Integral Politics and the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture
by Steve McIntosh
I have always identified myself as a “spiritual progressive,” but I think it is possible to be both “spiritual” and “progressive” while continuing to cherish the economic and personal freedoms that are an indelible part of America’s “capitalist” system. Nevertheless, I appreciate the sentiments and concerns being expressed by Rabbi Michael Lerner and other writers for Tikkun Magazine. At the same time, I’m also disappointed by the relative failure of progressive politics to make much of a positive difference in America during this decade. As I’ve thought about what can be done to improve the “political condition” of our country, I’ve come to see how every problem in the world is, at least in part, a problem of consciousness—a result of worldviews that are no longer adequate to the challenges of our time. So it follows that the solution to almost every problem involves the raising of consciousness. And by following this insight about consciousness, I have come to appreciate how the newly emerging “integral perspective” is our best hope for raising consciousness in America.
The integral perspective recognizes that consciousness evolves through a series of distinct worldviews, each of which results in new perspectives, new concerns, and new values. These worldview stages have been carefully mapped through the empirical research of developmental psychologists such as Robert Kegan and Lawrence Kohlberg, as well as through the research of sociologists such as Ronald Inglehart and Paul Ray. This research confirms that the American political milieu can no longer be accurately characterized as only a simple left-right continuum. Rather, our national political landscape can also be understood as a three-way struggle between the historically significant worldviews identified as traditionalism, modernism, and what is coming to be known in integral parlance as postmodernism.
The word “postmodern” is, of course, a battleground of meaning. But even though it has been used to describe discrete subsets of culture, such as art movements or critical academic theory, integral thinkers use this term as an overall description of the distinct worldview that has arisen in the last fifty years as an alternative to the stale materialistic values of modernism and the chauvinistic and oppressive values of traditionalism. This large demographic group (comprising approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population) is also known as the “cultural creatives,” the “post-materialists,” and the “green meme.” Although there is as yet no clear agreement on terms, the “postmodern” label is becoming the most widely used because it describes well the antithetical relationship between much of this worldview and modernist and traditionalist culture.
The postmodern stage of culture has already made significant progress in the fight for human rights, through the progress it has made in raising our society’s concern for the environment, and in the way that American culture has now become more tolerant of alternative lifestyles and more conscious of the values of spiritual pluralism. Although there is obviously much more work to be done in these areas, when we compare our current national culture to the state of American culture in the 1950s, it appears that evolution has been achieved through the rise of the postmodern worldview. And this worldview is continuing to actively develop and persuade people about the importance of its issues and concerns. Yet there are also signs that this worldview is no longer showing the same creative vitality and dynamism that characterized its emergence in the 1960s and 1970s. As we come to appreciate the way culture actually evolves, we can see that it is unlikely that the majority of Americans will experience a “great awakening” and adopt the postmodern worldview anytime soon. Although postmodern ranks are growing, at this rate it may take generations before the majority of the American body politic becomes conscious enough to effectively deal with our environmental crisis and elect leaders who will conduct a more moral foreign policy. And just scolding people, just admonishing them to care more and be more responsible is not going to produce the results we need. The pace at which our global problems are increasingly becoming “more local” requires that spiritual progressives find a way to become more effective at raising consciousness.
The Integral Stage of Culture
Although the healthy version of the postmodern worldview represents the most evolved form of culture that has yet to appear, postmodernism is not the end of history. So as we come to see signs of postmodernism’s consolidation, as we recognize both the successes and failures of postmodernism, we can begin to discern how the next stage of cultural development is likely to appear. Integral thinkers contend that the next significant worldview to emerge along the timeline of human history will be something very much like the distinctive new worldview now being enacted by integral philosophy.
Integral values include an enhanced sense of personal responsibility for the problems of the world, new insight into the developmental nature of the “internal universe of consciousness and culture,” and an enlarged appreciation of conflicting truths and dialectical reasoning. People who have gained an integral perspective appreciate the problem-solving potential of evolutionary philosophy, and they aspire to harmonize science and spirituality. And perhaps most importantly, the integral worldview provides the ability to more effectively use the values of all previous stages of development. This emerging understanding, known as “integral consciousness,” thus strives to achieve new cultural evolution through its enlarged ability to evaluate and discern that which is beautiful, true, and good.
Unlike the worldviews of traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism, which tend to see each other primarily for their pathologies, the integral worldview can more clearly see both the good and the bad of each worldview in proper proportion. The integral perspective thus recognizes that each one of these worldviews has made (and is continuing to make) indispensable contributions to the structure and function of our society. And this increased sense of sympathetic solidarity and empathy for the healthy values of every worldview allows integral thinkers to better distinguish and tease apart the pathological aspects of traditionalism and modernism (as well as postmodernism) from the foundational and enduring values of these worldviews—values which we must retain and use in our efforts to build higher levels of civilization.
History shows that modern and postmodern culture cannot be sustained unless the enduring contributions of earlier levels of social development are in place and functioning. For example, without a stable base of traditional culture, attempts to develop functional forms of modernist culture often collapse back into the chaos of pre-traditional social structures as a result of corruption and conflicts between rival groups. And just as healthy forms of traditional culture are a precondition for the establishment of the cultural structures of modernism, healthy forms of modernist culture are likewise prerequisite for the successful establishment of postmodern culture. Although we are now confronted with the global problems created by modernism’s inherent limitations, such as global warming and environmental degradation, unduly aggressive foreign policies, and the excessive materialism seen in much of the developed world, the postmodern consciousness that is generally required to recognize, criticize, and address these problems is itself predicated on the underlying and ongoing successes of modernism. That is, the majority of spiritual progressives have achieved their worldcentric perspectives as a result of having benefited from the prosperity and educational opportunities that come from living in the developed world. Most postmodernists are insulated from life-threatening violence, and most do not have to worry about how they are going to feed their children. And this freedom from the pressing threats to survival and security that affect so many in the developing world is generally necessary for the development and maintenance of worldcentric forms of morality among politically significant portions of a population.
Thus, from an integral perspective, the values and social structures of traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism must work together as a kind of “cultural ecosystem” wherein each stage continues to contribute its enduring and foundational values, and wherein the pathologies and negative evolutionary scaffolding of these stages are subject to continuous pruning and moderation. Moreover, “the battle begins anew with every birth”—the research confirms that children generally pass through these developmental stages as they grow up. So just as the perspectives and capacities of these older worldviews are necessary for the continuing functionality of our society as a whole, the ongoing viability of these cultural structures is also necessary for the healthy development of each individual as they grow up from childhood.
The integral worldview’s evolutionary perspective on values yields a new understanding of what might be called the “physics” of the internal universe of consciousness and culture. And through this deeper understanding of how dynamic systems of agreement are formed within a culture, we come to see why postmodernism is not more successful politically.
In summary, the integral perspective is a worldview that transcends but also includes the values of postmodernism. The integral worldview carries forward all the essential principles and sensibilities of the postmodern worldview while simultaneously integrating the best of postmodernism together with the foundational values of the pre-traditional, traditional, and modernist worldviews. The integral worldview thus achieves its evolutionary advance through an integration and harmonization of all previously existing worldviews within a new and inclusive light. Indeed, the whole point of integral consciousness is to move beyond the idea of “old paradigm bad, new paradigm good.” This is not to say that integral thinkers value every worldview equally; they readily see that postmodernism is generally more evolved than any previous worldview, but they can also see where postmodernism is not evolved enough to effectively deal with the growing global problems that are here today.
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