Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

More essays by Ray Harris | Ray Harris' website:
Ray Harris 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: [email protected].

"The evolution of the individual does not require excess surplus.
It only requires sufficient surplus to meet each developing need."


Ray Harris

From each according to their ability,
to each according to their developmental need.

(apologies to Karl)
This is addressed to the growing, but nebulous, integral community. It is an attempt to 'begin' to answer some of the questions I posed in 'Left, right or just plain wrong'. Though it will at times mention the work of Ken Wilber and touches on the system of Spiral Dynamics, it also wishes to move beyond some of their limitations.
It is also necessarily brief and no doubt suffers for it. Volumes and volumes have been written on the subject of political economy. So these are only introductory generalizations designed to stimulate a discussion. They are not meant to be conclusive or comprehensive.

Politics is economics and economics is politics. The two cannot be separated. Any economic theory is also a political theory. What an economist chooses to measure is a political decision. Economics is not neutral, it is not a science. It is burdened with the weight of human values.

Surplus and deficit

Since the beginning of time humanity has gradually built up an excess of goods beyond its primary needs. The very early hunter gatherers may have barely survived but by the Neolithic era extensive trade routes crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East. Whatever humanity had in excess it could trade. Wealth is simply the amount of surplus one has. How one uses that surplus is a political decision.

Political anthropology

Anthropology has delineated several distinct developmental stages in the political organization of societies. These are:

  1. Family groups.
    - without domestication
    - with domestication
  2. Local group
    - Acephalous local group
    - Big man collectivity
  3. Regional polity
    - Chiefdom
    - Early state
    - Nation state

I would also argue that we are seeing the development of a further stage, the creation of a global meta-state. This itself has two sub-stages, the creation of an empire based on a nation state (there have been various historical attempts) and the creation of a final global empire that absorbs nation states.

The hierarchy of needs.

Abraham Maslow first coined the term the hierarchy of needs. Integral theorists have adapted that idea. The hierarchy is as follows:

  1. Physical
  2. Safety
  3. Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self actualization.

I have modified them thus:

  1. Physical. Sustenance and freedom from injury and illness.
  2. The need to belong and to have a place within a meaningful order.
  3. The need to be an individual
  4. The need to exist as an individual (centauric) within a community of individuals.
  5. The need to find meaning within a transpersonal order.

There are some conflations and some modifications, the reasons for which will become apparent.

The surplus of needs

One of the fundamental principles of an integral political economy is that a surplus created at one level of need is used to correct a deficit at the next level of need.

The creation of the next surplus necessitates the change from one level of organization to the next.

A deficit of a core need creates a devolutionary movement.

When a tribe or clan satisfies the first need of sustenance and safety it begins to use the subsequent surplus to maintain an elaborate ritual process based around the second need of identity and belonging. Tribes develop distinct cultures which at this stage of development are somewhat polymorphous (matrilineal, patrilineal, matrifocal, patrifocal, sex-negative, sex-positive, aggressive, passive, etc). Animals are sacrificed to gods, excess agricultural produce is used in elaborate ritual feasts, and so forth.

This results in the eventual stratification of society into, typically: a ruling class, a warrior class, a peasant class and a priestly class. At this level surplus is used to mark one's position in the system and to facilitate upward mobility.

Once one has secured a surplus of social needs the need to become an individual arises. The creation of wealth amongst the merchant class of Europe created a political pressure against the old, feudal order that eventuated in a complex social movement now known as modernity. In ancient Greece a relatively stable and wealthy social order allowed individual thinkers to develop philosophy (which still informs us today) and allowed a form of democracy to arise.

A surplus of individualism creates the tension necessary to move to the next stage, the modification of a surplus of selfish individualism to meet newly understood deficit of systemic and meta-systemic needs. For example, the individual right to consumption is balanced against the need to protect the environment, an individual's rights are balanced against the rights of others, the developmental need of one is constrained by the developmental needs of many.

