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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].


The Ensouling of Community and the Emergent Spirit of Society

Joe Corbett

The next stage of human evolution will require no less than a participatory spirituality with socialist dimensions.

In my article on The Post-metaphysical Meaning of Soul and Spirit, I claim that soul, following a literal interpretation of the AQAL model as a map of the Great Chain of Being, is not an ethereal ghost or subtle body of the individual, like some personal immortal self assigned to each and every person relative to their unique conscious perspective and karmic footprint, something like the spiritual equivalent of Einsteinian relativity. Instead, soul is a nonlocal collective entity of cultural entanglement and shared inter-subjectivity, more like the participative consciousness of quantum theory. What many believe to be their soul is actually their mind, creatively imagined and experienced in altered states of consciousness, whereas the soul is strictly a collective phenomenon of empathic bonding between people and whatever lasting traces come from that, with love and compassion being among its highest expressions, in the lower-left quadrant.

Likewise, spirit is not some holy ghost or divine apparition of inspiration as is commonly conceived, but an emergent (chaotic aftermath) property of the relation between real things, an unfolding of their inter-objective existence through time, in the lower-right quadrant. Therefore, spirit is a whole greater than the sum of its parts, an inter-objective and transcendent entity with intimations of the Infinite and Eternal, a temporal representative of universal being and consciousness, manifested by the expansionary (eros) and evolutionary (chaotic) forces of the impersonal (collective, objective, transcendent) spirit of inter-objective relations generating increasingly complex wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. As a manifestation in the lower-right quadrant, society too is an emergent property of the chaotic forces between the relations of real things, whether those things be political and economic classes or the technological linkages these classes have with the energy resources of their surrounding environments.


Subjective reality



Objective reality



Inter-subjective reality

Quantum theory


Inter-objective reality

Chaos theory

At the turn of the 19th century Hegel claimed that spirit, by which he meant Reason as the consciousness of the cosmos, takes its highest form in the Idea of the nation-state, the highest institutional form of human evolution up to that time, and therefore the highest temporal embodiment of God in history. Hegel, then, would have agreed that society, at least in the form of the nation-state, is an emergent property of the dialectical relations between real things in the world, and that this was an evolutionary process of the unfolding of spirit in history. And Marx would have agreed as well, society is an evolutionary expression of a dialectic between things in the real world, but not the dialectic of the ideas of men and the actions of consciousness upon itself, but rather the dialectic of material forces such as labor, land, resources, and technology, and the pressures these exert upon the prevailing social relations of men to change and transform themselves as individual and collective beings.

The spirit of society (lower-right) is therefore a self-organizing relation between the parts of an open system that has both inputs from and outputs to the material forces (upper-right) and cultural inter-subjectivities (lower-left) of the larger socio-historical context. Individual consciousness and the self (upper-left) both shapes and is shaped by the dialectics of all these factors together in the tetra-emergent reality we know as the evolutionary unfolding of civilization.

This historical unfolding has gone from the simple foraging and hunter-gatherer groups of early archaic and magical stages of human development to the more complexly differentiated agricultural communities and stratified-states of early authoritarian and religious civilizations, to the still more differentiated feudal and industrial hierarchies of the landed and wage-slaves of more recent times. Today the insidious differentiations of past top-down hierarchies are being replaced, with reference to Negri and Hardt, not by the violent revolution of an anti-modernity but by the quiet revolution of an alter-modernity in the form of a multitude of distributed networks of open source peer-2-peer cooperative movements and their corresponding cultural values of sharing and the gift. Indeed, as Michel Bauwens suggests, the next Buddha will be collective.

However it is not automatic or inevitable that the dynamic unfolding process of the spirit of society toward increasing organizational complexity in decentralized networks will be either emancipating or liberating of human potential. After all, it is precisely the decentralized networks of the new information technologies that have enabled global capital to more efficiently divide, conquer, exploit and alienate laborers (real human beings) from themselves under the regime of post-industrial neo-liberalism. This it has done by bypassing any obligatory concern or care for either human community (lower-left) or the body of nature (upper-right) in the one-dimensional pursuit of self-interest (upper-left) in search of profit (lower-right).

The spirit of society as a collective Buddha will require more than just the self-organizing tendency toward increasing complexity between the parts of a technologically distributed system of actors and institutions. It will require real human beings to make the inter-subjective bonds of soulful compassion and mutual understanding through empathy. Realizing the power and wealth of the Buddha among and between us will require a deep connection to one another, an unbreakable bond of love and trust that now only our closest relationships can give us within the competitive system of capitalism.

The next evolutionary emergence of society, of spirit in history, will require the re-ensouling of society itself based on the realization and practice of our deepest humanity in a shared commons. The next stage of human evolution will require no less than a participatory spirituality with socialist dimensions. Anything less will surely doom spirit to a godless and terminal unfolding.

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