We continue the discussion/presentation of Rich Carlson’s essay on the ideological aspects of the contemporary integral movement, as represented by Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute. (which as we said, echoes on our own earlier analysis but greatly refines it).
As a reminder, here’s what I wrote:
“What is the crucial problem of society today? Does the destruction of the ecosphere, does the increasing inequality between and within nations, does the turbulence of the international order derive: 1) from the unrestrained neoliberal order which creates a world market without a global regulatory framework; 2) from a group of extremist postmodern academics on U.S. campuses. Incredibly, Don Beck and Ken Wilber choose the second option, and are echoing in their writing almost word for word the interpretations of American neoconservatives, down to their hatred of political correctness and their justifications of an ‘enligthened’ American empire. Don Beck justifies Putin, thinks of Bush as a ‘great leader’; while Ken Wilber hails Tony Blair as the ultimate representative of integral leadership, associating himself (and hailing) with the worst contemporary spiritual abusers: first Da Free John, now Andrew Cohen. Now, there is nothing wrong by itself in being a neoconservative (that is, until you go about invading other countries on false pretenses), but it becomes manipulative when you start cloaking that particular political vision under a false scientific cloak, feeling yourself a superior being in ‘consciousness’. Doesn’t sound much different from the scientific justifications of a Leninist vanguard party, and we all know where that led us. An interesting study done by the SpiralDynamics.org group of Chris Cowan and his partner, actually shows an interesting finding. The group of people who most strongly react against ‘green’ and its values, and are most likely to devise a concept like the Mean Green Meme, are not yellow second tiers thinkers, as is often implied by Wilber and Beck, but in fact people who identify with blue and orange values. This finding is entirely consistent with the neoconservative (blue-orange) ideology, and therefore, not surprising at all.”
Rich Carlson gives a much more detailed review of the neoconvervative aspects of integral theory:, which we reproduce in full:
“After the contentious debate over Florida in the 2000 election that left George W. Bush the presidency, at a time when American electoral system was in crisis and its citizens were sharply divided along partisan lines into red and blue states, Don Beck made some very promising observations about the ability of president of George W. Bush to reconcile national differences. Beck coined the term transpartisan politics as a positive alternative for those who had an integrative vision that embraced a diversity of perspective to replace the bipartison gridlock of Washington. Beck stated:
“ transpartisanship transcends but includes them all. Everybody is invited to the table…” he then exclaimed “Actually, Bush’s natural style fits this transpartisan mode, which is why he is so confusing to so many.” (Beck 2001 para 10)
Here Beck seems to be confusing lack of competence with the edge of chaos! If anything what is not confusing about Bush’s presidential legacy is that it is one defined by a militant ideology that avoided compromise, excluded others with different viewpoints from the negotiating table, and expressed a disastrous wish to act unilaterally in the world.
The book Spiral Dynamics by Beck and co authored by Christopher Cowans begins by accepting uncritically the notion of meme as it is defined by biologist Richard Dawkins. Meme is usually described as a unit of cultural selection; much like a gene is a unit of biological selection. Ideas are selected, mutate, and are passed on through culture, much as genes are selected, mutate, and are passed on through genetic inheritance.
H Allen Orr, the Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, notes the problems with the use of the meme metaphor:
“unlike the selfish gene view, the selfish meme view hasn’t led anywhere. Where are the puzzling phenomena that have been explained by memes? Dawkins provides no examples and I suspect there aren’t any. The truth is that the meme idea, though a quarter-century old, has inspired next to no serious research and has failed to establish a place for itself in mainstream cognitive science, psychology, or sociology. Though laymen often have the impression that scientific ideas die in decisive experiments, far more often they die because they didn’t suggest many experiments. They failed, that is, to inspire a rich research program. Though I could obviously be proved wrong, and while I have no problem with the notion that some science of cultural change may be possible, I’m far less confident than Dawkins that memes will play an important role in any such enterprise. “(Orr 2004)
Adopting a metaphors that so far has played little or no role in any scientific enterprise begins the project of Beck and Cowan’s in Spiral Dynamics (2005) In their work memes represent differing value systems which are articulated at various developmental stages of individual and human histories. The ordering of memes are arranged along a spectrum of values systems constructed by Beck and Cowan after the pioneering work of Clare Graves. Their project is ambitious and seeks no less than reducing the complexity of all human value systems to a series of memes encoded in an ascending spiral of colors.