Class and complexity

As a surplus builds in a stratified society certain strata or classes of that society benefit more than others. Feudal Europe began as a series of chiefdoms that eventually coalesced (mostly violently through waves of conquest) into the early state and then into the nation state. The various local chiefs became feudal lords, these lords then became subject to a king, and then the king became either subject to a parliament or deposed and replaced by a republic. However the patterns of wealth of the original lords continued. The most obvious example is Great Britain. It is also important to note that within the new republics, such as America, the wealthy tend to mimic the traditional pattern, creating dynastic wealth and power. It is interesting to note how the Kennedy dynasty became known as 'Camelot'.

The wealthier classes have a greater ability to satisfy the hierarchy of needs. The poorer class naturally have less ability. Depending on how the overall surplus is distributed any given society may have groups of people struggling to secure the first two needs. The most marginalized groups struggle to secure physical needs. Those who have secured the basic physical needs struggle to find identity and meaning within the larger social context. This latter group may express this through the creation of sub-cultures. These sub-cultures will tend to express themselves through the correlated level of political organization. Hence urban gangs organize themselves as big man collectivities.

Class conflict

A natural state of tension exists between these classes as each attempts to expand their surplus and develop the hierarchy of needs. The task of those classes lower on the heap is to increase their surplus. The task of those higher on the heap is to both protect their existing surplus and to build upon it.

As history has shown one of the methods of maintaining and building a surplus is to use a class of people as cheap labour. The most obvious is slavery, widely practiced in both Europe and the Middle East. Greek and Roman society was built on slavery.

But as slavery became ethically unacceptable it was still acceptable for the higher classes to demand that the lower classes be paid as little as possible. The lower classes are kept at a minimum wage, but they are also denied a sense of identity and the full rights of an individual. Class oppression is not just about lack of access to material goods, it is also about lack of access to pride, respect and self-confidence, and it is also about the loss of individual rights – a wealthy resident of Beverley Hills will be treated quite differently by the authorities in comparison to a homeless bum.

The globalization of stratification

As nation states undertook empire building the various client cultures became part of the overall class system. The process of colonialism turned whole groups of people into 'second class' members of the master nation. Wealth was sucked from them and in return they were oppressed by the higher classes of the colonial power. This mostly affected the second core need of identity. The source of the greatest conflict today is the post-colonial reassertion of identity.

At the same time that this is happening the process of globalization is turning the entire globe into a single (but complex) system of stratification where the third world provides the resources and cheap labour necessary to maintain the industrialized world's surplus.

Evolution, stagnation and devolution

There is no guarantee that a society will progress. Many factors come into play. In the past some societies have expanded their surplus and evolved into early states either to be over run by a competing group or to collapse due to internal contradictions. Sometimes a society will exhaust the resources available to it.

A society can also develop beliefs that inhibit its natural evolution. Sometimes these beliefs reject technological advance, sometimes they reject ideological advance.

Each level has the tendency to create rigid norms. The dialectic of evolution challenges these norms and can create periods of great conflict as evolutionary pressure fights against stagnation and contradictions seek resolution. These evolutionary surges are the movements and redistributions of surplus (on many levels), as carried by certain classes. Sometimes the evolutionary pressure builds to the point of revolutionary eruption.

The subsequent disruption in the flow of surplus and the creation of a deficit can lead to devolution. The political revolution in Russia so disrupted the social order that the society devolved to a nation state based on big man principles. The social disruption of WW1 in Europe sowed the seeds for fascism. The whole region seemed to devolve into dictatorships based essentially on the attempt to create new identities. Hitler tried to create a new Germanic identity and Stalin tried to create a new 'Communist' identity. The subsequent WW2 disrupted the old colonial patterns across the entire globe resulting in the birth of new nations and new identity politics. Regional wars blossomed. Some of the areas of conflict devolved at an alarming rate. The totalitarian 'big man' experiment of Cambodia collapsed the economy and the people to the first level of sustenance, with the consequent collapse of the social order. Other experiments evolved, if not under difficult circumstances. India continues to struggle forward, creating a new middle class that is beginning to absorb Western patterns of individualism.

