons appear to be the missing link in genuine development of human civilization.

In a broad sense, the commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governance (e.g. experiment an appropriate level of decentralization tailored to the context of people and places), economics (e.g. vehicle to meet everyone’s needs) and public policy (e.g. law and provisioning of infrastructure to encourage commons-based experiments and innovation) especially to the areas that PPP is known to be ineffective. The commons also inspire us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life—public vs. private, individual vs. collective, objective vs. subjective, tangible vs. intangible —and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, value-creative form. The digital realm is one of the most robust commoning in contemporary life such as open source projects, Creative Commons license, Blockchain as commons accounting and “pay-as-you-like” knowledge asset to increase collective intelligence. The networked coordination may make widespread Glocal movement including blended citizenship and governance possible.

Many people have grown up in the world of privatization and are so used to separation and consumption. In the solution space of our common problems, it is easy to fall into an illusion of either State or Market. The limitations of epistemology of problem solving, being it COVID, climate change or other pressing issues, seem to surface above the public and private pendulum.

Under the name of “modernity”, commons –things that were once free as part of community self-sufficiency or the gift economy and most importantly relationships created around it – including cooking, childcare, health care, hospitality, entertainment, advice, food growing, cloth making, house building, fixing, etc. are now increasingly sold back to us to rise GDP to validate/encourage further commercialization aka market enclosure. Enclosures have dispossessed millions of farmers whose lives depend upon customary land commons in Africa, Asia and Latin America while “unowned” resources of the commons have been cashing out, liquidating the nature. The enclosures often followed by economic incentive or legal enforcement are increasing in the scope: land, knowledge, culture, water, biodiversity, health (e.g. medicine) and education (e.g. indigenous knowledge). The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is often used to justify the intervention of the government or private sector into the community to manage its commons. Nobel laureate Prof. Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vicent Ostrom from the Indiana University have contributed greatly to the polycentric management of common-pool resources and identified some basic design principles of successful common.

By offering credit to the unbanked, property rights are often being introduced, which helps attain ownership-based “liberty” of the dominant culture and confirm with Western legal systems. An opportunity exits to introduce a different angle to interpret ‘subsistence’ farmers and ‘informal’ sector in theory-of-change discussion of many of the Bank’s new projects, albeit at the risk of being outcast. In terms of organizational theory, the question is how to build a learning organization and the quality of leadership and structure needed to accommodate different ways of knowing. Intensifying privatization and commodification of the nature capital, social capital, cultural capital (intellectual property, stories, songs, arts) and spiritual capital (imagination, thoughts, narratives) go hand in hand with monetization and financialization of more aspects of life. Post-industrial traumatic stress makes conscious people yearn for paradigms of communalism, humanism and Ubuntu in some ‘developing’ countries. In Europe, there is a burgeoning interest in the commons as a vision and framework for remaking political culture and everyday life. In the United States, re-commoning efforts have been initiated which are backbones of ecovillage and transition town movement as well as increasingly open-sourced Internet communities and peer-to-peer exchange of knowledge and ideas. In times of COVID, local food movement, self-organized mutual help (e.g. do groceries for the elderly, gift hand-made masks) and self-organized communities in the cyberspace for Zoom learning/discussion come to being. The nonclosure or liberation of such commons marks a major evolutionary change in human society.

The right question may be a tripartite partnership of State, Market and Commons to create a stabilizing effect of synchronizing “three”. By re-introducing commons, it creates a different kind of operating system for society and truly inclusive decision-making to cultivate more humane alternatives by tapping into collective wisdom and agency of the ordinary citizens, thus enabling emergence of new schemes of human relations, production and governance. Humanistic economics can also embrace high tech and cherishes and integrates all kinds of technologies – outer and inner- to develop individual and collective capacities for a happy, flourishing and creative life. (note: social technology includes cycling, authentic relating, U lab and collective presencing among others that are practiced in a group/community setting; psychotechnology include a wide range of inner work from meditation, natural immersion, consciously designed VR/XR experience) Rediscovering commons and gaining a better understanding of it helps unleash its transformative power which can also assists healthy evolution of State and Market for shared prosperity of all life and life-supporting systems on this planet.

The future remains uncertain while much needed creative tension will continue. May each person’s personal unfolding positively influence those around them to enact joyful struggles towards the new and ancient future.

New dawn of humanistic economics is on the horizon with the collective effort to bring forth the daybreak in our hearts.

Daisaku Ikeda says, “Everything passes. The souring joys and crushing sorrows will fade away like a dream. However, the knowledge of living one’s life to the fullest will never disappear.”

What are we, as individuals, called to do in the construction of new era? How can we connect to and develop all dimensions of self that is alighted with whom we truly are to maximize wholeness of self in the fullest relationship with the entirety of reality?

The new era enabled and sustained by humanistic economics will celebrate mosaic social fabrics respecting unique culture, people and bioregions that cultivate wholeness of human beings and creative expression of the places. The participatory process of communing – joint action, creating things together, collaborating to meet shared goals, community building – is becoming ubiquitous accumulating lessons learned along the way. Join and create the local commons movement.

To learn more about commons in enlightening ways, may go to