INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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More essays by Ray Harris | Ray Harris' website: www.novelactivist.com
Ray Harris is a frequent contributor to this website. He has written articles on 9/11, boomeritis, the Iraq war and Third Way politics. Harris lives in Australia and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Left, Right or
just plain wrong?
Politics in the integral movement -
A consciously provocative polemic
What are the political ramifications of Ken Wilber's integral theory? What policy decisions should arise? What actions should integral proponents advise and commit to? How should integral thinkers vote?
There is a problem with integral politics as described by Ken Wilber (and Don Beck). It is big on theory and slight on a political program. It is average on criticism and poor on recommendations. It is weak on analysis and absent in activism.
What's going on?
Is it enough to attend one of Don's seminars? Isn't the format that Don has chosen to present the SD material itself a political statement? Is the Integral Institute going down the same path? They seem to following a corporate seminar model. I understand the need to make money but it is also important to remember that the medium is the message.
But more importantly how does the integral movement intend to challenge the cultural patterns and power structures that actively inhibit developmental progress? Isn't the integral movement settling into a neutral no-man's land where it tries not to offend corporate America but instead subtly condemns activist organizations with the broad brush of being too Green?
Is it capable of asking the tough questions such as; will an integral political economy be capitalist in character or be a totally new configuration that transcends any previous political economy? Is the integral movement really challenging the cultural norms of society or is there a bias that accepts individualism and capitalism as a given? Is the integral movement coloured by being largely an American phenomenon? Shouldn't the integral movement be truly international and integrate multiple cultural perspectives?
The history of the Integral Institute
Once upon a time there was a bubble in NASDAQ land. Riding on a whole lot of hype and self-importance a place called Silicon Valley grew fabulously rich. It seemed there was a revolution going on (particularly if you read Wired). Staff were given shares and became instantly rich, except for Consuelo the Latino cleaning lady who cleaned the offices in the sparkling new buildings. She was a temp contracted to a cleaning company, she worked on minimum wages and took the long bus ride to and from work because she couldn't afford to live close by. But still there was a revolution going on for some people. Well, until the bubble burst. Anyway, along came Joe Firmage of CISCO systems and he was full of ideas. True he was a bit of a UFO nut who was interested in the reverse engineering of alien technology but he was also interested in Ken Wilber's ideas. Joe was generous and agreed to fund the Integral Institute. It was the height of the hype and right at the outermost limits of the surface tension of the bubble.
The people around Wilber became very excited. This was a wonderful opportunity to expand Wilber's ideas. People were invited from around the world and met in Wilber's house in Boulder. The Integral Institute was formed. The first second tier think tank.
And sitting in judgment was Don Beck who afterwards announced that about 90% of participants were Green and not really second tier at all.
Then the bubble burst.
Where was the understanding of how the stock market works? Why did the Integral Institute get caught up in the hype? Why didn't they have the depth of analysis to see through the Hollywood of the business world? Where was the commitment to ethical investment? To an economy that helped Consuelo just as much as it helped the young programmer from Mumbai? Where was the overall analysis of capitalism and the distorting effect of speculative capital?
The limited world of integral politics
The end of history. Socialism was defeated. It was no longer necessary to study it because the Americans had won the Cold War. Capitalism had won - America had won and might equals right - right? Politics was now about the difference between tweedle-dumb and tweedle-dumber. Somehow the argument became about a politics that combined the best of the Republicans and the Democrats, between parochial American concepts of conservatism and liberalism. People around Wilber even got Clinton and Gore to read 'Sense and Soul'. Heck, Gore was even going to make a landmark speech introducing integral concepts. It was glory days - sort of - well, not really. Where was the understanding of realpolitik that would have made anyone immediately skeptical of high hopes? Where was the understanding that Gore was surrounded by minders who would have vetted his speech? Where was the understanding that to reach a leader you first have to work your way through the layers of minders and advisers and other lobbyists vying for attention?
As you read through Wilber you rarely get a grasp of the big political picture. There is scant attention paid to the fields of political economy and the sociology of power. The point here is that Marx's criticism of capitalism is still as valid today as it was yesterday and yet Wilber essentially ignores Marxist and Neo-Marxist literature (he seems to completely ignore anarchist political theory). Wilber does address this question in part but tends to leave it hanging in the air. It kind of gets glossed over with the panacea that it is partly right and partly wrong. But which parts are right and which parts are wrong and what does it mean for politics if some parts of Marxism are still very much right? Isn't it still true that the capitalist class profits by exploiting labour? What is Wilber's position on the minimum wage in the US? Does an integral politics think that this is ethically acceptable? Will integral politics admit, as research seems to suggest, that worker owned and controlled enterprises are more efficient and naturally more integral places to work?
