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Ray Harris Ray Harris is a frequent contributor to this website. He has written articles on 9/11, boomeritis and the Iraq war. In this essay he questions the integral nature of so-called Third Way political views. Harris lives in Australia and can be contacted at: [email protected]

Is the Third Way
Really Integral?

Ray Harris

One of the areas that I find Wilber's work to be problematic is in its political vision. I find some of his comments to show a distinct lack of in-depth analysis and a lack of political imagination. Make no mistake, I greatly admire his work, but politics is not his strong point.

His analytical weakness is evident when he makes the claim that the 'third way' politics of Tony Blair is evidence of integral thinking.

"That Blair has also been an authentic pioneer in "third way" politics (cf. A Theory of Everything), which is one of the first serious moves toward an integral politics that unites the best of liberal and conservative, is perhaps no surprise."[1]


Not many people realize that the 'third way' has its origins in Australia. In 1972 a radically reformist Labor party gained office. It is remembered for both its progressive social agenda and its economic mismanagement. It was defeated in 1975 in a highly controversial double dissolution. A lack luster decade of Liberal government followed. In 1983 the Hawke Labor government gained power vowing to avoid the economic mistakes of its now famous and infamous predecessor. It is also essential to understand that this was during the period of the great neo-liberal economic reforms of Thatcher and Regan. Any government in power during this period of zealotry had to address a fundamental move from Keynesian economics to neo-liberal economics, which was matched by a notable move to a generalized ideological shift to the right. The Australian Labor Party was perhaps the first progressive social democratic party to have to answer to the new international climate. And it did so by moving to the right itself - in fact Paul Keating initiated the first neo-liberal economic reforms in Australia. Critics of this move to the right claimed that it was merely a cynical, strategic move to gain office engineered by the extreme pragmatism of the hard men of the New South Wales 'right' faction. It was noted as "a kinder road to hell" or "old poison in a new bottle".

The strategy worked. The Hawke government became the longest running Labor government in Australian history. A fact noted by the British Labour party. During the 80's there was direct communication between strategists in Australia and Britain. Blair's New Labour was influenced both by the ALP and Clinton's Democrats. Blair was friends with Paul Keating and visited Australia. Key ALP strategists visited England. As Tony Blair himself says.

"…the ALP has got a lot we can learn from. It combines a very tough headed practicality with strong social values. It has got good relationship not just with public enterprise but with the private sector and it had a very successful campaigning record as a political party…"[2]

Certainly here in Australia the general view is that the importance of the Hawke government lies in its electoral strategy. And now the ALP is paying the price for its move to the right. It is now perceived to have lost its way. This is a subject we will return to.

The other influence on the 'third way' was Clinton's shift to the centre-right. As Pierson and Castles put it:

"Of course, Clinton's embrace of the New Progressivism went with a much more mundanely political ambition to re-position the Democrats as a party which could appeal successfully to the voters of 'Middle America' (the target audience for his 1991 speech). It was certainly quite as much Clinton's electoral success as his policy reorientation – or perhaps, above all, the way in which political reformulation was married to electoral strategy – that so impressed British Labour Party modernizers in the 1990's."[3]


No, bluntly. The 'third way' is simply a shift to the centre-right. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a transcendence and inclusion of a previous level. It is simply a horizontal juggling of policy priorities to capture the electoral middle ground. In Spiral Dynamic terms it is a concentration of the political spectrum in the Orange band.

To understand this better we need to fully understand where the major political parties tend to fall in the SD spectrum.

The conservative parties (The Republicans, The Australian Liberal Party and the British Conservative Party) capture the vote of the wealthier members in the Blue/Orange bands.

