[Note: This speculative essay was originally posted on my first “Leftist Quaker” blog in Nov. 2009. I’d approach the topic differently today, but recent discussions I’ve had regarding the relevance of Ken Wilber made the hypotheses I proposed here resurface.]
Ken Wilber has repeatedly said that most of the world is at the level of Nazis in their development, most notably in his recent book, Integral Spirituality. This statement has troubling prejudices within it, as it seems to not ask why this might be so. Even further, is it even really true?
I will propose here that the under-used concept of “pathology” proposed in Wilber’s Integral Psychology has the potential to re-shape and advance a critical understanding of social evolution. I am calling this project of rethinking, “Critical Integrative Theory.” It is integrative, rather than integral, as that term is becoming a trademark of the Wilberian movement, and I wish to cast a wider net. It is called ‘critical’ after the Frankfurt School’s tradition of “critical theory,” of whom Jurgen Habermas is one of the leading thinkers.
Critical Theory is a “social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it.” I know that Wilber does wish to change and critique society, but in these blogs I will pursue a line of social analysis that Wilber seems to neglect, though I do not charge him with intentional neglect.
Frankfurt School critical theory began as an attempt to address the political crises of pre-war Europe. Frankfurt school theorists were troubled by the implications of burgeoning fascism for Marxist (and Liberal) theories of social change and revolution. Many Marxists expected that the working masses in Europe would align themselves with Russia against German and Italian Fascism and overthrow those regimes. However, in both nations the working masses substantially supported Fascism. It is clear that working-class fascism was utterly against the objective interests of the working masses, and yet, millions of workers seem to have swallowed it whole. How do Marxists and progressives account for such a self-defeating situation?
Marxism theorizes that the collectivization of industrial labor leads to the unification of working-class interests and culture, guided by the Communist movement into a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. What happened in Nazi Germany was the unification of the society by appeals to religion, patriotism, sexual repression, and scorn for intellectuals. To this day, working masses around the world are often easily drawn into alliances with the rich and powerful at the expense of their own emancipatory interests. Critical Theory sought to explain this and to do so, it sought resources that lay outside those typically considered politically acceptable to Marxists, namely, Freud, Kant, Weber, among others.
In the decades since the Frankfurt School first coalesced in the 1930s, critical theorists have continued to seek out and extend a critical understanding of political and social development. In the 1960s, Feminism came into the picture to challenge the gender biases of both Marx and Freud. Other challenges to critical thought have come from environmentalist, anarchist, anti-racist, and anti-heterosexist movements and thinkers. Addressing all of these critiques and their relevance to an integrative theory of social evolution is obviously a massive undertaking, but some beginning is vitally important.
One beginning point is class-consciousness. This is a fundamental component of Marxism, though it is not confined to Marxism. Class-consciousness is simply a recognition of the division of power in society that is perpetuated by our contemporary economic system. In all of the things I have read by Wilber, he nowhere acknowledges that the evolution of consciousness might be impacted by economic factors such as poverty, lack of education, or hierarchical workplace conditions. If Wilber has in fact considered this possibility, its lack in his major works, such as Sex, Ecology, and Spiritualityor A Brief Theory of Everything suggests that at best he considers it only weakly relevant or at worst that he considers it has no relevance.
Another element of Critical Theory that addresses the prevalence of fascist mindsets is psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of the unconscious proposed that we do not always act rationally because we are emotionally deformed, often in our infantile development. Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno collaborated with American psychologists to produce the seminal work The Authoritarian Personality which proposed a model for measuring authoritarian tendencies in individuals, as well as a theory of how such authoritarian tendencies become part of the personality. The chief culprit in TAP is harsh parental discipline and abuse.
Here is where Wilber’s concept of pathology in Integral Psychology becomes relevant. Ideally, the development of consciousness involves a wider and wider social world, beginning with infantile egoism and advancing through stages of transcending and including the lower stages in a higher awareness that takes in the interests of others in growing circles of affinity. When something obstructs the ideal stage progression, the personality clings to a lower stage of awareness in an attempt to save the self from a perceived threat. The result is a pathological – neurotic or psychotic – disconnection from healthy awareness and agency.
The combination of class-consciousness and psychoanalysis led critical theorists to the ingenious, though perhaps by now obvious, conclusion that the working masses’ propensity for self-defeat and acquienscence to authoritarianism originated in developmental malformations in childhood, i.e. psychological trauma. Instead of seeing potential “Nazis” everywhere, critical theory offers a sympathetic account of human woundedness that underlies the fearsome threat of mass fascism.
The rise of fascism in Germany was explained by Critical theory as the result of harsh parental discipline that was widespread in the pre-War era. Mothers who had to work due to poverty, could not attend their infants with the sort of indulgent parenting that middle-class mothers could. Even if a working mother was inclined to indulgence, the conditions of poverty and stress would frustrate such aspirations. The conclusion is that poverty psychologically traumatizes infants, obstructing the ideal developmental sequence so prized by Ken Wilber and other integral thinkers. Much, much more could be said here, for example, taking in feminist accounts of how predominantly female mothering leads to sexist attitudes in boys and girls. For the time being, hopefully, what I have written persuades some in the integral/integrative development movement to consider constructive changes in their approach.
The project of a “Critical Integrative Theory” would pursue many of the worthy aims of Wilber’s Integral theory, but subject them to a wide range of radical rethinking that draws on the continuing work of critical theorists. Wilber’s concern about billions of potential Nazis is worrying, but understanding the psychoanalytic and class determinants on human agency reveals that Nazism is not a “natural” stage of development, pace Wilber’s contentions, but rather a pathological developmental aberration. The challenge to integral activists is to use the evitability of pathology as an opening to rethink the project of changing the world. To this point, Wilber’s mode has been to groom a middle-class cadre of enlightened mystics. The elitism of that approach seems self-evident, but also understandable from a critical theory perspective. The psychological development of middle-class infants has its own set of neurotic and pathological pitfalls.