Will Don Beck and other integral consultants advise their corporate clients to buy back shares and distribute them to workers and then set up a management system based on direct worker input? Will they advise their corporate clients to raise wages and to drop executive remuneration and share packages? Will they advise clients that the share market is simply an elaborate casino that extracts wealth from productive investment? Or will they simply hold a series of workshops that really don't challenge a thing? Are the workshops designed to shift everyone in the organization up the spiral or do they merely tell managers how to better manage each vMeme to better maintain profits and therefore share price? To better exploit the working class? Why is there an Integral Business subgroup but not an Integral Political Economy subgroup?
In order to be taken seriously in the world of politics integral theory needs to grasp that outside the US socialism and Marxism are still taken seriously. Yes, the US won the Cold War and is now the world hyper-power. This means that its ruling ideology is dominant (including regressive Christian fundamentalism, ie, the 'mean blue meme'). But being dominant doesn't make it right. Certainly there were faults in socialist theory and especially practice. But central to any serious analysis of socialism is the fact that from the beginning the capitalist class violently resisted its implementation. Socialist economies never got beyond a war footing. The Soviet Union had not recovered from the First World War and the revolution before it was plunged into a totally devastating war with Germany and the subsequent Cold War. (Bombing devastated Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, whole cities were destroyed and vital infrastructure wrecked. In comparison the mainland of the US and its industrial infrastructure was untouched by the war. Of the 50 million who lost their lives during the war the overwhelming majority came from the Eastern bloc. The USSR alone lost 20 million people 10 million of who were civilians, Poland lost 4 million and East Germany about 3 million. And how many did the US loose? By comparison - a mere 274, 000, with no civilian loss on mainland soil a ratio of close to 100:1). I'm not excusing the tragedies and excesses of socialism. I'm simply pointing out that it was a race between a severely wounded man on crutches and a man who was still up and running. An integral analysis must recognize the very real consequences of the many wars fought over this issue and recognize that might does not equal right. It must be able to sort through the extreme propaganda employed by both sides. It must be able to critically examine the prejudice with which many Americans still view the theory of socialism and communism.
Or do the members of the integral community wear ideological blinkers that they are so used to they don't even know they are there?
I maintain that the integral community cannot call itself integral until it makes the paradigm leap out of national conditioning to fully embrace a truly global, internationalist perspective. There is an overall ambience in the integral community that suggests that America alone is at the leading edge of integral thinking. It is not. It is true that Wilber is American and that many in the Institute are American. This is an accident of history and geography. It is not because of the national characteristics of Americans. And because the integral movement is located in America it tends to produce material written predominantly for an American audience.
As such the writing surrounding politics tends to focus rather narrowly on the American political scene and parochial issues and debates. I have mentioned that it has focused on the issue of Republican versus Democrat. This fails to make a deep enough analysis of bi-partisan politics in liberal democracies in general. It fails to notice the parochial peculiarities of the American debate and isolate them from the broader issues. It fails to point out that it might be totally inconsistent for an integral person to belong to any of the conventional parties without severely compromising some core integral principles.
I have not yet seen an effective integral criticism of US hegemony. Wilber has rather glibly stated that US hegemony is relatively benign and much more preferable to any other. Really? This ignores the problem of hegemony and imperialism period. Are some kinds of hegemony okay? Or does any hegemony create a power imbalance that necessarily leads to privilege for some and misery for a great many others? Wilber and Beck are quick to point out that many of the problems of the world are due to developmental differences. I would agree with that. It's a kind of modified Huntington thesis, not so much the clash of civilizations but the clash of developmental concentrations. But where is the analysis of the power relationships that keep this system in its place? Is America superior because it is the most evolved nation or because it has used its power to devastating effect? Is America where it is now because it is right or because it is wrong but stronger? What is the effect of the imbalance on the rest of the world? What is the integral solution to this power imbalance? Or is there no problem at all? Are the Americans running the integral movement a bit oblivious to the problem because their country benefits from this inequity? Might they be somewhat silent because a truthful and rigorous analysis might show that US corporate imperialism actively inhibits other people from achieving their full potential? Just ask Africa, a continent which actually suffers a net flow of capital to the US.
Might the facts indicate that there is an ethical imperative to actually do something about it?
The prime directive
I agree with the prime directive. It states that the health of each level is vital to the health of the whole spectrum or spiral. It's worth really contemplating because it forms the absolute foundation for integral ethics. It says that anyone who espouses integral theory is bound by the logic of that theory to act in such a way that the greatest good is accomplished for the greatest number across the greatest depth and span possible - a kind of expanded integral utilitarianism.
