Eastern View of Economics

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu..

The following speech was delivered at the Claremont Presbyterian Church on June 24, 2010. Used by permission of the author.


The author examines several East Asian perspectives on the global economy including Bhutan, India, Kerala, Sri Lanka, and the Asian "tigers," Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. He deals in more detail with his own personal role in the decision of the Chinese government to announce its goal of making of China an "ecological civilization."

I have been asked to say something about the global economy from an East Asian perspective. I can’t really do that. My perspective is a critical Western one. Nevertheless, I can talk about some thinking that comes from the East that is also critical of the dominant Western economic thought, and my appreciation for it. Of course, it will be Eastern thinking as a Westerner interprets it. I’ll mention half a dozen examples, most of them very briefly.

Schumacher is famous for his advocacy of appropriate technology. He also wrote a book named "Buddhist Economics." I think that in fact the book is inspired more by Medieval Catholic thought and practice than by Buddhism, but he rightly saw that in the world today Buddhism is a more potent basis for resisting the economism that rules the West and through it most of the East. This economism is directly opposed to traditional Christian teaching. Jesus said that we could not serve both God and wealth, and it is obvious that Western society is organized in the service of wealth. Tracing the victory of wealth over God in the West is an interesting matter. But Schumacher saw in Buddhism another, even clearer, basis for rejecting economism. Whereas traditional Christianity calls for the subordination of all other commitments to the commitment to God, Buddhism teaches us to give up all craving and attachment, just those aspects of the human psyche that ground economism.

Buddhism has inspired resistance to Western forms of development in several countries, and I will come back to brief discussion of an example. But of special interest to me is the one country that, as a country, is coming closest to acting on Buddhist principles. That is Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. Whereas all other countries are aiming at increasing Gross Domestic or National Product, and thus organizing themselves on economistic principles, Bhutan is committed to Gross National Happiness. In my view, this is so obviously a better goal, that the rest of the world should feel foolish. Why seek wealth if it does not make people happy? And study after study shows that in general it does not. But of course Bhutan’s unique formulation of its national goal in fact only elicits condescending smiles.

Whereas Bhutan is a tiny nation whose policies have negligible effect on the global economy, India is an enormous nation, and the leading figure in its struggle for independence, Mahatma Gandhi, was also the advocate of economic development on very different lines from the victorious one. Western economic theory has no interest in human community. It views individuals or households as the units of economic action and those whose insatiable desires for economic goods should be satisfied as much as possible. The way that human beings are actually bound up with one another through kinship and friendship plays no role in Western economic theory. The result is that the application of economic theory to development, whether in rural North America or in the Third World, systematically destroys village life.

Gandhi wanted India to follow another path, that of community development. He did not question that the vast majority of Indians would benefit from some increase in goods and services, but he wanted to work only for that kind of increase that was compatible with keeping village life intact and even improving it. In India that meant the development of the economy of the existing peasant villages in which most Indians then lived. This would mean "appropriate technology," that is introducing into villages forms of technology that would improve the lives of those who used it without destroying their independence, that is, technology they could understand and service, and, in many cases, produce locally. With such technology the village would gradually become more productive and therefore wealthier, but it would remain intact.

If Gandhi had not been assassinated, it may be that India would have experimented with community development on a large scale. However, he was quickly replaced by Nehru who had learned his economics in England. He got from the Soviet Union a large steel mill, and set India on the path of Western development.

Gandhi’s followers as well as many Western NGOs continued to work, without national help on community development. The movement is far from dead. But in India it has played a minor role in the overall economic development of the country.

Gandhi’s ideas played a much larger role in Sri Lanka, where leading Buddhists, many of them influential in government, adopted them. I met a member of the Senanayeke family at a conference Gordon organized in Claremont and later was hosted in Colombo by other members. Their goal was to restore the system destroyed by the British of largely self-sufficient rural villages. Meanwhile Sri Ariyaratne developed a large Buddhist movement working toward the strengthening of life in the villages. Both opposed both Western values and Western notions of development. Sri Lanka developed a distinctive economy that for a while led to ranking this country quite high in terms of life expectancy and general wellbeing while still quite low in per capita income. One interesting law excluded television from the country. When Sri Lanka accepted the "generous" offer of Japan for the gift of a whole TV system, it was clear that Sri Lanka was succumbing to the lure of consumerism. Canada gave it a huge dam that flooded many of the villages and was designed to support industrial development. These gifts combined with a free university education to so many people for whom there were then no appropriate jobs, as well as a civil war, led to the failure of the experiment failed, but in a time when it is clear, at least to me, that global pursuit of more and more wealth is suicidal for the human race, I think it would be worthwhile to study such efforts.

