The Unholy Marriage of Authoritarian, Traditional, and Modern Levels of Development in American Culture and Society

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[Editor's Introduction Chris]: This article by Joe Corbett analyzes US politics across levels of development, an element of integral theory. For those interested in some background, check out David Ronfeldt's interesting societal evolution model--what in integral terms would be labeled the Lower Right Quadrant. Joe's piece also helps bring up the cultural values of those societies--their cultural interiors or in integral language, the Lower Left Quadrant. This piece has a certain overarching quality to it but is also very timely given the upcoming Republican primary (the Iowa caucus is tomorrow), where we can see the alliances Joe is talking about in real time.


murrow quoteA classic problem in critical social theory is why a large chunk of the working class in democratic societies seem to consistently vote against their own economic interests, and give their loyalty and support to those who do the bidding of the power-elite and wealthy. The answer to this has been a combination of explanations, from the authoritarian personality who fears and strongly identifies with a strict and punishing authority, to the culture of pseudo-religion, militarism, and consumerism that simultaneously empowers, soothes, and provides escape from the pain and depression of a life of drudgery and meaningless work, when work can be found.

Under such circumstances it would be odd if a large percentage of the masses did not give their support to authorities who vow to uphold God and country, punish deviants, and sacralize family and marriage as the primary nuclear-unit of an endless-needs consumption ethic. In America these concerns are most clearly and strongly represented by Republicans, but no politician in America can be elected without these as foundational.

Hence, authoritarianism, narcissism, and infantilization are woven into the fabric of oppression in advanced industrialized democracies like America through a steady dose of the worship of cultural entertainment and sports heroes (idolatry); permanent military entertainment spectacles for quasi-religious patriotic redemption and deliverance of the disaffected and disempowered; daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute advertising of personal inadequacies and their consumer-product solutions (commodification of the soul); 'energized' scapegoating (pathologized morality) of immigrants, Muslims, gays, liberals, etc. in conservative media, and this in a country where a large percentage of the population identify themselves as conservative.

consumer prisonThe above is an outline of some of the contours of the basic configuration in American culture and society at the turn of the 21st century, and it also describes a psychological, cultural, and social alliance of authoritarian and conservative values with modernist material success and achievement-orientation. Although not in and of itself a 'bad' alliance, the proportionate imbalance of power and money the modern-industrial level of development has gained over traditional-agrarian and authoritarian-tribal levels is at the point of overt manipulation and predatory deception on the part of the elite business classes and their highly paid pundits (with Obama and his advisers as exemplary among them) over the middle and working classes, and this has distorted the overall development of the whole that has become contemporary America.

The consequence of the relentless pursuit of self-interest in search of profits by corporations, assisted by the politicians they have elected and the media, schools, and conservative think-tanks they fund and control, has been the systematic undermining of human communities and nature, not to mention the wholesale destruction of labor and foreign peoples. And this is where the alliance of authoritarian, traditional, and modern levels of development has become truly unholy and immoral.

In an unbroken chain of cause and effect, from the continued decimation of the middle class in the advanced industrialized countries to enrich international investment portfolios and export the American style of production and consumption to billions of people, to the imperialist resource wars for fossil fuel energy that will make globalization of consumption possible (if only too briefly and too late for most), to the environmental apocalypse we are all rapidly heading for, there is little of sustainable value to be found in the modern alliance with conventional and preconventional social forces.

occupy posterWhat is desperately needed in America at this juncture is an intervention into the clinical insanity of the neoliberal ideology of free-market-individualism, i.e. unregulated and tax-exempted corporate personhood, that continues its hegemony despite its failures in creating the greatest social inequality since the 1920s and The Gilded Age, a politically untouchable permanent warfare economy that continues to bankrupt the country and damage the international standing and security of America, and the continued reliance on a fossil fuel energy infrastructure that leads a good deal of the population into denial that global warming climate change is upon us.

