Bringing Balance: The Proutist Alternative
“Balance” is a word you would be hard-pressed to use to describe today’s global economy. Wealth inequality and exploitation, market manipulation and the financialization of investment have created a situation which can only be described as extremely unbalanced, with a lot of suffering in its wake. Many argue that capitalism as it exists is unsustainable, that it cannot, and more importantly should not, survive.
“After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action,” presents a look at a socio-economic theory which might bring things back into balance. Wide in scope, the book begins with a perceptive critique of the policies that led to the 2008 global crash and earlier crashes, and moves on to hopeful alternatives.
The author, Dada Maheshvarananda, has been a monk and activist for the past 40 years. He brings to his work a focus on spiritual values, a perspective on the economic sphere that respects human rights and the integrity of the land, and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of life and the existential value of each creature. Implicit in this critique is recognition of the need for a metric for social welfare based on how society’s poorest members are faring.
A presenter at the 2012 Economic Democracy Conference in Madison, Maheshvarananda directs a think tank in Caracas, the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela. His ideas stem from a platform originating in India called the Progressive Utilization Theory (Prout). This theory, put forward by the Bengali philosopher P. R. Sarkar in the 1950s, offers a blueprint for structuring economies in a way that both incentivizes work (which communism never did) and restricts excess accumulation of capital (which capitalism will not do).
Maheshvarananda argues that capitalism is designed to benefit the rich; by its nature it excludes many more people than it benefits. On top of this, it’s systematically destroying the planet. He cites four fatal flaws: 1) concentration of wealth. 2) the majority of investments are speculative, not productive. 3) the encouragement of debt and 4) turning a blind eye to the environmental impact of its own policies.
There are thought-provoking ideas here about what might replace capitalism (and the critique also recognizes the many failures of communism). Such an economy would focus on smaller-scale entrepreneurship (limited capitalism), a robust cooperative sector, and publicly-owned key industries.
This structure, the author argues, could become decentralized through the formation of economically self-reliant regions based on common economic and social conditions, common geographic potentialities, cultural legacy and language. Decentralized planning would allow each region to utilize its own resources and opportunities for its own benefit. In such a context it would be important, he notes, to encourage a sense of universal humanity, avoiding parochial separatism.
Cooperatives receive special attention in the book, including a history of their development and a focus on the most famous cooperative network, Spain’s Mondragon. The Prout Research Institute of Venezuela was hired by the Venezuelan government to assess the strength of the cooperative movement in that country. PRI researchers have written extensively about the factors necessary for cooperatives to work, which include a supportive social environment, sound advance planning, skilled management, innovation and adaptation, and education.
Maheshvaranandapaints a portrait of projects where some of these ideas arebeing implemented, from a cooperative health care clinic in Kenya to a sustainable farming community in Brazil. He lauds the Occupy movement in the U. S. and describes other people’s movements, such as one in the Philippines that is encouraging youth to fight against materialistic “pseudo-culture” and embrace their own traditions. As daunting as the task of creating true economic democracy seems, he suggests that cultural movements have a large role to play, empowering people at the grassroots level.
The author also compares Prout to other models such as “participatory economics” or Parecon. The two theories seem to have a lot in common – an emphasis on decentralized economy and on cooperatives, for starters. Parecon, however, lacks a spiritual perspective, according to the author. And the two differ on the question of incentives. Prout, writes Maheshvarananda, believes higher income should be given in recognition of people’s merits and accomplishments in order to motivate creativity and self-development, while Parecon insists that skilled professions should not receive a higher salary than other jobs.
The book has garnered praise from a number of activists. Bill McKibben writes, “The search is on for new ways to inhabit a strained earth… plenty of interesting leads in these pages.” Noam Chomsky notes, “You can’t have meaningful political democracy without functioning economic democracy.” The last chapter of the book is devoted to a wide-ranging conversation between Maheshvarananda and Chomsky, in which the latter, among other things, blasts the failure of the U. S. to develop a high-speed rail system, and praises the changes taking place in Latin America, with indigenous movements coming to power, and few U. S. military bases left in the hemisphere.
The book features a number of short “guest essays” by economists and activists, and these sections contribute to the richness of the book’s argument.
Of course, there are weak points. In one section the author puts forward the land value tax, in which resource use, land use, and pollution are taxed, “taxing the unearned billions of dollars of income that a few capitalists reap from the gifts of Nature…”
Yet one of the guest essayists, a Duke University economist, contradicts this idea. Land value taxes, he writes, are useful in a capitalist economy, but would be less so in a Proutist economy. “If land value taxes were imposed, co-ops will be required to reduce output and increase price in order to earn sufficient income to pay their taxes…”
The exchange seems typical of a debate unfolding within the pages of the book, though, and presumably within the culture of Prout activists. Prout’s founder apparently offered broad strokes in his theory. Practical applications are now being hammered out in localities around the globe. In an appendix, the author presents an exercise designed to bring Proutist analysis to bear on an imaginary country’s economic problems. (In fact, Maheshvarananda notes, Proutists have been called in to offer real-world perspectives on balancing the economic potentials of several regions around the world). In this exercise, an underperforming agricultural sector is addressed through various means, increasing the yield of land, for example, through crop rotation and other progressive methods, reducing costs of production, and diversification, irrigation, and increased fish production.
The benefits of a balanced economy would spill over into other aspects of life, from the environment to education to criminal justice. Everything’s connected, after all, a point the author drives home. It’s this comprehensive spirit in the Prout theory that holds great appeal, the work of justice and the work of the individual soul going hand in hand.
Maheshvarananda has led meditation workshops at rallies and demonstrations around the world such as the World Social Forum, emphasizing the importance of a centered, calm spirit in activist work.Accessing the well of joy within, he implies, enables one to be part of the solution, motivating and supporting in making a positive difference in the world.
He urges the restoration of balance to our ecology and economy, and to our own lives, before it’s too late.