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Going beyond Wilber’s enclosure of the Integral Commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th June 2009

Citation from Daniel Gustav Anderson:

By “after Wilber” I mean that the sun has set on Wilber’s project in a number of ways, at least as a practical and intellectual project. It may carry on as a religious institution, which is beyond my concern for it. The “Wyatt Earp” episode should have made this obvious to anyone concerned why this is so, if it wasn’t clear to them before this.

Michel Bauwens:

If you’d ask me to describe the ‘epistemological’ (i.e. form of knowledge) status of P2P Theory, then I would say it’s an applied theory designed to develop a coherent set of concepts which can explain the emergence of peer to peer dynamics and its expressions, with an underlying emancipatory intent. But the method that I use to arrive at conclusions is itself an application of integral theory.

I have explained my take on this in the following article: Beyond Perspectives, Reductionisms and Layers, which appeared in Integral Review, Issue 1, 2005 (June), pp. 14-15.

In short, it’s a method that allows you to intergrate the various aspects of reality, both objective (things), inter-objective (their relationships), subjective (intentional realities) and intersubjective (shared cultures and worldviews). My own method derives from Wilber, but is also radically different because Wilber oversteps boundaries and uses flawed interpretations to arrive at a synthetic interpretation of reality that aims to become dominant.

I had the occasion to critique Ken Wilber’s work in two short articles:

* The Cult of Ken Wilber, www.kheper.net/topics/Wilber/Cult_of_Ken_Wilber.html

* A critique of SD/Integral, www.kheper.net/topics/Wilber/SDi_critique.html

However, it is the deconstruction by Jeff Meyerhoff in Bald Ambition that has destroyed the edifice as a project with scientific claims.

In the theoretical article that I will be citing below, an episode is mentioned, “the Wyatt Earp episode“, Wilber unfortunately broke down as a coherent thinker and became the leader of a kind of intellectual cult, that is terminally closed to criticism. It signalled that the edifice was beyond repair.

At the time of my break with the mothership for the reasons explained in my short critical pieces above, I called to divest the integral movement from the particular Wilberian’s interpretation, and called for a emancipatory integral theory, that would replace the neoliberal and neocon alignment of the Wilberian’s. However, despite the launch of an originally promising Open Integral blog, this failed to materialize. (however, I consider my own P2P Theory to be a candidate for such efforts, though it’s focus is limited to the P2P field)

Recently however, I discovered the work of Daniel Gustav Anderson in Integral World, which carries a lengthy interview of him by Erik Scott Thornquist, and points to two major essays laying the foundation for a ‘critical integral theory’. I am therefore, understandably exited about the belated discovery of Daniel’s work.

Daniel’s interview shows that the critique is very congruent with mine, though much more detailed and updated, and of course, he has worked out a coherent alternative, something I choose to forego, instead focusing on the P2P Theory, but as a means to the same end.

His bio says that he “is presently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His interests include critical theory, ecology, and European and South Asian traditions of dialectical thinking.”

His two main and recommended essays are:

* “Of Syntheses and Surprises: Toward a Critical Integral Theory

* “Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics“,

Both of them have been published in Integral Review.

Here are some excerpts:

1. Integral theory as a broad historical movement, predating, co-existing and post-dating the particular interpretation by Ken Wilber

In particular: Wilberism is an attempt to enclose the integral commons

Daniel Gustav Anderson:

The conclusion I take from this history is that Wilber’s integral theory is but one manifestation of a much broader historical phenomenon. It is a bit disingenuous to say that it’s a singular work of singular genius as some like to imagine it is, anymore than the so-called Cartesian worldview was a strict result of some French guy’s geometry homework. Wilberism is not particularly unique in this sense. Actually, Wilber’s project has all the formal characteristics of any other subcultural phenomenon (see Dick Hebdige’s work on subcultures). The difference is that Wilber’s subculture, the subculture identified by affiliation with objects Wilber produces or endorses, is privatized to a nearly unprecedented degree. Aficionados of romance novels or kung fu films or like myself particular professional sports teams engage with all these objects as commodities, surely, but imagine if one kung fu director and his associates claimed that only his movies represent the authentic vision for the genre and, further, the only solution for humanity’s complex of problems. It would seem preposterous to me but then again when Wilber makes such claims or allows such claims to be made on his behalf, people buy it.

So what kind of cultural phenomenon is this? It’s a cultural phenomenon like anything else, which means it can be understood in the way any other cultural phenomenon (psychoanalysis, the novel, internet discussion boards) can be understood. I suspect this is one reason why Wilber is so hostile as in Boomeritis and elsewhere toward humanities disciplines and those of us who work in them. We are the ones who have read the books and the secondary scholarship he claims for his own, and can call him on it when he makes mistakes or preposterous claims, and we have plenty of practice in reading carefully and examining arguments. This makes us less developed, if a bit more rigorous I suppose.”