Those who manage to climb to the top of the spiral are considered “spiral masters”. Spiral masters are those individual who include yet transcend all previous stages of memetic development and therefore have a achieved a certain mastery of the world which enable them to serve in roles of leadership. For example, the authors “Spiral Dynamics” considered Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, who were in charge of the international coalition waging battle against Iraq in the first Gulf war as “spiral masters”. It seems such spiral mastery is achieved not only by including and transcending memes but, by the use of smart bombs and collateral damage as well!
The neo-conservatism of Spiral Dynamics or Integral Theory is not specifically an orientation that aligns with the views of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield but rather express certain affinities in its way of thinking about the worlds populations on a grand scale and its couch assumptions about their value systems.
In a manner akin to neo-conservatism, Spiral Dynamics method of handling diversity precedes by categorizing broad spectrums of populations according to generalized stereotypes. Once categorized practitioners of Spiral Dynamics reasons about the value systems of folks based on assumptions of their developmental dispositions as compared to what the theory considers is an idealized world order.
Moreover, just as neo-conservatism deflects its critics into simplistic categories of black or white, with us or against us, Spiral Dynamics has simplified a method of deflecting any serious critiques of itself. Having designed its own taxonomy of memes, it resists critique by deflecting the arguments of those who interrogate it into the jargon of colors and value systems it has stereotyped. In doing this resistance is easily dismissed; tautologies abound. If “ideologies construct the imaginary relationship between a subject and his/her real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1965 p241), then Spiral Dynamics literally colors the imagination of the subjective view it constructs.
But grand political visions fall both on the left and right spectrum of politics, that is why it is interesting to watch Ken Wilber reasoning before the Iraq War. At first glance Wilber’s reasoning seems quite complex in comparing and contrasting the nature of those traits and dispositions in populations he codes as blue-orange, red-blue, green et al. Wilber’s integrative vision seems so intent on balancing the multi-dimensional memes of visual global harmony, that one can not help but be disappointed at his myopia when he ultimately chooses a leader who embodies his integral visions. His choice of Tony Blair as that leader might even signal a bit of integral naivety, because we now know, through such sources as the “Downing Street Memo” and numerous testimonies, books, and declassified documents that have come out since the Iraq War, that the war was initiated through the deception of Anglo-American leaders. The very same leaders whose values were heralded by the integral psychology of Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics of Don Beck as integral or trans-political.
There are of course many folks who were fooled by the Bush and Blair administration in the run up to war, my purpose is not to condemn Wilber or Beck for the choices they made rather, I seek to inquire into the organizing ideas of Integral Theory which may sway beliefs in times of crisis.
What is troubling is that both Wilber and Beck seemed to express admiration for a range of suspects including George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Colin Powell, who while popular at the time when praises were showered upon them, have now all proven to have systematically pursued courses of deception and aggression which inflicted severe trauma on millions of people.
For his part at the time of war in Iraq in the April of 2003, after the bombs had already started to fall on Iraq, Ken Wilber referenced the transcendent values of his “integral” meta-physical system to champion one of the war’s most ardent supporters. Interestingly, just as Beck references Bush’s transpartisan politics, Wilber declares a third way politics run by Blair who is a 2nd tiered thinker to boot.
“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. Given the actual world situation as it is now, Blair’s general position seems to be the best that can pragmatically be offered, like a pan-Atlantic 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. (Wilber 2003 para 31-32)
Tony Blair a colossus straddling both sides of the Atlantic? The colossus actually never straddled the harbor of Rhodes, it, just like Blair’s Atlantic diplomacy, were myths. Blair never caucused in good faith with his European allies who wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Early on Blair knew that there was no turning back the Anglo-American desiring machine of war.
Now that Shock and Awe has worn off into the routinization of horror, now that hundreds of thousands have perished, now that millions are refugees, Tony Blair’s policy is judged a colossal failure. The Faustian poodle rather than the Greek god Helios is the image of Blair which lives in the popular imagination of England today.
If we interrogate further Wilber’s colossal vision of an “integral” leader in which he invokes images of Greek mythology, should we be surprised, that in a theory which lobbies for “2nd tiered” control of ordering “1st tiered” populations, that Wilber chooses a Nietzschean image to portray “integral” leadership?
Wilber’s view of the anti-war movement is even more puzzling given that agape is associated almost universally with traditions of self-cultivation and transcendence. Wilber voiced no support for anti-war demonstrators who feared for the grave consequences of an illegal war of aggression that would inflict pain on an entire nation. Instead, conveniently ignoring the sanctions that were in place against Iraq at the time, he critiqued the protesters, in a manner not unlike Fox News political commentators, accusing them of not also protesting Saddam.