Integral ethics

As a society develops along the evolutionary continuum more and more of its citizens convert the surplus into individual psychological development (as outlined by several developmental schemes). A surplus allows a society to develop an intellectual culture and to create a system of teaching. Increased leisure allows time to expand experience and time for reflection. A tribesman eking out a living in a desert environment may have neither the time or energy to have the experiences that will trigger developmental progress.

The creation of an open, intellectual culture allows more citizens to develop to their highest potential.

The highest developmental stages (cognitive, moral, and values) all recognize a higher ethical imperative. Wilber and Beck (after Graves) have called this a shift to Second Tier. At this level individuals realize that the health of each level is better realized through the health of the whole spectrum. Wilber has termed this ethical imperative the Prime Directive, which he defines as the greatest depth for the greatest span.

First Tier ethics are based on self-interest and are focused on a narrow 'identity' group.

In an integral political economy the Prime Directive is translated thus. The best way to ensure a healthy society is to ensure that each level is able to secure its core need, develop a surplus, and transmute that surplus into an evolutionary movement to the next level.

A First Tier political economy is focused on selfish control of the surplus to the benefit of a narrowly defined 'identity' group. In a complex society these 'identity' groups are both (and/or) as small as an individual and as large as a sub-culture (based on religion, ethnicity, ideology, corporate interest, class, etc). The politics of this level is competitive and based around multiple, temporary alliances and rivalries. It is based on the win/lose paradigm – or its variation, the 'I win more/you win a bit less' paradigm.

The 'terrible' twins? – capitalism and socialism

Many people confuse the fundamental trading paradigm with capitalism. Since the beginning of trade the basic principles of 'buy low – sell high' and supply/demand have applied. Many ancient societies developed rules to ensure fair trade. Cheating is as old as history. Many a violent act, both individual and social (such as war), has been committed over trade and access to resources.

But capitalism is a modern development. Although its origins are debated it is generally understood that capitalism, as distinct from commerce as such, arose in England as a result of the agrarian revolution caused by the 'enclosure acts'. These were a series of acts of parliament that essentially handed common land used by peasants to wealthy landowners, in other words, open lands were enclosed and privatized (this was accomplished in stages over a long period). This did a number of things. It displaced thousands of peasants who lost the ability to provide for themselves and turned them into waged workers. It also turned the landowners into landlords (the origin of the word) who then charged a rent for land that had previously been rent free. This then created capital which could be used either as investment or as social leverage. The enclosure acts coincided with the beginning of the industrial revolution and the landless peasants became the workers in the new factories. John Locke is one of the early economists - he developed the idea of labour adding value through improvement.

The new social force of English capitalism soon came to dominate other mercantile systems.

But as is well known the industrial revolution created the horrors of labour exploitation. Desperate peasants, including children, were forced to work long hours in poor conditions for subsistence wages.

The response to this was a counter argument that emphasized the notion of the social good over the requirements of profit. Many reformist movements originated in England and Europe. The anti-slavery movement, the anti-child exploitation movement (both child labour and child prostitution were common) and the trade union movement arose in response to the exploitive nature of capitalism. Along with these movements came the development of a competing ideology generally known as socialism. There are several forms of socialism; Owenism, Proudhonism, Anarchism and of course Marxism and its many variants.

An integral political economy would recognize that both capitalism and socialism are essentially opposite sides of the same coin – the modernist revolution that created a rapid development and redistribution of surplus (aided by colonialist expansion).

An integral political economy would therefore seek a fusion of the two movements to create the conditions required to facilitate the ethical redistribution of the surplus to best serve the evolutionary requirements of the whole spectrum.

This would require a thorough examination of the benefits and limits of both movements.


A special note must be made concerning Marxism and Neo-Marxism. Whilst the subject is far too complex to mention here (it would take a book, or two) it is worth noting that an integral political economy dare not and cannot ignore Marxism. In fact Marxism, for all its 'flatland' faults, proposed a developmental scheme based on the Hegelian notion of dialectics. Integral theory is itself dialectical and suggests a more complex process of inherent contradictions leading to new evolutionary solutions. Wilber has even moved away from an earlier sympathy with idealism to a form of materialism in his post metaphysics stage.