The progressive parties (The Democrats, The Australian and British Labour Parties) traditionally represent the poorer members of society, the working class, and they span a broader spectrum from Blue through to Green. Blue is represented in traditional working class union politics and Green arises out of the process of radicalization inherent in a class-based politics. There has always been an 'old left' caucus based on traditional union politics and a 'new left' caucus based on the various 'causes' of social progressivism. Aspects of the union movement have always been socially conservative on some issues (i.e. feminism, gay rights, pacifism, environmentalism and multi-culturalism). The ALP of the 80's saw a shift from the socially progressive agenda of the previous Whitlam government, in other words Green, to a more pragmatic Orange agenda. This has actually alienated both the Blue and Green wings of the ALP.

The ALP is now in serious electoral trouble. The current Howard Liberal government, like Bush, has moved further to the right and controls the Blue agenda, including the Blue members of the working class who have always been xenophobic and 'patriotic', the so-called Labor 'heartland'.

The progressives, the Green 'memers' are also leaving the party. And they are heading toward the only progressive alternative, the coincidently named Green Party.

Something similar now seems to happening in Britain, especially as a result of the Iraq 'intelligence' fiasco. A good deal of Blair's gloss has been removed. He stands somewhat exposed.

But should we be surprised? Not at all. The whole episode reeks of the MOM, the Mean Orange Meme. MOM is marked by pragmatism to the point of opportunism and cynicism. In fact the whole 'third way' revolution is exposed as mere spin – thus echoing the concerns raised about the ALP in the 80's – that the main point of the exercise was to gain power. MOM doesn't believe in grand visions, in ideology. It believes in results. Its style of politics is about negotiating power in a managerial, corporatist manner. It is about personal political ambition over the politics of vision. And note; I am talking about the 'mean' version.

The 'third way' in Britain has been managed by the think-tank Nexus. Nexus is very closely related to the PR firm LLM Communications. In fact it is believed that LLM created Nexus to give intellectual credibility to the electoral strategy of New Labour. This should not be surprising. It is a standard practice for a political push or special interest (corporate or private) to create a think tank to give credibility to its message. The political scene is rife with purpose created think tanks, the most recently notorious being the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century (see links in previous articles).

The problem with the MOM is that it easily gets caught up in its own spin. All three governments (Blair, Howard and Bush) have been caught out adjusting the truth to suit their political purposes. All three administrations have had problems with political advisors blocking or editing uncomfortable facts. It is the victory of spin over substance, the dominance of opportunism over careful long-term strategic thinking. It is most certainly not integral.

The investigative journalist Greg Palast has written a damning expose of the back room machinations of LLM and the consultants that surround Blair. It reads as a primer in political cynicism.

"Lawson explained how LLM plays on what they call ' politics without leadership'. In a milieu in which lack of conviction is deemed an asset, with no fixed set of principles by which to steer, policy is susceptible to the last pitch heard over cocktails."[4]

The rest of Palast's account reveals an even deeper cynicism and a web of opportunistic deals to warm the heart of any MOM lobbyist. And now that we have the 'intelligence scandals' revealed can we be surprised?


I have a confession. Like Wilber I thought Tony Blair showed a great deal of promise (see The Memes at War, part 3). However, I didn't go so far as to say he was integral, or had a "second-tier mind", merely that he was making some Green comments during the Afghan war. During the Iraq war it was a different story. Blair seemed to be essentially Blue with a faint attempt at Green.

But what does Wilber say? Let's pull apart some of his comments.

"Nor can he be charged with "trying to protect his oil interests," because Britain is a net exporter of oil."

This comment simply ignores the long history of British involvement in oil in the Middle East. When the CIA installed the Shah in Iran it was at the request of the British because the previous government had threatened to nationalize a British owned oil company. In fact prior to WW2 much of the Middle East was under British influence, an inheritance of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1.

Furthermore this repeats the naïve oil argument, that the Iraq war was about getting Iraqi oil. It was never that crude or simple. The real aim was to strategically 'contain' the whole region and thereby 'influence' OPEC and the oil industry in general (and one only has to see how things have unfolded to see how true that is). It must clearly be remembered that the oil industry is dominated by Anglo-American interests, and has been for many decades. Iraq, as an independent actor (and one moving to the euro), was a destabilizing force. A destabilization of the oil market would be as disastrous to Britain as it would be to the US, despite Britain being a net exporter.