Note that the prime directive does not say - the greatest good for the greatest span except where it affects my own country, lifestyle or personal ambitions and desires. You see that is what first tier is supposed to do. It mitigates the prime directive by putting in selfish exceptions.
But what if the integral community is actually dodging the full political implications of the prime directive? What if it is excitedly looking into the integral future and ignoring some rather obvious and large ethical boulders in its path? For example, the class system inherent in capitalism where certain people benefit by exploiting the labour of others, like Indonesian clothing machinists or illegal Mexican farm labourers. Or do we just conveniently ignore this problem? Or do we create an integral rationalization or even argue that there is such a thing as integral capitalism? This is the argument that the best way to help poor people is to get rich and employ them. This is the trickle down effect. It's a cornerstone of Republican tax theory. Remove tax to stimulate the economy to increase employment. Except it doesn't answer the problem that the extra income is usually invested in the speculative stock market and that there has been a net flow from productive investment to speculative investment in the last five years. In other words it doesn't go to jobs it goes to share portfolios. Or should we buy the neo-liberal economic propaganda lock, stock and barrel without critical examination and ignore the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer in relative terms?
You see; if the poor get poorer then they get less access to the resources they need to develop along the spectrum. So if you support the Republican tax plan you violate the prime directive.
In previous essays I have highlighted the core needs of each level. I won't go back over them now. What I want to ask is can any of the core needs be glibly ignored, can we argue that certain nations and peoples will just have to get by with less so that wealthy nations like the US can have the resources to allow sections of its society to reach their full potential? Where does Wilber stand on farm subsidies and fair trade? Doesn't this violate the prime directive? Let's take the example of the amount of resources the US consumes relative to the rest of the world (and we could also include all developed nations). Is it possible for the rest of the world to attain a higher standard of living and have the West maintain its own?
Wouldn't the prime directive argue that a significant and radical redistribution of wealth is required?
Let's argue it this way. Does second tier need to be wealthy? Does it need all the widgets and gadgets of the rich Western lifestyle? More importantly is it absolutely necessary to spectrum development for every society to go through a hyper materialist phase or can we argue that the materialism of the West is actually a pathology caused by an unjust power imbalance? Could the core needs be secured but on a much more modest scale?
I would argue that the harsh reality is that in 50 years the planet is going to be severely stressed and unable to provide the same level of material abundance it does now. Yet I sense in the optimism of the integral movement that not only will America continue to be abundant but that somehow the rest of the world will as well. But isn't the reality that everyone's lifestyle will need to be curtailed? How do we maintain the prime directive in those circumstances? Wouldn't it require a very radical reassessment of what a sustainable lifestyle is? What are the politics of arguing for that radical change? Is the integral movement embracing the full implications of radical sustainability?
Is it okay to be somewhat complacent with the clear evidence that the current political economy of the planet directly contradicts the prime directive?
The influence of American libertarianism
The American War of Independence was actually more about the freedom of individual businessmen to trade and avoid tax as much as it was about grand ideals of universal freedom. It took the 'rebels' a long time to grant slaves their freedom and then the right to vote. It also took them a long time to extend the vote to women and to Native Americans, in that order. But it didn't take them all that long to burst free of the old borders to conquer the West.
Out of that burst of enthusiasm was born a unique American view of what liberty meant. It meant being free of tax and free of authority. The original rebellion of the colonists was compounded by the freedom afforded to settlers in the ever-expanding frontier where authority was often quite far away. The idea of owning a gun is linked to the idealism of the original patriots and a rugged, survivalist individualism. It is a powerful symbol. If you take my gun you take my freedom and my protection. This view of what liberty means has translated into a uniquely American political expression that seeks limited taxation (America is the lowest taxing country in the OECD), small and limited government, minimal legislation, an obsessive demand to own a gun (despite the high toll in gun deaths) and the exaltation of the individual. The individualism of American political life captured the imagination of a Russian émigré, Ayn Rand, who created a philosophy that idealized and rationalized this individualism.
I am simplifying this for the sake of brevity the essential point is that some members of the Integral community are favourably disposed to the American libertarian argument. This in itself is not a problem provided the advocates are able to transcend the limitations of the argument to reach a truly integral perspective. But there are challenges ahead for this view. The first is that it is an entirely parochial view. It simply does not resonate with other national groups. It is essentially an argument Americans are having with themselves. In fact many national groups are highly suspicious of the American libertarian argument. Some find it outright dangerous and crazy.