Wilber may be far closer to Marxism than many of his followers understand. It may be that a true Second Tier society will have far more in common with the deep and radical democracy of Marxism's ideal state of communism than some in the Integral community will find it comfortable to admit.

First Tier problems:

1. Unsustainable development

History has many examples of societies that have collapsed after exhausting the resources available to them, Easter Island, the Anastassi, the Maya. However, one of the negative aspects of First Tier political economy is greed and lack of foresight. Each generation tends to seek the maximization of surplus without thought to the impact on future generations. The tendency of societies to expand to the point of collapse is unfortunately still with us, only this time the collapse will not be regional but global. Forests are being denuded at an alarming rate, potable water is becoming scarcer, resources are being consumed at increasing rates (we will run out of oil in a decade or two, yet the expansion of the Indian and Chinese economies demands even more production), species are being lost and global warming is happening now.

The collapse of the resource base will result in the dramatic reduction of the surplus, and the inevitable devolution of global society.

An integral political economy therefore supports sustainable development.

2. Class interest

Various individuals and groups seek to maximize a surplus to the disadvantage of 'rival' groups. Various individuals and groups seek to manipulate the core needs of others in order to extract surplus from them.

One of the most insidious forms of class exploitation is the development and expansion of the share market. Corporate entities often exist solely to maximize the profit for shareholders. Shareholders provide capital but otherwise do not provide the labour that improves that capital. The shareholders, in order to maximize a return, must extract the most productivity for the least cost. In other words, they must induce their workers to improve their capital for as little return for their labour as possible (work harder for longer for less so the share price goes up).

This creates a number of distortions. Not the least is the movement of capital away from investment in production to investment in speculation. A person who does not buy a first issue share but buys a share for speculative purposes, is not actually adding capital to the corporation, yet that shareholder has rights to insist that the corporation act in a manner to maximize the share value. This results in short term thinking, asset stripping, pressure to exploit workers (otherwise known as increasing productivity), a move away from investment in jobs and plant and equipment toward speculative investment, extravagant management fees and management corruption.

An integral political economy recognizes that a surplus should go to those who produce the surplus. Research has shown that worker owned companies can be more innovative and more productive than privately or publicly owned companies. There are a number of models that can be followed, some of which allow private capital investment without surrendering worker control.

An integral political economy would promote ethical investment, and further help define what is ethical.

3. Degradation of the commons

This can happen either by active exploitation or by neglect (and is similar to point one).

An example of exploitation is the privatization of water. In some third world countries water companies have colluded with political powers to privatize water. In some instances laws are passed to prevent the collection of rainwater or water from wells and streams. This is an expansion of the 'enclosure' principle. This then forces people to pay for something that was previously free (under the promise of improvement). In some instances it has lead to simple exploitation as prices are increased, in others it has forced people to seek water from contaminated sources. In one case in Africa privatization increased the incidence of cholera as villagers who simply could not afford the price demanded were forced to walk to a contaminated stream.

An example of neglect is the failure of a polity to maintain the local environment for the benefit of all. This can happen through environmental degradation, assigning common land to private concerns, or simply failing to assign a portion of the surplus to expanding and maintaining the commons. We can expand the idea of the commons to include the cultural and intellectual spheres. A society for example, might decide to shift some of the surplus from the public sphere to the private sphere, thus depriving public institutions of funds to maintain services, ranging from roads, to parks, to hospitals and emergency services to libraries.

An integral political economy would ensure the maintenance of the commons in order to support the evolutionary flow of all sections of society. An example of this is the importance of the great public institutions of the library and museum in enabling the flow of knowledge. It is also a recognition that systemic imbalances of surplus may need to be redistributed through public programs.

4. Greed and excess

One of the motivating forces of a First Tier political economy is simple greed. In fact in some ideological rationalizations individual greed is good. It inspires individuals to accumulate wealth which they then spend – thus redistributing the surplus. This has sometimes been called the trickle-down effect.