In this regard, the Occupy movement is a much welcome counter-weight to the Tea Party, and may be seen as a green alternative (a postmodern commitment to inclusion and diversity without any specific or overarching goals) to the hegemony of the current alliance. However, one mistake the Occupy movement must not make is an insistence on postmodern identity politics over the larger unifying issue of the material stakes at hand for the entire human race. While justice and representation for women and minorities are important, I believe the far more urgent task is uniting all categories of people on the basis of class rather than race, gender, creed, or nation. For it is all too apparent that simply having a black man as president and a woman as secretary of state, not to mention any given republican who receives messages from god, for instance, are not the solutions we can hope for regarding much needed changes.

we the people

Class, as in 'We, the People', is a universal category that can help form an alliance of postmodern relativity and multiculturalism with post-postmodern unity and purposeful direction, and with modern achievement-orientation in tow from behind shorn of its self-interest in profits before people and nature. The modern strategic rationality of power-elites serving their self-interests to the detriment of the majority and the long-term future of the planet must be openly and actively confronted and defeated by a declared war against its unholy and immoral transgressions against humanity and nature as a whole. Only by giving a spine to our spiritual hopes and dreams will those hopes and dreams have a chance of being materialized here and now on earth. May we all get through the much needed modern divorce in one piece, so that a future post-postmodern marriage may commence.

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  • Comment Link PRC Wednesday, 04 January 2012 20:24 posted by PRC

    Go Bro ! !

  • Comment Link PRC Wednesday, 04 January 2012 21:04 posted by PRC

    So many preach the good word, so few practice it. The good word needs no promotion from the clergy or the polititian, though how they try. Know thyself. From there the foundations to know one another can be layed and built upon. If we fail to see ourselves how can we see each other. If we fail to see each other we stand alone.

  • Comment Link Fubar Thursday, 05 January 2012 20:05 posted by Fubar

    re: plutocracy and the decline of the american empire

    Joe, thanks for the cogent, pithy article.

    Most of the sophisticated geopolitical analysts I read that are "objective" have come to the conclusion that the USA is no longer a democratic republic except on a superficial level, rather it has almost completely morphed into a Corporatist Plutocracy. Some argue, weakly, for deep structural "reform" ("exteriors" in integral terms), some for more radical change or resistance. Occasional sprinklings of what Tom Murray calls "epistemic sophistication" are made to try to provide insight into the cultural, psychological and spiritual basis of possible reforms.

    In "hidden" histories such as The Wizard of Oz, the repeated "vaporization" of middle class wealth in boom/bust cycles by plutocrat bankers and industrial monopolists in the late 1800s is well described. After the "class wars" were resolved in FDR's New Deal, the whitewashing of the evils of the bankers ad industrialists become part of public consciousness. The hope was that the monied elites would behave and not exploit workers badly. Due to luck, the USA dominated work markets after WWII (after destroying the "competition"), and the middle classes were allowed to flourish to a greater extent for a generation or so, even abandoning an economy of "production" (farm/factory) for a "consumer" economy where most "good jobs" were in offices (doing "information" work).

    Perhaps you or someone can comment on de Tocqueville's (1840) idea that what we now call pluralism would undo democracy, creating a form of culture in which a centralized state would be the "last thing standing" once religious, linguistic and ethnic fragmentation set in. As a result, the american people would become "weak and servile", by being dependent on strongly centralized state power, but while loathing it (due to the historical circumstances of how the Constitution came about, Whig philosophy, etc., also see Leonard Liggio).

    In my opinion , de Tocqueville's insight about how americans would become a "weak and servile" people is central to understanding political dysfunction in the USA. Ronald Reagan made lying about false virtues, and pandering to people's weaknesses (visions of imperial might), "seem" patriotic. This was only possible because the traditional leftist/labor opposition to the unlimited rise of plutocracy had become DISCREDITED by the late 70s. And that was after 100+ years of labor opposition, some of which was nearly at the level of civil war (see 1890s-1920s, labor wars, etc. Anthony Lukas).

    Habermas' "colonization of lifeworld by systems" is another important theme that Ken Wilber touches on. See Howard Rheingold.