Another experiment took place on Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India. Here the leaders were a coalition of Christians and Communists. They focused on meeting the basic needs of the people for food, housing, and health. They also encouraged and enabled women to choose the number of children. The result was that population growth slowed, life expectancy increased, and extreme poverty virtually disappeared – although the per capita income was much the same as in India as a whole. This was possible only by keeping large corporations out. It is my understanding that as India has more fully entered the global economic system, the distinctiveness of Kerala has declined.

Very different experiments were those of the Asian "tigers," Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. These all committed themselves to industrialization, but none of them shared the Western view that this is best attained by removal of government involvement. Government worked with industrial and financial leaders to gain them a favorable international position. They took advantage of the ideal of free trade in the Western nations without really opening themselves to the same degree. They protected not only their industries but to some extent their communities from the ravages of the global system. They succeeded brilliantly.

The most important experiment for the future of the world is China’s experiment with the "socialist market" economy. This is very much like that of the Asian tigers except that it has been more open to Western companies than the others were in the early days. Its capitalist elements are so apparent that one may wonder whether the term "socialist" is simply window dressing. I think not.

First, the national government retains control of the economy. It still decides how much power can be exercised by corporations, both domestic and foreign. Most important, the banking system belongs to the government. The kind of near financial collapse that we recently went through, salvaged only by enormous government intervention, is no threat to China. If China has any debt, it owes the money to itself. Cumulative interest payments to others cannot occur in this system. Despite Western pressure, I doubt that China will privatize its financial system. I believe that for the Chinese leadership the market is in the service of the nation and that it does not intend to subordinate the national wellbeing to economic considerations in the economistic fashion.

Second, I believe that, despite radical change in the economy, many of the Communist leaders retain some of Marx’s concern for workers, and in China’s case, for peasants. Whether these concerns will lead to any sacrifice of the rate of growth is not yet clear, but I am hopeful.

China’s ecological problems are as massive and visible as those of any country anywhere. Thus far their policies have been more oriented to continuing growth than to curbing environmental destruction. Nevertheless, I believe the government is more committed to developing a new model in this regard than is any other major government. Whether this commitment will truly direct actions is an open question.

This is a point in which much to my astonishment, I have a role to play. However small that role is, it is incomparably greater than my role anywhere else in the world. This is relevant to the question of whether China will really seek a new direction of economic development; so I will use the rest of my time to tell you what is still for me a wholly astonishing story.

About fifteen years ago Zhihe Wang came to Claremont to study with David Griffin. He was an influential member of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which includes philosophy. He was one of the critics of modernization who were following the European discussion of postmodernism. Griffin launched a series of volumes with SUNY Press on "constructive postmodernism." The first volume, "The Reenchantment of Science," caught Wang’s attention. Although no one in this country paid attention, national conferences were held to discuss it in China. Wang thought constructive postmodernism might be just what China needed.

We in the Center for Process Studies supported Wang’s efforts as much as we could. We identified his work as our China Project. At first it consisted primarily in translating books into Chinese.

In 1998, we held the Third International Whitehead Conference in Claremont. There was a good-sized Chinese delegation. They invited us to have the Fourth Conference in China, and this took place in 2001. This conference greatly expanded interest in our work there. Since then 19 universities have established centers for process thought. There have been many conferences in China, and groups of Chinese have also come to Claremont. Many of our conferences here have been co-sponsored by a major Chinese government think-tank and have had an ecological focus. Wang thinks that they may have influenced the decision of the Chinese government publicly to announce its goal of making of China an "ecological civilization."

In any case, our partner clearly knew about this in advance. Two weeks after the government’s announcement we were holding a conference by that title in Claremont, and we have done so, since then, annually. The papers from these conferences are read by influential people in China. Some of them have been published in full in the digest prepared for China’s top leaders.

Of course, all our discussion of ecological philosophy, ecological urbanization, ecological agriculture, and so forth, has economic assumptions and implications. Next year we will probably deal with these more explicitly and directly. But in the meantime, I will give you an example of our role.

In the spring of 2008 I was invited to keynote a conference in Suzhou on "capital." I was not able to accept; so they changed the dates so that I could stop in Suzhou on my way home from Bangalore where I was committed to speak at the Seventh International Whitehead Conference in January 2009. Now my main point in mentioning this is to indicate the seriousness with which some influential Chinese take process thought or constructive postmodern thought and, accordingly, want to know how it addresses what is for Marxists a central notion.

I agreed despite the fact that I have no technical knowledge about how capital is understood in either Marxism or neo-liberal thought. Actually the paper I wrote was on the history of how corporations moved from being servants of the state to being its masters. There were many specific changes in law and Supreme Court decisions involved. I wanted to encourage China not to let the process of empowerment go too far. What is remarkable is that this amateurish lecture was published in full in the leading Marxist journal in China, when no economics journal in the Western world would even consider publishing anything that I wrote.