"He has insisted that the entire Iraqi situation be set in the context of a "two nation" policy with regard to Palestine and Israel, thus "giving" the Arab nations something in return, so to speak (but something they should be given in any event)."

Again we need to remember the history of British involvement in the Middle East, at the time of the creation of the state of Israel Palestine (like Iraq) was a British protectorate. There is a long history here and Britain has always seen itself as a player in the region. Not only because of oil but because of key trade routes, including the essential Suez Canal. I doubt that Blair is concerned outside the traditional British policy of keeping a close eye on American actions in the area. This is no great integral insight, merely a continuation of British suspicion as Machiavellian foreign policy.

"Blair, almost single-handedly, is sitting between America and Europe and screaming at both of them: you cannot start competing and fighting with each other-that road leads to more nightmares than you can imagine. Like the colossus at Rhodes, Blair has one foot in America and one foot in Europe, and heroically seems the only world leader attempting to keep that integration in existence."

Heroically? This comment ignores the debate in England about belonging to Europe. The simple fact is that England, since WW2, has made its alliance with the US its primary defence strategy. It keeps close to its 'friend' because it mistrusts it at the same time as being intricately linked to it commercially and militarily. Many in Europe would regard this elevation of Blair to hero status with derision. Britain is simply acting as it has always done. Blair is following the advice of the Foreign Office, he is simply trying to steer the most advantageous course for Britain between Europe and America. In foreign affairs one must always look past the expected rhetoric to the actual commercial and strategic agreements. And at the moment Britain is trying to position itself as distinct from Europe. Blair's comments are not about an integral vision of a bridge across the Atlantic, they are about strategically positioning England to be in the most advantageous negotiating position with both America and, truth be told, inevitably Europe. The real question to ask here is, if the euro, as the result of the Iraqi deal, was strengthened against the falling dollar, how would the British economy fair? If the euro became the stronger wouldn't that push England toward Europe, a direction they are not ready to go?

But hiding behind Wilber's comments seems to be a naïve belief that Prime Ministers and Presidents direct policy and world affairs - that they really are in charge. The reality is of course quite different. Decisions are made in the context of an extensive back room network. Speeches are written by speech writing departments and all decisions are vetted by a multitude of departments and aids. Many of these departments actively seek to protect a certain continuity of decision. Radical foreign policy departures are very, very rare. The events of 9/11 were a rare eruption that allowed a radical policy departure. But even then events followed a pre-determined policy outcome. It is a matter now of the public record that the so-called Neocons had wanted to evade Iraq well before 9/11 and had even tried to persuade Clinton.

So why does Wilber make such simplistic comments? Well, to be fair to him he often doesn't want to make political comments. He faces a certain amount of pressure to do so. Furthermore it's not an area he spends a lot of time thinking about. Whilst Iraq was happening he's had his head in more abstract matters. It's just not his strong point. But fundamentally I think he's been let down by his milieu, a milieu that seems unable to think outside the two party system. I mean, how can we seriously suggest that integral means a fusion between conservative and liberal? Yes, it's an integration, but it's an integration toward the Orange centre, it is not the inclusion and transcendence of the previous level to a higher synthesis.


To follow Wilber's Integral model an Integral politics must be, to use his current fascination with calculus, something like this. Let X be Integral Politics and a, b, c, etc be developmental levels. Then X = (a) x (a + b) x (a + b + c) x (a + b + c + d), etc. In other words, a true integral politics is not a fusion of Blue and Orange; it is a skilful fusion and transcendence of all horizontal and vertical trends in the given polity. And as far as I can tell Wilber seems to almost completely ignore the leading edge of politics.