    Ivan Illich's work is a foundational "green meme" description of the problem with "orange/blue" memes (it is a review of 500+ years of western civilization), but rooted in classic literary style. Illich was a catholic priest who was dedicated to social justice issues:

    "Each time the West put a new mask on the alien, the old one was discarded because it was now recognized as a caricature of an abandoned self-image. The pagan with his naturally Christian soul had to give way to the stubborn infidel to allow Christendom to launch the Crusades. The wild man became necessary to justify the need for secular humanist education, The native was the crucial concept to promote self-righteous colonial rule. But by the time of the Marshall Plan, when multinational conglomerates were expanding and the ambitions of

    [*] transnational pedagogues, therapists and planners[*]

    knew no bounds, the natives' limited needs for goods and services thwarted growth and progress. They had to metamorphose into underdeveloped people, the sixth and present stage of the West's view of the outsider.

    Development based on high per capita energy quanta and intense professional care is the most pernicious of the West's missionary efforts - a project guided by an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control over nature, and by an anthropologically

    [*] vicious attempt to replace the nests and snakepits of culture by sterile wards for professional service. ... "


    Illich was from Austria, so his perspective is partly consistent with the critique of the (liberal) "social engineering" bureaucracy that is typical stated by many libertarians (see below for more on that issue).

    The "mean green meme" controversy will presumably always be a feature of these discussions, so thanks for mentioning "identity politics". I didn't read the link, but I assume it explores the usual problems of thought policing and political correctness in left/postmodern culture and politics.

    As you probably know, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine ( has done a great deal of work in defining "spiritual progressives", and has worked with the integral community. Steve McIntosh has written of his collaboration with Lerner and Spiritual Progressives. In short, the left's typical aversion to spirituality empowered the Right by ceding to the right the whole area of "personal responsibility" (upper left AQAL "interior/individual" quadrant).

    On the other side of the spectrum, there are libertarian and "social conservatives" that are engaged in integral politics (!?!), specifically the Transpartisan movement. Ron Paul mentioned the virtues of Transpartisanship several years ago, but I'm not sure if he has been asked about it recently.

    Lastly, here is an excellent anarcho-libertarian structural-exterior analysis of "what went wrong" that might be useful:

    The author, Keith Preston,, makes clear the historical connection between the war-slave empires of history and the current plutocratic system of state-capitalism.


  • Comment Link Fubar Thursday, 05 January 2012 20:39 posted by Fubar

    re: "Sheep" and Ronfeldt's TIMN

    "Sheep" presumably refers to Mythic-conformist traditional memes?

    Some Wilber critics in the integral movement have a problem with the use of phrases such as "spiritual evolution". (Frank Visser)

    The criticism is that actual scientists that have worked on theories of cultural and biological evolution do not appear to have been consulted, and thus this is another example of Wilberian "bad science" in service of good intentions, namely the attempt to integrate science (rationalism-systems "exteriors") with spirit-morals (interiors) via integral postmetaphysics and so forth.

    What some of the most recent work in gene-culture coevolutionary theory actually says about cultural evolution and "collective" intelligence is pretty interesting. Human beings are evolved to be superb collective imitation machines.

    All complex social institutions, including imperial ones, can be understood as "scaled up" (but unstable) versions of tribal models.

    Free market paradigms can be understood from the perspective of dual-inheritance theory (gene-culture co-evolution).


  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Friday, 06 January 2012 06:12 posted by Joe Corbett


    thanks for the extensive comments. i'll just address a couple of things here.

    first, i see a weak and servile american public not as a consequence of too much pluralism that cedes organized power to a centralized state, but rather as a developmental issue related to the authoritarian and traditional backlash (against the 60s counterculture) in alliance with slick moderns like reagan and the neoliberals who rose to power by taking advantage of the reactionary fear and anxiety that the progressive changes of the period brought. i see this developmental slide in american culture as the genesis of the current corporate plutocracy.

    second, i dont think the left-wing aversion to spirituality ceded the idea of personal responsibility as much as it did the notion of the collective good as a spiritually grounded ideology that can rally the common troops and further the progressive cause. of course, the long cold war propaganda effort in america against socialism made sure that any spiritual notion of the collective good never got beyond nationalist and militarist patriotism grounded in free market individualism.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Saturday, 07 January 2012 04:05 posted by Scott Payne


    Thanks for the article. Certainly an important topic. I wonder if you might be at liberty to flesh out how you see class as an anchor of identity acting in the sort of universalizing fashion to which you allude. I guess I'm not sure that I follow you in this regard. Perhaps it is me, but I'd be inclined to see class based identity as not inaccurate, but ultimately a modernist construct. And I'm just not sure how reference to a modernist construct helps to address an traditionalist-modernist alliance. Especially where you seem leery of and backing away from the postmodernists reaction to those constructs.

