INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
As Wilber stated in "Bodhisattvas are going to have to become politicians
", over the years his thinking has inevitably lead to a political theory. As early as Up from Eden
(1981), he wrote about "Republicans, Democrats and Mystics", thus looking for a third way compared to the two generally accepted political options in America, which acknowledges the dimensions of depth and psychological growth. In his more recent work, the political dimension is increasingly coming to the fore, see for example The Marriage of Sense and Soul
(1998) and the foreword of volume VIII (available at wilber.shambhala.com
) of The Collected Works of Ken Wilber
. In this essay, Greg Wilpert
explores some of the implications of a political theory which takes Wilbers scheme as point of departure. (FV)
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The following is a sketch of how one might map political ideology. On
the basis of this map, I will point to the direction in which integral
politics would lead. This mapping of political ideologies is based on Wilber's
general framework and agrees to a large extent with his political analysis,
particularly as he outlines it in his introduction to Volume 8 of his collected
works. As a matter of fact, Wilber's analysis of ideologies follows a very
similar schema. Still, there are some important differences of emphasis,
which are probably based on my more leftist political commitments. So as
to keep things brief I will assume that readers are familiar with Wilber's
overall theoretical model.(1)
I identify five dimensions of political ideology, in which one can position
all major ideologies. Of course, when making such an analysis, one must
keep in mind that no belief system, no matter how internally consistent,
will fit perfectly within this logical schema. This analysis is merely
intended to give an idea as to how political ideologies relate to each
other and where one might look for an integral politics, one which respects
the truth content in all ideologies, as Wilber would say.
1st Dimension: Causation
The first dimension is one which Wilber calls causation. It is essentially
the dimension that stretches from left hand (internal) to the right hand
(external) in Wilber's overall scheme. That is, some ideologies believe
that internal (or cultural) factors are the primary causes for making society
what it is. This is basically the approach that falls in line with idealist
philosophy, such as Hegel's. I thus call this side of the first dimension's
spectrum idealism. The other side of the causation spectrum is be materialism,
the belief that it is the external or material/observable conditions that
make our society what it is.
2nd Dimension: Unit of analysis
The second dimension is the ideology's unit of analysis and corresponds
with Wilber's upper and lower quadrants, which stretch from individual
to collective. Some ideologies believe that the individual is the more
significant unit of analysis, while other ideologies believe that it is
the collective, which is the more important unit of analysis.
Using just these two dimensions already gives us a two-dimensional map
of how ideologies relate to each other. Roughly speaking, contemporary
liberalism, as found in the Democratic Party, represents a materialist
approach to politics in that contemporary American liberalism generally
believes that social problems can be solved by changing the material conditions
in which these occur. For example, poverty would be resolved through income
redistribution. Conservatism, on the other hand, as represented by the
Republican Party, believes that internal factors or the cultural belief
system cause social problems. Poverty, according to conservatism, would
thus be solved through a better cultural value system. The liberal and
the conservative camps are internally divided along the second dimension
outlined here, in that within liberalism there is a tension between those
who believe the individual is the one whose integrity needs to be maintained
and those who believe that the collective is more important. The same goes
In its extreme forms, the materialist outlook takes the form of socialism
because it argues that all major injustices in our society are caused by
our economic system. As our economic system is a capitalist one, all extreme
materialist perspectives are basically anti-capitalist and are usually
socialist insofar as they do not propose for society to go back to a pre-capitalist
type of economic system. An individual materialist outlook tends towards
anarchism (or anarcho-socialism), in that anarchism (at least in its anti-capitalist
forms) sees the individual as being the primary unit of analysis whose
integrity needs to be respected. Anarchism is thus anti-state as well as
anti-capitalist. An extreme collectivist materialist outlook would be state
socialism because of its anti-capitalist orientation in its materialism
and in favor of collective organization in the form of the state.
The idealist perspective usually, but not always accepts capitalism
as an economic system because it does not see the economy as a system as
being the cause of social problems. It does, however, sometimes see capitalism-the
belief system-as a problem in that the ideology of capitalism promotes
individualism and greed. The extreme collective idealist perspective is
best represented by fascism in its belief that the cultural value system
is what needs to be changed in order to improve society. The collectivist
aspect of this ideology implies that the state or some other organized
form of the collective has a priority in maintaining the cultural order.
An individual idealist outlook would be libertarianism because this ideology
is anti-statist (collectivist) and sees social problems as the result of
an individual's values.
