In this video Jeremy Johnson offers some respectful but critical (and thought-provoking) challenges to the way in which cultural development is often portrayed in integral writings. His launching off point is his current reading of Carter Phipps' new book Evolutionaries. I'm also reading Evolutionaries now and I'm really enjoying it. But I do share Jeremy's questions around the framing of cultural development in this and other related texts. I really appreciate Jeremy's contribution in this short video; it helped me clarify in my own mind thoughts and questions I've had stirring that I've struggled to articulate.
So I wanted to riff a bit off of Jeremy's piece. The basic question Jeremy is raising is whether notions like development and in particular progress make sense when applied to culture.
I think the question of whether cultures develop or not is too broad. I think we need to specify in which contexts we are (and aren't) talking development.
For example, in the realm of technology there is clear development. The great theorist Gerhard Lenski is a major influence on Wilber's work. Lenski shows societies moving technologically from hunter-gathering to horticultural to agrarian to industrial to now informational. While there's various points to argue about here and there, overall I think that's a valid general scheme.
Or consider the work of Max Weber, another strong influence on Wilber. Weber showed how societies go through rationalization processes--how the state apparatus becomes more complex and develop, how bureaucracies arise, expand, diversify, and begin to interrelate to one another.
Or Marshall McLuhan's description of the great inventions in communication.
There's also the strong body of research studying individual development in psychology--again another strong influence on Wilber and via Wilber to the rest of integral theory. In that context, development does occur through a stage by stage development. It's never perfect and neat to be sure but there it is.
But for one thing it's not clear to me that cultural development parallals so neatly individual development. Also, as I've written elsewhere, I don't think self-development makes one a better person. I still think it's good to develop, I just don't think the good is the kind that makes one better. I don't think development should necessarily be equated with progress or more widely evolution. Applying that same logic in this case, I would say cultural-development does not make a culture better either.
This is why I prefer the term process to progress. I think the processes get more complex and develop in certain ways but I think there's too much conflation of developmental processes with progress. I'm not saying there is no progress either just that it is a much more multi-variable reality than it is often made out to be in the integral world.
Further I think there is another area entirely that development is not the appropriate term: what for lack of a better word we might call culture. Last night my wife and I watched Rocksteady, a documentary on the great Jamaican genre of music (the direct ancestor of reggae). Is music more developed or less since Rocksteady (mid 1960s)? Does the question even make sense?
So while I think there are some areas of societies that show development, there are others that I don't think do. In the language of integral theory itself, there is a lack of interest in the entire realm of health (states, translation, adaptation).
I think all this has important implications when it comes to how integral theory often deals with worldviews (and whether they are developing or not).
Integral theory holds itself to be a post-postmodern form of thought. It argues that includes the best of traditional, modern, and postmodern societies while transcending the partiality of each.
A number of the top theorists working in this world are from the United States: e.g. Ken Wilber, Don Beck, Steve McIntosh, and Carter Phipps. In the US context modernity still rules. However much there may be some soul searching in the wake of the post-2007 financial meltdown, the dominant mythology of the US continues to be the modern dream: financial success via hard work, ingenuity, and pulling oneself up by the boostraps.
In the US context of much integral writing, postmodernism is therefore considered a cultural value system. Postmodernism is not typically seen as a political and social reality. For much of the integral scene (especially in the US), postmodernism means things like caring about the environment, supporting gay rights (and minority rights generally), and multiculturalism. It might also include New Age elements or spirituality of some sort. In the US, postmodernism is largely seen as a lifestyle choice and value set rather than a movement of consciousness with consequences for politics, society, and economics.
By framing postmodernism as a cultural value system, integral writers can argue that they are including these values (environmentalism, minority rights, etc) and therefore have incorporated postmodernism into their outlook. They typically then equate modernism with progress and industriousness. So when they offer their integral (or post-postmodern) vision they basically end up advocating a modernist political and economic system with a more compassionate, supposedly postmodern, value system. And this, it is argued, is post-postmodern: transcending while yet including modernism and postmodernism.
