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

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 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)

Dimensions of
Integral Politics

Gregory Wilpert

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 for conservatism.(2)


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.

The Greens/Ecologists

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 is needed.

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 "content."

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. (4)

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)

Integral Politics

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.

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