Other ideologies that fit into this two-dimensional model are neo-liberalism
and neo-conservatism. Neo-liberalism represents an attempt to take liberalism
back to its roots in economic liberalism, where the individual is of primary
importance and the material vs. ideal outlook is of secondary importance.
Neo-liberalism is quite pro-capitalist and in its individualist orientation
close to libertarianism, but it is slightly different in that in contrast
to libertarianism tends to see economic success or failure in both idealist
(individual values) and materialist (systemic) terms. Similarly, neo-conservatism
tries to take conservatism to its roots in its emphasis on the collective,
an emphasis that is equally concerned with material and ideal causation.
Many neo-conservative intellectuals were originally Marxists and never
completely lost that part of their analysis that saw the economic system
as a problem. Their switch to conservatism meant placing more emphasis
on cultural (internal) factors than the Marxists did.
3rd Dimension: Form
If we follow Wilber's philosophical outline, we also have to take into
account the level at which any ideological belief system finds itself.
This represents the third dimension of political ideologies. Here we are
basically talking about the level at which we can locate an ideology's
moral and cognitive system. In other words, some ideologies see the world
from the perspective of an egocentric level, others from a membership level,
and yet others from a universalistic level. Nationalistic ideologies, for
example, see the world from the membership level, where the national in-group
is privileged over everyone else. As Wilber points out, liberalism generally
resides on the universalistic or rational level, while much conservatism
tends to be on the membership level.
Another important ideology, which I have not mentioned yet, is the belief
system of the green or ecology movement. This movement's ideology defines
itself more on the basis of its cognitive and moral level than on the basis
of its unit of analysis (individual or collectivity) or its analysis of
causation (external or internal). That is, the green/ecology movement tends
to take a holistic view that integrates humanity and nature. This perspective
roughly corresponds with Wilber's centauric or vision-logic stage. The
reason I diagram the green ideology in a circle spanning all four quadrants
is that while all green ideologies have this centauric perspective in common
(or at least try to, although all too often in its flatland version, as
Wilber points out), the individuals who share this perspective come from
all four parts of the diagram. The green movement(3)
is currently very divided between libertarian greens, who support capitalism
and individual liberty, anarcho-greens, who oppose capitalism as well as
the state, eco-socialists, who oppose capitalism but support statist policies,
and the eco-conservatives, who believe that a correct cultural value system
I refer to this third dimension of ideology as the "form" of the ideology
in order to contrast it with the fifth dimension of ideology, which is
4th Dimension: Change
The fourth dimension is change. That is, following Wilber's conception
of the depth and levels of reality, some ideologies argue for progressive
transformative change, others prefer regression, and some no change at
all. Wilber's analysis of our flatland culture figures quite importantly
here because our contemporary culture has practically eliminated any political
ideologies that argue for transformative change. One of the very few ideologies
that supports transformative change is Marxism, in that it argues that
capitalism is merely one stage in the development of society and that anyone
who is concerned with the full development of humanity should fight for
the next stage, which would be Communism according to Marx.
Thus, the type of change an ideology desires can be, to use Wilber's
terminology, transformative in that it seeks to move society or individuals
from one level of development to another, translative, in that it seeks
to maintain society or individuals at their current level, or regressive,
in that it seeks to move society or individuals to an earlier developmental
level. As stated earlier, practically all contemporary ideologies are translative--"flatland."
A further twist in this dimension of ideologies lies in the proposals
for how change is to come about. This distinction applies primarily to
transformative ideologies, but could also apply to others. Some argue that
change ought to come about via detailed proposals for how to do things
better. This approach has frequently resulted in the criticism that such
planned change will almost inevitably lead towards authoritarian disaster
because one is planning what people should or should not do. This is particularly
the criticism that has traditionally been leveled against Marxism (although
inappropriately, as Marx never laid out what communism should look like)
and Leninism (appropriately because the soviet system did try to force
everyone to accept its vision of the good society). The alternative to
planned change is change via critique. That is, instead of proposing how
things should be done, this perspective argues that it is better to say
how things should not be done or how they are being done poorly. The task
of finding a better way of doing things is supposed to evolve more or less
out of the specific circumstances themselves and are merely guided by critique.(5)
A main representative of the negative or critical approach to social
change is Theodor Adorno (and Jacques Derrida to a certain extent too).
Adorno argues that planned social change (he would refer to it as "positivistic")
ends up in totalitarianism and instead counter-proposes a "negative dialectics"
that finds progressive social change through negation rather than affirmation.