    Maybe we're working from different etymological understandings of the word class? Or maybe you are proposing a redefinition that would address and allay my concerns?

    I'd certainly be interested in hearing more.


  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Saturday, 07 January 2012 06:36 posted by Joe Corbett


    class, as in 'we the people', includes but is not limited to a specific economic identity. 'the people' is an ideological category of universal identity with the commons, the interests of the 90 or 99 percent, the collectively shared interests of care for the environment, basic human needs like food and shelter, etc., that transcend and include greed and self-interest as the dominant ideological component of neoliberalism and corporate plutocray.

    in other words, the achievement orientation of modernity should not be abandoned but put into its proper place in balance with the whole of human needs, and following the lead of diversity (postmodernism) in a spiritually grounded eco-socialist unity (post-postmodernism).

    one might say this would be the completion of the unfinished project of modernity, its true fulfillment and realization shorn of its initial class, racial, and gender biases, and no longer dominated by the industrialist and consumerist ethics of self-destruction.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Saturday, 07 January 2012 16:57 posted by Scott Payne

    Interesting. You've set your grounding sites quite modestly here. That makes a lot of sense to me. Especially insofar as I think there can a fair amount of delusion in regards to just how much that 90-99% actually agrees on.

    Do you think there is the potential for disagreement about how to achieve even those basic goals? And if so, how would you propose addressing that disagreement in a constructive and forward moving fashion?

    Thanks for the additional thoughts.

  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Sunday, 08 January 2012 03:28 posted by Joe Corbett


    i think there are many differences and many disagreements about how to achieve the basic goals of 'the people'. but i think these can be transcended.

    the conservative moderns are ruthless strategic-instrumentalists who will try by any means necessary to achieve their own goals, even if that means lying and cheating and stealing and corruption of every conceivable sort. this leaves the progressives, who tend to hold democratic principles above the strategic goal of winning by any means necessary, at a disadvantage.

    and because the corporate media are complicit with conservative contempt for factual truth, progressives cannot rely on reason alone to further their position. they must win the hearts and souls of the people by appealing to the intrinsic spiritual message of the collective good, which is genuine compassion and care for the environment and for the basic needs of all citizens. we might call this the progressive version of the 'family values' platform.

    in other words, the task at hand is not a technical one that can be won through negotiation and compromise with the opposition by appealing to the better argument, but rather it must be an ideological battle of vision and spirit that can lift the collective interest beyond the material interests of the few.

    in such a battle of vision rather than reason, the sum of the parts can become greater than the whole, which is diverse and divided. for it is only in the inter-subjective ideological communion of the people that the inter-objective relations of society can achieve a greater complexity of form and functional fit called justice.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 17 January 2012 19:10 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Joe, just wanted to say a belated thanks for this article, I think it's really important and I appreciate all the rich links throughout. Just wanted to let you or others reading the article know that I've further unpacked one point you make into a separate piece.

    I loved the lecture by David Harvey on neoliberalism you linked to. I'd read his book on the topic, but I found a lot of new riches in the talk; I'll be pushing forward on some of those points in the coming weeks/months at Beams.

    And this statement of yours- "in other words, the task at hand is not a technical one that can be won through negotiation and compromise with the opposition by appealing to the better argument, but rather it must be an ideological battle of vision and spirit that can lift the collective interest beyond the material interests of the few".

    Amen to that.

    thanks Joe, hope to read more of your work here at Beams or elsewhere.

  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Wednesday, 18 January 2012 07:50 posted by Joe Corbett

    thanks for the comments trevor, and for the review of Thomas Frank. above is the link to a more academic and theoretical discussion of a critical integral politics from an aqal framework.

  • Comment Link Davy Marzella Sunday, 24 June 2012 09:43 posted by Davy Marzella

    Very good article , Joe. I'm very much in agreement with you.
    On the particular issue of "identity politics" I also agree , in essence.
    But I also think a way has to be found to be inclusive which Mhairi McAlpine addresses here - Towards a Holarchy of Resistance

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