“I personally believe that any protest movement that does not equally protest both America’s invasion and Saddam’s murder of 400,000 people is a protest movement that does not truly represent peace or non-aggression or worldcentric values. “(Wilber 2003 para 30)
Wilber’s conception of integral political analysis seem as confusing as the reasons for going to war in the first place.
After claiming that the baby boomer generation of antiwar protesters, which he labels green, can do nothing but protest he states:
But as long as green can see itself protesting aggression, it is relatively content. The worst that can be said of these protesters is that they are essentially “Saddam enablers” (in exactly the same way that Neville Chamberlain was a Hitler enabler). The best that can be said is that these individuals serve the larger Spiral by sensitizing more people to the horrors of aggression. (Wilber 2003 para 30)
To suggest that Green protesters were like Neville Chamberlain in anyway is straight out of the Karl Rove play book for pre-war propaganda. Wilber’s claims that the best war protesters can do is sensitize people he relegates to the lower memes, is to ignore the actions they were trying to facilitate namely: to end the war!
Ironically, Wilber’s critique of the values of the “baby boom” generation he calls “boomeritis” (Wilber 2002) seems to have boomeranged on him. Having savagely critiqued the values of his own generation, suddenly in time of crisis, Ken Wilber salutes Tony Blair, as the man of the hour whom we should place our faith in. At a crucial moment in world history Wilber defers to Tony Blair. the very political leader who represents the votes and values of baby boomers, and who “has lived a quintessential Baby Boomer’s life” (Brooks 03 para 4)
The fact that Wilber’s Integral Institute claims to have consulted with both Democratic and Republican administrations, may be reason to pause and reflect on what role Integral Theory should play in future government policy, especially in times of crisis.
But there are other things Integral Theory should perhaps reflect upon namely, how they integrate Eastern meditative practices within a Western theoretical model. Wilber’s work like many other theorists who purport to integrate Eastern philosophical theories into their work, often do so by a form of intellectual imperialism. One could refer to recent subaltern theory which takes issue with the attempts of euro-centric scholarship to appropriate the voice of the subaltern through imposing interpretations which speak to their own concerns and in so doing silence the indigenous peoples right to speak for themselves.
To deny the voice of the “other” by forcing the socially constructed signifiers of a euro-centric language regime upon other cultural traditions is to do them violence. For example, Wilber submits all traditions, theories, practices, to the categorical constraints of his “transcendental signified” (4) the AQALS model; a self-referential metaphysical construction that fixes all meaning in itself.
Wilber’s method of colonializing cultural alterity is by its very nature hegemonic, and even predatory.
He does this with a number of Eastern thinkers and mystics. As an instance this practice, I will provide an example of how he treats the Indian revolutionary and founder of Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo.
Sri Aurobindo came to prominence as one of the first leaders of the Indian independence movement that sought to overthrow the colonialist empire of Great Britain on the subcontinent. His first writings which came to public scrutiny were those advocating resistance to the colonialist rule of the Raj. Apart from these political writings he also wrote several major treatises on culture and social and political history, including The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human Cycle, War and Self Determination.
In his appropriation of Sri Aurobindo, Ken Wilber collapses the entirety of his work into a single quadrant (upper left) of his AQALS model, totally ignoring his cultural and socio-political texts or his life as a revolutionary leader of an independence struggle. Wilber’s exclusive emphasis of Sri Aurobindo the yogi, fails to contextualize him also as an important cultural figure in India who has written extensively on society and history. Wilber overlooks the genealogy of Sri Aurobindo’s works are rooted in the Indic Darshan discourses. Rarely, if ever does Wilber ever highlight Sri Aurobindo’s meditations on the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita which background his writing and provide important interpretive keys which contextualize his voice against the history of the subcontinent.
An integral theory which valorizes its own epistemology by denying other traditions, theories, practices their own voice, or by simply reducing them to mere coordinates on a quartenary grid segregates rather than integrates.
Any theory which asserts itself ideologically by cannibalizing other traditions and appropriating the voice of alterity as a function of its integral model while discarding the ten thousand nuances, subtleties, traces of culture which are essential to indigenous identity, fails at the level of integration itself. These theoretical practices are not integral but imperialist, such discourses do not achieve cultural hybridity but rather cultural hegemony. Such an integral theory is colonialist at its worst and patronizing at its best. ”
Beck Don (2001) Bipartisan versus Tripartisan
Beck and Cowan (2005) Spiral Dynamics New York: Wiley-Blackwell
Wilber Ken (2003) http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/misc/iraq.cfm
Wilber Ken: http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptD/notes-1.cfm
Wilber, Ken (2002) Boomeritis, Boulder CO: Shamballa Press