This is how we arrive at ideas like Conscious Capitalism and also, I would argue, Holacracy (note: see Olivier's reponse disputing that point in the comments below). In other words, we are to assume the modernist structure of globalized capitalism and then seek to find ways to bring integral consciousness within that reality (including more postmodern values of sensitivity).
Jeremy quotes Steve McIntosh who sees integral consciousness as modernity in a higher harmonic. Full Disclosure: Steve sent me a galley copy of his forthcoming book Evolution's Purpose--like Carter's book I really have enjoyed it and there's a great deal I agree with and yet this notion of cultural development raises some questions for me.
I'm not against things like Conscious Capitalism or Holacracy. I think it's going to take a lot of people working in many different ways for real change to occur. But I think these more reformist-based efforts are, at best, transitional responses. Others are going to have to work developing entirely new social, economic, and political realities.
But to my mind postmodernism is more than simply a cultural value system. Postmodernism also has its own social, technological, and political contexts--contexts that are missing in the US and therefore I think from much of the American integral theorists.
For example, postmodernism is built around networks (particularly as seen in nature) rather than strictly vertical conceptions of the universe. Postmodernism historically comes from the post-colonial world. The Europeans had lost their empires after two world wars. The US has not lost its empire--in fact its trying to expand it.
In other words, postmodern politics looks less to me like political correctness and more like Occupy.
And this brings us to the question of value. In integral theory there is a notion of three kinds of value: ground, fundamental, and intrinsic. Steve's forthcoming book goes into this point in excellent detail. Ground value is the value that all things are ultimately equal. All beings are equally the display of Emptiness (in Buddhist language), or all are One (in more Vedantic language) or are all the children of God (in theistic language).
Fundamental value is the notion that what is earlier in evolution is more fundamental. If all the bacteria on this planet die, then all other forms of life would be wiped out. If all the humans on the planet die, the bacteria will still be able to survive. Bacteria have more fundamental value than humans. This is also called instrumental value. From the perspective of humans, bacteria are instrumental because without them humans would not survive. Whereas humans are not instrumental to bacterial existence.
Lastly there is intrinsic value (aka significant value). Humans, like us, are having this conversation whereas bacteria (as best as we know) are not.
Now as a very general point, integral thought tends to emphasize intrinsic value. This is where we get Jeremy's point about an excessively vertical emphasis, with its smooth lines. Sometimes integral also emphasizes ground value (aka the oneness of all reality). The combination of over-emphasizing ground value and intrinsic/significant value leads to a spiritualized philosophy of ascending evolution. This is most apparent in the realm of cultural development--which is why I think Jeremy has focused his aim perfectly in raising the question in the way he has.
But integral doesn't have to lead with intrinsic value (or intrinsic and ground values). It could work in reverse. And in fact I think it would be better to do so. As an example, check out Tim Winton's work on Pattern Dynamics. Tim takes enduring patterns in nature and sees forms of human consciousness (or if you prefer cultural consciousness) as able to be based upon patterns in nature. It's a social and political and cultural form of biomimicry in a sense. My sense is that Pattern Dynamics leads with ground value (what he calls Source) and foundatlonal value (the foundation of enduring, sustainable, healthy ecosystems). It then derives the levels of consciousness as patterns in nature. In Pattern Dynamics, postmodernism isn't the Western counterculture of Boomers but rather organic realities like creativity, emergence, adaptation, and so on. The intrinsic value of humans in this model is one in which they have the conscious choice to incorporate these patterns, leading to a fully integrated sphere of mind (noosphere) and sphere of life (biosphere).
That, to me, would be a more developed culture but that had developed by going deeper (not higher).
Update I: For those interested in exploring further the view Jeremy is sharing, check out his recent piece on Electric Fairytales--The Return of Mythic Consciousness in Movies. Jean Gebser is a major influence on Jeremy--Jeremy mentions Gebser in the video. Gebser did not see the worldviews he articulates as moving in a vertical developmental sequence (contrary how he is often depicted in integral theory). Gebser is for me the great cultural theorist, whereas Wilber is more influenced by trends in technology, psychology, and sociology. I do think there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches and it's good to study both.