The problem with this approach is that whilst some wealthy individuals and groups are wise and generous with their wealth, others are stupid and selfish. A surplus can be horded or frittered away in non-productive indulgence. Corporations who can afford to pay their workers more may not. Wealthy home owners who can afford to pay good staff rates may choose to hire illegal immigrant workers at below minimum wage (there is sadly a slave trade, albeit small, where children, mainly from Africa, are sold as indentured domestic servants).

It is difficult to legislate against greed and stupidity. However, an integral political economy will emphasize an ethical imperative that challenges the excessive accumulation of wealth for non-productive indulgence. The idea here is to not block the dynamic that increases surplus but to inspire the wise use of that surplus. It is to shift the First Tier emphasis on status items such as gold plated taps and a garage of cars, to status gained by generosity.

One of the arguments against the trickle-down effect is that it is in the interest of the wealthy to ensure that it is kept at a trickle. It is in fact the proverbial carrot on the stick…. An integral political economy will encourage the trickle to become a flow.

It is also worth noting that greed applies to all the core needs. One may be greedy for material goods, but one may also be greedy for social status (the need for identity and belonging) or the need for power. There can be no doubt that some people exercise power for the simple greedy enjoyment of having power. The reason for buying an indentured servant may not be because it is cheap but because of the twisted satisfaction of owning a person.

The evolution of the individual does not require excess surplus. It only requires sufficient surplus to meet each developing need. Otherwise enlightenment might require becoming a millionaire.

It is worth noting that most authentic spiritual teachers point out that excessive consumption can be a major distraction and actually block spiritual progress.

5. International capital flows

Speculative capital now flows from one country to another, from a seller to a buyer, in an instant. This has had dramatic affects on the surplus of countries and of individuals. The Asian economic crisis precipitated the flow of capital out of Asia. The result was that workers lost their jobs and were plunged into a subsistence lifestyle.

The speculative market now has enormous power. Individual polities do not necessarily have the power to implement policies for fear that the 'market' will react negatively. A policy may be the best solution for a local problem, but if it affects market profitability then the market often wins over the best solution.

Market profitability does not ensure that wise policies are adopted. In fact market profitability leads to a number of absurd distortions. One of the most obscene is the dumping of food when many are starving. It is cheaper to dispose of it than it is to store and transport it and the failure to maximize profit at any stage sees capital flow to those will maximize profit. The market can often force compliance through the threat of capital flight.

An integral political economy would argue for the proper governance of the world financial system to ensure that Prime Directive is followed.

6. Trade

It must also be recognized that nations act to selfishly increase their surplus at the expense of other nations and peoples. At present, as far as I am aware, there is a net flow of capital from Africa to the developed nations. The trade imbalance and the interest on loans ensures that more surplus leaves Africa than is returned through aid and income earned through exports. This is a tragic farce given that Africa is poor to begin with. Unfortunately the history of trade is often the history of the exploitation of one nation by another. Nations use their wealth and power to negotiate unequal trade agreements. Often the principle reason for war is to gain economic advantage.

An integral political economy recognizes that fair trade is an essential component of a just economic system.

6. Corporatism

Under capitalism particular pressures were bought to bear on governments. The result is the peculiar legislative construction known as the modern corporation. One type of legislation is 'limited liability'. This enables an individual to be protected from loss. A corporation may go bankrupt, but the individual who made the fatal decision can protect private assets. This often means that the unprotected worker suffers the consequences through job loss whilst the owner reinvests protected capital in another enterprise. There is now a separate field of law devoted to protecting corporations. Whilst directors have some liabilities there are enough (deliberate) loopholes to assuage those liabilities.

There is no doubt that corporations can be effective generators of surplus, but there is also no doubt that corporations can become destructive agents. Large transnational corporate entities can corrupt the political process. Some writers have argued that many nations are no longer people's democracies, but are in fact corporate democracies where policy is determined by corporate influence. There is also an argument that fascism was an extension of corporatism.

