Pathological Social Evolution: Towards a Critical Integrative Theory? // A Flashback Reblog

[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.

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum

Sometimes the nightly news writes the best poetry. In the following lines, describing the aftermath of an accident that took place on the 24 mile-long bridge that I take to work every day, a heartbreaking scene fit for Homer is described:

Moran, 18, said it was dark by the time she found out Monday that Rodriguez was the person who had driven his truck into Lake Pontchartrain – a story she said she’d heard about earlier in the news.

A friend called and told her. She thought he was making a sick joke.

Moran pointed to the rocks near the foot of the Causeway, saying she spent hours there Monday night, flashlight in hand, yelling “Miguel.”

Perhaps they are not as moving to me as when I first read them, but death has been much on my mind of late. Many people who are closest to me in terms of blood are in their last days, but I will not give details concerning this since I am trying to keep this essay as impersonal as possible. But the scene of someone trying to call out to a loved one, deep in a grave of brackish water, has been etched into my mind due to the nearness of death in my own personal relationships. Read More

The Clueless Tool’s Guide to Leftist Insurgency

At certain points, one will have the misfortune of encountering a book where the author thinks that an important historical subject is merely a backdrop for his own personal problems. Santiago Roncagliolo’s nonfiction work on the Sendero Luminoso insurgency, La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y el Sendero Luminoso is such a volume. While this book is informative on the level of telling the story of the origins of Abimael Guzman (who is more famously known by his nom de guerre, “Presidente Gonzalo”) and his Maoist political party, el Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path, the complete absence in the text of any theoretical and historical complexity means that the void is often filled with descriptions of how the actions of the Sendero Luminoso made the author “feel” as a petit-bourgeois adolescent and young adult coming of age in Peru. If anything, it is his silences and inadvertent personal slips that tell the real story of the corrupt neoliberal society that allowed the Shining Path to flourish around the highlands of Ayacucho, and ultimately threaten the Peruvian state itself. While I could not of course excuse the Sendero’s actions, and in spite of the author protests against not taking sides at many points in the text, I came away from the book somewhat sympathetic to at least the causes behind the Guzman’s Maoist fundamentalism. Though I admit, it is somewhat akin to sympathy for the devil.

Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. The Sendero Luminoso are some bad, bad people. Its founder and ideological progenitor, Abimael Guzman, a former philosophy professor and lawyer from Arequipa, Peru, has the reputation in that country of Osama Bin Laden in this country, at least in the bourgeois media. All you have to do is look at videos such as the following one documenting his capture twenty years on. No translation is needed, I think:

There is reason to compare Guzman to Bin Laden, Pol Pot, and numerous other sociopaths in history. There is first and foremost the massacres of peasants that he ordered, including the brutal killings of 69 peasants, including women and children, in Lucanamarca in 1983. There are the bombs, the murder of leftist leaders, the alleged collaborations with drug cartels, etc. etc. Many of these crimes have been admitted by Guzman directly, and he has said that they were excesses in a state of war. When considering this subject then, one must always have these things in mind first.
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Bringing down the eschaton

I have started a number of posts contrasting my previous traditional understanding of Christianity with my current project of addressing Christian themes from a politically radical perspective. Here I will do the same, but the subject of this essay will be the Fourth Evangelist and supposed Apocalypse author, St. John. Known as “the Divine” or the “Theologian”, it is traditionally thought that the author of the last canonical Gospel and visionary of the end of the world was “closest to the heart of Jesus” and thus the most mystical author of the New Testament, with perhaps St. Paul being a close second. In the ancient church, for example, John’s Gospel was begun at Eastertide since the new catechumens baptized during the Paschal Vigil were deemed sufficiently purified to listen to those most august opening lines of John’s description of the deeds of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word…”

As I have stated previously, these are pretty stories, but it is too bad that they aren’t true. The fact is that John’s “mystical” passages and his visions of cosmic cataclysm had real world foundations that came out of ancient Israel’s struggle against empire and its most contemporary manifestation of the time: Rome. The two books that I will be reviewing briefly in this essay deal with John’s writings employing similar methodologies and they come to proximate conclusions. The first is Wes Howard-Brook’s and Anthony Gwyther’s book, Unveiling Empire: Revelation Then and Now, which is an attempt to approach the last book of the Christian Bible from a contemporary perspective. The second is José Porfirio Miranda’s doctoral thesis on the themes addressed throughout St. John’s Gospel and Epistles: Being and the Messiah: The Message of St. John. While these works discuss the canonical books in different contexts, both try to place the historical figure of John firmly back on earth: clipping the eagle’s wings, so to speak (the eagle being the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist). However, in the process, they place the emphasis of these books back where it should be: on doing justice to one’s neighbor and struggling against a social order that exploits the many for the sake of the few.
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Crossing the threshold of despair – I