This tendency to exalt individualism colours American culture and it therefore colours the integral movement. It colours the integral movement with distinct Orange biases and prejudices. It's like a background noise that is easily ignored because one simply gets used to it. It means that the integral movement itself may never fully appreciate Green. It means that many in the integral movement may be interpreting Yellow through very Orange lenses.
Left versus right
Defining political views as either left or right is a simplistic polarization of a complex issue. Those who wish to pejoratively label someone who disagrees with their views readily use the tag left or right. It's a simple logic. Depending on which side you identify with you can label something as either left or right and therefore as inherently bad and undesirable. Labeling something as either left or right allows you to avoid engaging with the argument. You can just dismiss it. The labels conservative and liberal can be used in the same pejorative manner.
The advantage of Wilber's AQAL model is that you can more accurately define political beliefs. Mark Edwards's recent exploration of Wilber's model adds useful detail, particularly in 'Through AQAL Eyes, Part 3". When we examine the issue of left versus right we discover that:
- Traditionally the right and the left are determined by perceived support of the ruling class or the working class. The right has aligned itself with the interests of capital and the left with the union movement, the marginalized and socialism. Here we have to remember that Purple, Red and Blue become increasingly stratified and create a repressive class system. This class system permeates all societies the left identifies with the 'downtrodden' and the right with the elites. It can be argued that Orange is egalitarian and seeks to modify the class structure (and in so doing creates a large middle-class), but it can also be argued that its 'mean' manifestation makes opportunistic alliances with Red and Blue power structures the middle-class also benefits from labour exploitation.
- Left is associated with progressivism and the right with conservatism. In terms of Wilber's spectrum this means that conservatives tend to want to stabilize the current level whereas progressives want to push through to the new. In modern democracies the conservatives are typically found at Blue and/or Orange and the progressives at Orange and/or Green and/or Yellow. In more traditional societies the conservatives may be at Red or Purple and the progressives at Blue or Orange.
- Wilber has identified a split between external and internal causation. The right and conservatism emphasizes internal causation and the left or progressives emphasize external causation. Whilst this has some validity it does not take account of where people sit on the spectrum. It can be argued that the Hot vMemes emphasize internal causality and the Cool emphasize external causality. For instance Blue conservatives often place importance on the external causes of proper breeding, genetic inheritance, social standing and the right education.
- Another system uses a quadrant to create 'order left', 'order right', 'libertarian left' and 'libertarian right'. However, from a spectrum point of view it is possible to argue that there is a left and right at each level, at least theoretically, until Green, which is supposed to be anti-hierarchical. Marx for example, proposed a system of political evolution from capitalism to socialism and then finally to communism. The communist utopia bears many similarities with a post-Green world. Here it is important to make a very careful distinction between later theoretical developments such as Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism and other variants, all of which became locked into a predominantly Red/Blue leftism with some tinges of modernist 'scientism'. Similarly the right can have its own multi-level manifestations. For instance there is an internal logic in the market that suggests that corporations devolve from the original Orange creative impulse to Blue stratification to aggressive Red protection of its market share.
Yellow, if it has successfully transited Green should not support the class system in any way whatsoever.
It's the Green vMeme, stupid
Clinton famously said 'it's the economy, stupid'. In a similar vein I would argue that it's not so much the Yellow vMeme we should worry about but the Green vMeme. If, as Wilber argues, the majority of the West are at Blue or Orange it follows that the main political agenda ought to be about getting as many to Green as possible. Wilber and Beck's much criticized 'boomeritis' strategy was aimed at shifting Green to Yellow. It's an interesting idea but one that I feel was deeply flawed.
First, it was not unique. There has been a steady criticism of the excesses of postmodernism. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer has highlighted the performative contradiction inherent in moral relativism in 'One World' and it could be argued that Peter Singer is better known and more respected than Wilber.
Second, as I have stated in an earlier article, the notion of Green tinged with Red is an echo of a standard conservative criticism of radicalism. There is considerable variation in the data used to support this claim and it may not be as big a problem as Wilber and Beck claim.
Thirdly, choosing to expound the idea in a rather flippant book may not have been the best tactical move.
Fourthly, the co-author of Spiral Dynamics, Chris Cowan, has been savage in his criticism of Wilber's interpretation of 'boomeritis'. One has to be concerned when one of the originators of a system completely rejects a theory based on their work. Any serious academic will want to know why Beck/Wilber and Cowan seem to have such a fundamental disagreement. One has to ask, is the original work sound? Or has one or the other speculated beyond the reaches of the original work? And if so, who?