So what's going on? As I have argued before Wilber has a kind of blind spot. In teaming with Don Beck to create the notion of the MGM (Mean Green Meme) he seems to ignore the importance and implications of Green and emerging Yellow politics and reduces the debate to a simplistic duality – a fusion of Blue conservatism and Orange progressivism - remembering that the MGM was blamed for subverting the positive aspects of both of these memes. And oddly enough this criticism, couched in SD terms, closely echoes a standard conservative criticism of the radical sixties. As one commentator puts it:

"…conservatives described the rebels as self-indulgent anarchists, driven by unresolved Oedipal rage to destroy the values that their parental generation stood for."[5]

In other words, the famous Green tinged with Red.

Now I've pulled this argument apart in 'Rescuing the Green Meme' so I won't go into it here. But what I want to point out is that Wilber's Green blind spot leads him to deal with the positive aspects of Green somewhat dismissively. Sure, he acknowledges that Green has done some wonderful things, but when it comes down to it his political vision is still lacks imagination and still inhabits the two party world that allows him to inflate Blair, a creature of the Orange middle-ground, to an heroic, integral Colossus of Rhodes – rather than a severely compromised politician in a corrupt and cynical, MOM milieu.

What Wilber is ignoring is the fact that, inherently, Green and Yellow, and of course Turquoise, operate predominantly outside the two party political system. So describing a synthesis of conservative and liberal as integral is somewhat redundant and absurd.

If integral politics is to be true to its name it has to be aware that the leading edge is moving away from the two party system, tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, into a much more fluid political landscape.

So what issues should integral politics engage? I can't be comprehensive because as I write new political forms are arising. But I can make some suggestions.

  1. It is a move toward deep democracy. This includes a commitment to work with people where they are in a very inclusive way. It includes working with horizontal cultural translations and with vertical developmental levels. It works in communities to transform the political culture. It is bottom up, not top down. It also challenges personality types that are inherently non-democratic and develops a personal democratic ethic. It avoids party affiliation.
  2. It is a move to peer to peer networks (P2P) and amorphous organisations. In this sense people come together for specific purposes and create an adaptable organisational form over the time it takes to perform the task. The anti-globalisation movement is actually a network of disparate groups ranging from church groups, trade unionists and environmentalists.
  3. It fundamentally challenges corporatism. One of the peculiarities of the current social order is that it is schizophrenic. Our civic culture is nominally democratic but our economic culture is profoundly undemocratic. This split actually acts to degrade true democratic practice. Therefore the challenge is to develop new economic ways of being that support deep democratic practices, such as worker control, undoing the cult of the CEO and of speculative investment. It also involves restructuring accounting practices toward 'triple bottom line' practices (environment, social and business costs) and moving from a corporate model to a co-operative model.
  4. It is global and it is local - at the same time. It respects and promotes cultural and sub-cultural distinction but is also profoundly interested in and connected to multiple sub-cultural fusions. The nation-state becomes increasingly irrelevant. Concomitantly this involves a reorganising of global governance away from national entities toward non-governmental organisations.

Now what the MGM conceptions fails to explain is how the new and positive political expressions can co-exist with the previous Blue and Orange structures. Every transition from one level to another involves dissipation of some degree. This is not the immature rebellion of some radicals, but a natural effect of the transition from one centre of gravity to another. Some things have to give way and disruption is inevitable. Sometimes it's not a question of preserving the previous Blue and Orange institutional structures but of finding new ways to satisfy the needs of Blue and Orange, whilst accommodating emergent forms.

We need to think outside the box.


  1. Ken Wilber, The War in Iraq,
  2. Quoted in "Australian Antecedents of the Third Way" Chris Pierson, Francis Castles
  3. Quoted in "Australian Antecedents of the Third Way" Chris Pierson, Francis Castles
  4. "Australian Antecedents of the Third Way".
  5. "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" Greg Palast, pg 282
  6. The Return of the Roundheads, Denis Kenny, Dissent, Issue 10

Ray Harris August 2003

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