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May 2002

The Circle Experiment in the context of the Auroville Economy

- by Jean-Yves


The 'Circle Experiment' began in February, 2000, when 101 Aurovilians gathered together in 4 'circles' of approximately 25 members each, to find ways to move towards an economy with no exchange of money. Jean-Yves reviews the experiment after two years.

The idea behind the experiment was to create "extended-family" groupings where people who have more resources can share with those who have less. In that way, the material living standard of those who live solely on maintenance provided by the community would improve. The experiment aimed at developing trust and caring amongst individuals belonging to a circle, while at the same time creating an economy where the basic needs of the individual who works for Auroville are taken care of. Ultimately, the circle-experiment was to further the ideal economy of Auroville in which individuals would lose the sense of personal possession, and where the community would move towards self-sufficiency and no exchange of money within Auroville. The experiment would re-establish sharing as a principle of the Auroville economy and provide a decentralised field for experimentation towards no-exchange of money. The experiment, however, was not preceded by any quantitative or structural study of Auroville's economy, and no instrument of evaluation was felt necessary. Thus a vague program of sharing and caring, of losing the sense of personal possession and of the disappearance of money as a means of internal exchange was announced. Wishful thinking rather than knowledge and objectives or a clearly defined methodology presided over the Circle experiment from the very beginning.

Those interested in the experiment grouped themselves into circles. Each circle appointed a circle coordinator who controls the circle collective account and keeps check on the difference between what a circle-member contributes to the collective circle account and what he or she takes out. In case a circle's expenses are more than its income, the difference can be compensated from a "buffer account" from the community. Though some people had to be warned against overspending, one of the initial objectives of the circle experiment was soon reached: many Aurovilians could improve their access to basic or less basic needs.

There are, of course, also flipsides. One is that not all circle-members feel motivated to donate any incidental excess income they may have to the circle account. Another difficulty is how the Circle coordinators control the accounts, and halt the ever-increasing discrepancy between expenses and income. Their attitudes have alternated from an attitude of laissez-faire to aggressive control, which could take the form of moral judgment rather than the economic analysis of the reasons why a person spends more.

The economic context of Auroville is largely determined by two structural features. The first is that individual Aurovilians freely determine the allocation of their resources. This feature is strengthened by the fact that about one third of the Aurovilians have external resources available to them. The second feature is that public services are supposed to be financially self-sufficient, which means that they have to find the margin they need to cover their expenses and development.

If the services have to be self-sufficient, they will automatically aim at the more solvent sector of the population, those who are not maintained by Auroville because they have resources exceeding their personal basic needs. Pour Tous, for example, which was created to provide food to all ('Pour Tous' means 'For All' in French), has become a commercial supermarket, where one finds certain food and household products that Aurovilians who depend on the community for their maintenance cannot afford. But there was no other strategy possible if Pour Tous had to be self-sufficient.

Thus, a non-affordable offer of products coincided with the start of the Circle experiment, leading naturally to an upward level of consumption. The supermarket system adopted in Pour Tous exposes its customers to a stimulating offer to fill up one's basket. This system, which comes from consumerist types of societies, has not been invented to help people become independent of their impulses but, on the contrary, to promote 'buying on impulse'. The community subsidizes the demand-increase by supporting the circle experiment, and so indirectly supports the self-sufficiency of the services. One can guess that the money that has been saved by not supporting the services is now allocated to the "customers" in an equivalent amount, if not more. A liberal and consumerist type of economy has entered Auroville, though nobody has chosen it and nobody would have deliberately designed it for Auroville.

The circle experiment then, at best, can only be regarded as a step on the way. But our failure to give a material expression to The Mother's ideals is a source of weakness damaging our credibility and preventing the mobilization of funds and support required for the Auroville project. We still suffer from too much wishful thinking and lack of concept.
A clear conceptual thing of our aims and goals then is required. Here we should be guided by Mother's vision which She expressed for Auroville and by Sri Aurobindo's statement on the economics of a spiritualized society:

"The aim of its economics would be not to create a huge engine of production, whether of the competitive or the cooperative 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". *

Basically, this points towards an economy where you give and are given to, with no money transaction needed for it to happen. It requires a redefinition of the roles of capital, labour, money and of their inter-relations. Practically, it would lead to the creation of a service oriented towards the production and distribution of basic needs and of a material harmony, thus allowing all those who do not want to be caught in commercial transactions to live in an organization that is a living expression their ideal. Such a 'gift economy' would not be imposed but only offered to those who have an inward 'Yes' for it without reserve, and it would co-exist with the commercial economy.

To manifest such an economy two things are required. One is the need for empirical data. We need knowledge of the community budget, and knowledge of the basic needs of the Aurovilians. The second one is to recognize that if we want a simple and beautiful life for all, we need to invent a new model where harmony is our organising principle. If harmony is not seized upon by the intelligence and the heart as our first need and as the foundation of all our practical research, it will be vain to believe that we can discover the new type of economy that Mother envisaged for Auroville.

*Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, CWSA 25 -p. 257

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