Three Pieces on Africa

You could say that I am an ungrateful person. When life is best to me, I begin to think of all the things that could go wrong. With a young family, a comfortable home, a job that doesn’t require that I shower afterwards and not before (the true great “American” class divide, according to the late Joe Bageant), I am so far a First World success story. I am by no means at the top of the heap, or even prosperous for that matter. But I don’t have to worry about where my kids’ next meal will come from, whether armed men will come in the night to harm my family, or whether someone will steal my things while I sleep. Like most people in the U.S. imperial polity, I have come to value security and convenience above all things. Perhaps that makes me complicit in the crimes of this country or civilization, I don’t know. But at least I will pay lip service to the idea that the life I lead is not the apex of virtue. People in this country tend to mistake prosperity for godliness. I would like to think that I have enough sense to realize that these two terms, “prosperity” and “godliness”, are diametrical opposites.

The question always arises when I contemplate “First World life”: At what price? What is the price of replacing that gadget that broke, the price of cheap produce at the supermarket, the social price of that piece of jewelry a man just bought for his beloved? Suburbia is perfect for covering up the effort that you don’t see go into the construction of a great thieving empire. Our system works because no one is guilty of anything, and everyone looks innocent. I love my kids, I pay my taxes, I make small talk with my neighbor, I mow my lawn, etc. etc. Some say that city is morally superior, but even there you can withdraw into gentrified enclaves, or into the drugs and distractions that make the city “no place to raise a family”. The hologram goes on, after this commercial break.
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Thoughts on life and death on a Sunday night

Above: An excerpt from Cristóbal de Morales’s Requiem

On Trayvon Martin: There is no way Trayvon Martin was going to get justice under the bourgeois system. That is not simply because of the direct racism of the incident, but of the structural racism of the law itself. Those “creepy-ass crackers” who are cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal do so because they too would like to be able to pursue suspicious (black) kids in their neighborhoods and shoot them if they deem it necessary. Basically, the undercurrent of U.S. discourse nowadays is basically “every man for himself” (gender exclusive language intentional there), so when the hordes start pouring out of their designated sacrifice zones, it’s “lock and load” time. Race is written all over this, really, as it is in Florida’s murder and manslaughter laws. Except if you’re black, because there you are given the benefit of the doubt that you are a criminal up to no good. U.S. drug incarceration statistics don’t lie in that regard.

Some call it a lynching. Perhaps it was, but more important than the historical parallels are the historical discontinuities. Racism in the United States has now morphed from a scary Cyclops of open bigotry to a grotesque Hydra with a dozen heads, and if you strike at one of them, three more grow. In this case, one white man chased down a black kid with some candy, there was grappling, and the black kid ended up dead. And the non-black man walked away. No one knows what really happened; the only other person who does is six feet underground. That is what structural racism is now in the United States: nobody’s fault. There are victims, but no predators. The inner cities are sacrifice zones, but no one nailed them to the cross. Or rather, no one can be blamed for it, everyone has a good excuse. Industrial jobs can be “more efficiently done” elsewhere, so those in the inner cities who expected to take those jobs are just “excess humanity”. We can’t “discriminate” against people on the basis of color, so when we have a “color blind” basis of admission to university, for example, it’s no one’s fault that the universities don’t reflect the color spectrum of the United States. That’s just how things are, and we can do nothing about it. The same is the case for prisons in inverse proportion, etc. etc. There is an old Catholic saying that what the Devil most wants is for people to think he doesn’t exist. The same is the case with racism, I would argue.
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On the limits of liberation theology