2. The neoliberal alignment:

“His 2003 comments on Iraq are an ample enough demonstration of this. The Iraq comments, SD, and Boomeritis are all symptoms of Wilber’s political alliance with the cultural right in the U.S., expressed as the Reagan Revolution but really going back to the Nixon-Pinochet years at least in my view. Perhaps Europeans don’t see all the ways in which he lines up with neoliberalism and the cadre of people who later put Reagan into power in many of his more minute gestures, but if you survived the culture wars of that period, you see where Wilber stands.

Berlant explains this as well as anyone. This is the cultural policy of neoliberalism, late capital, where one defends “authentic values” or “traditional values” or “values” as such which is to say one defends “traditional” class and gender and racial privileges against socialization, democratization–one protects the status quo against a radical critique. Those who defend the status quo are those who tend to profit from it, so that person is defending against a perceived risk against profitability. The silly polemics Wilber puts forth as if they are serious concepts against the “green” meme should be understood in this way: Wilber is still carrying water for the Reaganites because he stands to profit from doing so, to gain from it, specifically to gain actual capital or cultural capital. Why else would someone play this game? Remember, neoliberalism is a form of identity politics as much as anything else, but one’s identity or selfhood is expressed through consumer choice or brand preference. You are what you consume. Trungpa Rinpoche’s advice against spiritual materialism comes in handy here.

If “earpy” shows us that Wilber is more interested in selling enlightenment lessons and accessories than in producing responsible theory or science, the cultural politics of Boomeritis and Spiral Dynamics (already latent in SES, the “angry book”), the actual politics of the Iraq fiasco show Wilber to be invested in anti-intellectual work in favor of business interests, late capital (criticism is bad, praise is good). This means his project is quite the opposite of a transformational model when you get down to it. He is invested in maintaining the status quo, of producing transformations that maintain and reify the status quo. Zizek’s critique of “western Buddhism” applies directly to Wilber in precisely this sense. If that is your interest, then fine, so be it, but at least be honest about it. Say so, and don’t pretend to some kind of novelty or fundamental transformation. Admit it. But if you object to this situation, then do something else. That “something else” has been my own path.”

3. Selling snake oil on behalf of the prince:

My overarching question is this: is the Integral Institute’s affiliated programs with JFK University and Fielding Graduate University on the for-profit solutions-distribution model, and if so, what does that tell us about the future of integral theory as Wilber is promoting it, Wilber’s version of integral? By contrast, is the California Institute of Integral Studies analogous to the Catholic institutions established in the 19th century, or the neo-evangelical religious institutions of the mid-late 20th century, such as Liberty University or Regents University or Orel Roberts University, where the mission is to instill adherence to particular values in students, which is to say, indoctrinate them in a particular theology rather than a method of inquiry such as critical thinking? (As an aside, one may want to check how many graduates of such schools held significant positions of responsibility in the Bush administration, and the consequences of this pedagogy on the health and safety of the world.) How about Naropa? Or the Center for Consciousness, Transformation, and Human Potential that is now getting started at my own state school, George Mason University, as I understand it on the basis of a private donation?

I don’t claim to know what the situation is at any of these places, frankly. I am very curious, and more than a bit concerned in some cases. I am interested in the ways in which the kinds of cultural capital or even emotional capital that can be accumulated through acquiring an online degree through the auspices of Integral Institute, and how that emotional capital might be fungible into social capital and plain old capital capital, as Illouz’s analysis suggests it should be. This would mean that these online degree programs are part of a very long history in the US of corporations looking for ways to manage emotions in the workplace, and promoting people who have disciplined their emotional and subjective lives in particular ways to be good and happy workers, wizards of the spiral of accumulation, masters of the art of the happy acceptance of everything (and not organizing horizontally in class terms, but integrating vertically into the “depth” of an organization, willingly subordinating oneself to a “higher power”).

I would like to remind our friends of Paolo Freire’s pedagogy of problem-posing. I’m laughing because you and I have discussed this at length in the past when we worked together. Now, in the case of JFKU or FGU or CIIS or Naropa: is this a banking model, where the student makes a withdrawal of a theology-commodity and the institution makes a deposit of value-commodities? That, to be sure, is to be avoided. I very much doubt that education as problem-posing, where you’re pulled out of the cave and exposed to an indifferent light (this requires some adjustments), can be profitable in the same way a retreat center or health spa dedicated to rearranging the furniture in the cave according to proper design principles would be. Learning is challenging and is designed to produce a certain capacity for independent action; it is not pandering and designed to produce dependence on an institution or a charismatic figure or a metaphysics.

Students who have more familiarity with the specifics of these sites will be able to draw their own judgments from these conceptual tools. And seriously, read your Freire if you haven’t yet done so. His critique of institutional education is as trenchant now as it has ever been.

The nitty-gritty detail of your question, Erik, has me speculating on how one might tackle the question of what good a degree in integral theory might do for someone. I take for granted that people who enroll in these programs are earnest in their aspiration to be helpful to others and to serve an ideal that is greater than their own immediate and proximal needs. Surely these people are doing it on purpose. But they are also investing substantial capital (money and time and effort) on this project of earning a particular degree that entitles them to a particular social role: as a therapist, a teacher, or what have you. These are institutional roles. So, are students enrolling in these programs with an eye toward becoming-institutional in particular ways, that is, of taking on professional titles in clinical and educational institutions themselves?”