The aim of an integral political economy is to ensure that the political and economic system acts in a way to maximize the evolutionary impulse for the largest group feasible. If the corporation, as it is currently configured, is seen to act against that imperative, then an integral approach would change corporation law to ensure it does not. This may mean redefining the corporation entirely.

A disclaimer

At this point some of you may be gasping at what appears to be a radical agenda. I would remind you at this stage that the Prime Directive prevents us from acting in a way that diminishes people's access to the necessary surplus. An integral political economy will only take positive steps forward. Gradual reform may be the best option. However, we cannot progress unless we honestly assess what is holding us back.

The reality of power

Those who have a vested interest in the status quo will resist any reform that lessens their surplus, of material goods, of status or of power. History has shown they will use violence to hold onto what they have.

One of the mistakes of the Marxist approach was that it advocated the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class. There were some regional rebellions and some governments were overthrown. But the Marxist revolution actually required the overthrow of the entire global ruling class. It failed. The capitalist class in the surviving polities fought back. At the outset the Russian revolution faced invasion by a coalition called the White army. This is ultimately what the Cold War was about. It showed that those who control the surplus will use enormous resources and any means to continue to control the surplus, even if it results in countless deaths and the overthrow of popularly elected governments.

An integral political economy must recognize the reality of power and the ruthless determination of those who wield it.


Those who wield power are also canny. One of the best ways to neutralize a challenge to their power is to appropriate the threatening ideas and distort them to serve their own ends. Often the best way to do this is make a concession that does not really affect their power base.

An example might be where a corporation uses integral ideas in its corporate philosophy and actually introduces some programs, without actually modifying its core business which is contrary to the Prime Directive. What is the point of an integral seminar or two and an integral sounding mission statement if the corporation is destroying the environment in New Guinea or exploiting workers in China?

I would argue that the Prime Directive demands radical change.

It's fine to take small, achievable steps, so long as the vision is not lost.

Reductionist economics

Marx observed that all ideology was the expression of class interest. This could not be more true than in the case of economics. The idea that economics could become a science and be values free has well and truly been refuted.

The various economic theories are merely the expression of particular values masquerading as objectivity. There is no consensus in the field of economics.

The market is the totality of exchange of 'things' that are valued. How things are valued is an entirely subjective issue. E-bay does a roaring trade on obscure items. It can easily be seen that people value some very strange things.

People value objects, but they also value the emotions and memories attached to objects. They also value ephemeral experiences and ideas.

Reductionist economics only measures the realized monetary value of a 'thing'. Many are now arguing that by concentrating on monetary value alone the field of economics has presented a distorted picture of the 'real' market. That distorted picture may actually suit certain sectional interests.

Nations, and corporations, can be said to be basing policies on a false description of reality. The definition of wealth as the accumulation of 'realizable' assets presents a false picture and a false ambition.

An integral political economy joins all of those critics of the current way of measuring wealth. The method of measuring the GNP should be changed. I like the approach of Bhutan, which talks about GNH – gross national happiness. After all, what is the point of wealth if it burdens you and actually prevents you from attaining true happiness?

Wealth and health need to be measured from an 'all quadrant, all levels' perspective. The surplus must be fairly distributed amongst all quadrants and all levels. It makes no sense to be individually wealthy and socially poor. It makes no sense to be surrounded by objects if you have no inner wealth. It makes no sense to spend your time accumulating money if you stay stuck at the same level of personal development.

In the end you can't take it with you.

Ray Harris June 2004


The literature in this field is large. Here are just a few titles of interest.

  • 'The Evolution of Human Societies'. Johnson and Earle.
  • 'The Origin of Capitalism'. Ellen Meiksins Wood
  • 'Empire'. Hardt and Negri
  • 'The Divine Right of Capital'. Marjorie Kelley
  • 'Growth Fetish' Clive Hamilton
  • 'Open Society' George Soros
  • 'Building a Win-Win World' Hazel Henderson
  • 'Natural Capitalism' Hawkins and Lovins.
  • 'The Unconscious Civilization' John Ralston Saul

Comment Form is loading comments...