In any case I would argue that this is all a sideshow to the main game, that of supporting overall spectrum development. I know the intention was to initiate a shift from Green to Yellow and Don has claimed success in this (this is a claim based on the anecdotal results of people doing his workshops). But what is also clearly evident is an unintended 'dissing' of Green in general.
Wilber created the term 'mean Green meme' (a term Cowan rejects) but many people simply use the term Green to refer to the problem. Increasingly Green itself gets to be the problem. Now I know that the hope is that Yellow, and the much celebrated 'second tier', is supposed to be a superior perspective from which to solve the world's problems and therefore it makes some kind of sense to shift as many from Green to Yellow as possible. But I rather suspect that many who claim to have made the leap to Yellow are in fact still deeply entrenched in Orange. I have argued elsewhere that one of the negative characteristics of Orange is opportunism, so it is well within Orange's native capacities to appropriate the values of other vMemes.
Let me make this absolutely clear you cannot enter Yellow until you have fully integrated Green. You cannot skip a level. Yellow is the result of life conditions that arise out of Green.
Now, as I have argued above, America is coloured by Orange. It is my view that this colouration adds an overall Orange lens to the political analysis of people in the integral movement in the US. I believe it is leading to the situation where the Integral Institute begins to look more and more like any 'leading edge' Orange organization exploiting the latest self-help management theory.
The key is its avoidance of the tough political questions and the absence of a rigorous analysis.
You see another clue is that anyone who is genuinely at Yellow will have deeply understood Green. I agree with Wilber that it is 'transcend AND include'. And what I see in so much of the debate so far is an absence and 'exclusion' of Green. In fact I rather suspect that some of the attack on Green is simply an Orange avoidance tactic.
So anyone who has genuinely entered Yellow ought to see that the main game is shifting the West to Green. Anyone at Yellow ought to see that it is not about Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, that integral isn't about the fusion of two fundamentally Orange liberal democratic parties. Anyone at Yellow ought to see that it is about a far more fundamental and radical change. It's not about surface change but about deep change.
Undermining Blue and Orange or undermining oppressive institutions?
I understand full well that the prime directive demands health for the whole spiral. Don Beck's criticism of the MGM is that it undermines Blue and Orange in its naïve drive for radical change. The MGM is not healthy because it also attacks healthy Blue and healthy Orange.
True but the problem really comes down to what is healthy Blue and healthy Orange? Furthermore one has to separate the surface institutional and social expressions of these vMemes from the actual vMemes themselves. It is possible to change surface institutional forms whilst creating new forms for the healthy expression of all vMemes. Can we honestly say that the WTO and the IMF are healthy organizations? Is there not a great deal of validity in the criticism of the anti-globalization movement? Is this an attack against Blue and Orange itself or an attack on a clearly unjust global economic order?
Isn't there the danger of supporting oppressive surface institutional forms by superficially arguing not to undermine the deep structures of Blue and Orange?
I think it's rather obvious that the Green wave of change that Wilber highlights has only scratched the surface. Really, what has changed? The current Bush administration ought to have made the situation very plain. The 'mean' Blue vMeme is still very strong in America, corporations control the game and democracy is in deep shit. This is because Green did not actually succeed in challenging the 'system' in any fundamental way at all. Power still rests in the hand of the capitalist elite and the rich are getting richer (and more audacious) and the poor are getting poorer (and more desperate).
When there is such a concerted attack by the MBM and MOM on Green doesn't Wilber and Beck's 'boomeritis' notion aid this attack?
It's time for Wilber and Beck to wake up and realize that the so-called 'culture wars' were only surface eruptions that have actually had little impact on the deep systemic problems. It's a side-show to the real issues.
Toward an integral political economy
There are a number of issues that the Integral Institute needs to tackle. These are:
- A thorough critique of the world economic order from the perspective of integral ethics.
- An honest appraisal of neo-liberal economics and economic theory in general.
- A fearless examination of the role of corporations in world political affairs - with particular reference to the way corporate elites dictate the agenda of the White House and Capitol Hill.
- An in-depth analysis of power and how each level uses power to suppress developmental progress, including the creation and maintenance of stratification and inequality.
- A full expose of the American Myth and national myths in general, and how that myth advances American hegemony, including a frank examination of the affect of US hegemony on the world.
- A study of the two party political system in liberal democracies and the rise of centrism and third parties from an integral perspective.
- A reassessment of its own internal strategies to bring it in line with the conclusions it draws from the above.
- Developing an outreach program with activist organizations that share a similar analysis and providing information and education exchange at affordable rates, including scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
If the integral movement wants to be taken seriously in politics then it needs to get serious.
Ray Harris, February, 2003