4. Daniel Gustav Anderson’s recommendations on the way ahead for post-Wilberian integral students:

“Put your work in the public domain, and restrict your integral activities to not-for-profit organizations and research materials readily available at public institutions. Stop buying shit because it has the word “integral” on it, unless you feel it appropriate for your guru and your idea of Spirit to be working as prostitutes such that you need to keep paying and paying for intervals of integral embrace. We call this “voting with your wallet” and it’s the only kind of critique that works in some corners of neoliberalism. It may be the only form of criticism that Integral Institute will respond to at this point. Monkeywrench the flattery machine by not buying into it. Instead, one can help democratize and socialize the integral project, becoming an active participant rather than a passive consumer of content as it were.”


2 Responses to “Going beyond Wilber’s enclosure of the Integral Commons”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    From Jose Ramos, via email:

    Anderson’s critique is interesting, but I wouldn’t use terms like
    ‘post-Wilber’ or ‘after Wilber’, this gives Wilber too much credit in
    the first place. I’d locate him as one variant of ‘integral
    thinking’, no less and and no more. His is an important variant, but
    there will be many ‘post’ and ‘pre’ along the way – we hope ;) I
    certainly agree with his critique of intergral commodification and
    political connections with neo-liberalism.

    The other issue is the critique of synthesis (New Ageism) as part of
    modern day capitalist ideological hegemony. As a former Californian I
    agree somewhat, and have plenty of anecdotal examples. However my
    view is that people are continuously working towards synthesis in many
    aspects of life. There are many movements toward holism, and they can
    be greatly liberating and not necessarily part of capitalist hegemony.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    From Jorge Ferrer, via email:

    I read Anderson’s paper, very interesting. Lots of great stuff there. A few remarks:

    1. The paper reminds me of past conversations in Religious Studies about comparison being intrinsically ideological, etc. My sense is that we may be able to identify a continuum of integrative works along a continuum from more to less ideologically-laden, with top-down integrative approaches that use a pre-given framework (e.g., AQAL) in one end of the spectrum and bottom-up integrative approaches that build bridges between disciplines, models, theories, from the bottom at the other end. Arguably the latter studies, which counter the fragmented disciplinary or cultural organization of knowledge, are more benign, arguably important, and less prey of Anderson’s criticisms. (Compare here, for example, Wilber’s latter works with Brian Lancaster’s integrative approach in his Approaches to Consciousness, which builds bridges among depth psychology, cognitive psychology, transpersonal psychology, and some contemplative traditions from the bottom up).

    2. I wonder whether Anderson is aware of my critique of perennialism as ideologically-laden put forward in Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, as well as John’s more political take.

    3. Anderson’s focus on Sri Aurobindo as the primary source of the attempted East-West synthesis seems somewhat arbi trary. On the one hand, Aurobindo was part of a larger movement, the Hindu Renaissance or Neo-Hinduism, that predates his work and most of whose members shared, to some extent, such East-West synthetic approach (see, for example, Halbfass’ India and Europe). Swami Vivekananda was an earlier and arguably much more influential exponent of such a vision, and perhaps it was S. Radhakrishnan who pressed stronger that anyone the East-West project (for a critical, actually acerbic, account, see Troy Organ’s Radhakrishnan and the Ways of Oneness of East and West).

    4. As someone who has first studied and then taught at CIIS for 16 years, I should clarify that neither CIIS in general nor the East-West Psychology (EWP) department in particular engaged in the kind of ideological, forced integration Anderson rightfully denounces. Despite its Aurobindonean roots, CIIS is an extremely diverse and complex academic environment, with departments and teachers representing a huge plurality of disparate intellectual, professional, and spiritual approaches—for example, the Social and Cultural Anthropology department is highly Foucaultian and postmodern. Since Anderson s paper addresses the ideological underpinnings of the East-West synthesis, let me include here a paragraph from the EWP Department’s mission that, I believe, clearly differentiates what we do from the synthetic approach critiqued by Anderson:

    - As an academic field, EWP constitutes a larger context for many disciplines that explore the interface of psychology and spirituality, including transpersonal and integral psychology, Asian psychologies, modern consciousness studies, participatory spirituality, depth psychology (Jungian, archetypal, and psychoanalytic), contemplative psychology, religious comparative studies, shamanic studies, and ecopsychology. Approaching the encounter among Eastern, Western, and indigenous worldviews in the spirit of pluralism, dialogue, and open inquiry, we actively explore the implications of this convergence for our diverse and multicultural world. This commitment also entails bridging psychospiritual growth with social transformation.

    Please feel free to share these reflections with Anderson, whose paper I think it is extremely important and I plan to use in my courses to indicate some of the pitfalls of integrative scholarship.



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