I believe that the negative or critical approach to social change has
a very strong case. I do not think that it is a coincidence that so many
of the prescriptive models did indeed end up in totalitarian social constructions,
despite the best intentions of their founders. I suspect this is also generally
the reason why people find it so easy to accuse Wilber of totalitarian
tendencies (with which I completely disagree with). His system is to a
large degree predicated on the attempt to outline what the higher levels
(at least of consciousness) would look like. In recent times there has
been a backlash against the purely negative or critical approach to social
change, especially now that there are practically no prominent prescriptive
models of how to organize society. The result of all this critique without
vision has been cynicism--a certainty that everything humans have to offer
is somehow flawed, that humans are basically evil, and that there is nothing
anyone can do about it. As a result, I believe it is important to balance
both the negative and affirmative approaches to social change. One might
call this approach "critical positivism" or "critical dialectics".
5th Dimension: Content
This last dimension is not so much a dimension of ideology but an attempt
to highlight that all belief systems have a unique specificity that cannot
be reduced to the previous four dimensions. That is, a belief, an idea,
a perspective, a moral commitment, has aspects to it that are unique and
that one cannot categorize the way the other four dimension's aspects are
categorizable. For example, anti-semitism is a racist or ethno-centric
belief that was part of the Nazi ideology, an ideology one can classify
as having an extreme collectivist analysis, an internal explanation for
causation, and that took the mythic form. However, the fact that this ideology
identified Jews as its particular target is the result of a unique historical
constellation and has nothing to do with the ideology's location in this
scheme. I am inclined to say that the content of political ideologies is
just as important as its formal structure when we are trying to make sense
of the role ideologies play in our politics. (6)
Ultimately, an integral politics that follows in Wilber's footsteps
is a politics that takes each of the dimensions (or as Wilber phrases it,
quadrants and levels) seriously. This means in practical terms a recognition,
first, that causation is both internal and external: both our cultural
value system and our social institutions equally shape our condition. Second,
that our analysis needs to honor both the collective and the individual:
human life is not possible without the collective nor without the autonomous
individual. And third, that fulfilling our human potential means exhausting
each level of development and then moving on to the next. Clearly, this
outline is much too general for a practical political program. One cannot
develop practical politics out of logical abstractions, but only in relation
to a concrete social and historical analysis. But that is the topic for
another paper (or book).
1. Of particular relevance here are Wilber's Sex,
Ecology, Spirituality; A Brief History of Everything; and Marriage
of Sense and Soul.
2. This two-dimensional model is basically the same
as the one Wilber outlines in his Introduction to Volume 8 of his Collected
Works. Another theorist who has the same model is Lawrence Chickering (1993)
in his Beyond Left and Right.
3. Having grown up in Germany, I am actually much
more familiar with the German green movement than with its US counterpart.
So what I say here might not quite apply to the US. Still, considering
that the German green movement is one of the strongest in the world, it
is legitimate to use this movement as an example of green ideology.
4. By Communism Marx did not have in mind state socialism
as it was implemented in the Soviet Union. Instead, he believed a Communist
society to be a society in which "the full development of each is a condition
for the full development of all," and where all of society's benefits would
flow "to each according to his needs and from each according to his ability."
I am in substantial disagreement with Wilber's
interpretation of Marx. Well, to be fair, Wilber says he is talking about
Marxism and not Marx. But Wilber's readers, who know about Marx only through
what he writes, will get a view that has been distorted by "vulgar" Marxism.
Wilber says that Marx was only concerned with the material realm and reduced
all human activity and productivity to this realm. In other words, according
to Wilber, Marx was merely concerned with the physio-sphere. This is true
to an extent, in the sense that people need to eat before they can philosophize.
But Marx' primary concern was with finding higher forms of social organization
through the critique of the capitalist economy and the blockages in evolution
that it creates at the level of the physio-sphere.
5. I would like to note here that there is fundamental
parallel between social critique and meditation. Both techniques are meant
to deconstruct, preserve, and raise to a new level ("Aufhebung" is what
Hegel called this). The difference between the two is that while meditation
is for individuals, social critique is for society. The basic principle
is similar so that one can call social critique a form of social meditation.
6. I think that Wilber's entire system too easily
leads to an analysis where the formal structural qualities take precedence
over the unique and historical. In other words, that form takes precedence
over content, even though one is not possible without the other.