With some trepidation, I write yet another essay about liberation theology. I say “trepidation” since I feel that I might be beating a dead horse at this point. After all, I have already put my cards on the table and stated outright that I am not a Christian in even a heretical sense, though I maintain the cultural identity of Catholicism due to sentimental and family ties. The catalyst for this essay comes from such ties. My family is good friends with a group of liberal Catholic laywomen living in a community of common life down the road (basically, nuns). My father-in-law cuts their grass, and they give my children candy whenever we go visit. All of the members there are well into their seventies, and one just made ninety. On the walls of their religious house and chapel are pictures of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and other icons of progressive Catholicism. They are indeed from another epoch, and they have a library to show for it. I borrowed a few books for them, one of which will be reviewed below. While I wasn’t planning on doing any more essays concerning liberation theology, a new source of books for a person whose book budget is all of zero dollars cannot be passed up. And as I usually only write about things that I have read, I am forced to subject you, the reader, to yet another set of jottings about a subject near and dear to my heart.

The book in question is José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. A few words concerning the author are appropriate here, especially since Anglophone readers probably have not have heard of his work. Born in Mexico in 1924, Miranda was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in Spain in the 1950’s and studied economics at the University of Munster in Germany. His pro-working class activism in northern Mexico in the 1960’s forced him to leave again for Europe to do courses in Biblical Sciences in Rome, for which Marx and the Bible was to be his doctoral thesis. Due to its controversial nature, it was rejected as a doctoral thesis, yet he was later awarded a doctorate in Biblical Studies for another work, Being and the Messiah, which is a reading of the Gospel of John. Miranda returned to Mexico in the 1970’s, only to leave the priesthood and enter academia, notably as a philosopher dialoguing with the likes of Hegel, analytical philosophy, and John Rawls. He died in 2001, and several of his books have been translated into English.
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Random thoughts on randomness

As I have stated previously, my long intellectual meandering often results in books that I intend to read falling by the wayside. One such book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. When it first came out in 2007, I had every intention of getting to it, but the economic crisis, a move across country, a marriage, two kids, one house, and a job that would make Dilbert blow his brains out got in the way. About a month ago, however, I encountered the book again in my Internet wanderings and realized, “Hey, my local library probably has that book!” And sure enough, it did. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the writing style, which properly communicates Taleb’s curmudgeonry. As an aspiring curmudgeon myself, it was nice to find in Taleb a kindred spirit, though with totally different interests. I too would like to think that I have drunk deep from the wine skins of ancient philosophers, particularly those who were contemplating the “good life” in the face of risk. There was a time when Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics were my authors of choice. And in the end, I was compelled by one of the main messages of the book, which is how not to be a sucker. Because no one wants to be a sucker.

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The break-up talk

“Sorry, anarcho-primitivism. It’s not you, it’s me.”

I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon. The end result is usually the same: I tend to cast them off but keep the good memories from my encounters. This time around, anarcho-primitivism is the victim of unrequited love on my part. Though it has been central to my reflections in the past few months, I am fast coming to the conclusion that as a theoretical framework, it too has some seriously fatal flaws. The catalyst for this decision was my reading of Kevin Tucker’s essays in Species Traitor #4, the most recent and perhaps last edition of that journal. In general, while I found the essays convincing concerning many aspects of the “anti-civ” critique, the ethical foundations and praxis found in these essays were highly tendentious and problematic. If anything, I have concluded that anarcho-primitivism needs much more convincing and eloquent proponents than Kevin Tucker, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and the rest. Perhaps it is the occupational hazard of the anarcho-primitivist that no such spokesperson will ever be forthcoming.
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Loose thoughts on liberation theology

[Injustice] is the great secular and religious which must be wiped out of the world. It is an objective, social fact which must be erased from history. It is a transgression which demands the death of the homo injustus so that the homo justus may be resurrected to new life. It is the denial of God himself, who is just by his very nature. Injustice negates the heart and core of Christianity. By denying the universal brotherhood of God’s children, it denies that God is the father of all human beings. It is both a dogmatic and an existential denial, because the existential affirmation of inequality and injustice gives the lie to any verbal profession of this basic Christian dogma. It is a denial of the first commandment insofar as that commandment was interpreted for us by Jesus Christ; for he made a basic link between it and the second commandment, saying that the two of them summed up the whole of the law.

-Ignacio Ellacuria, Freedom Made Flesh: The Mission of Christ and His Church

To Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga is attributed the saying that the only two absolutes in the world are God and hunger. Of hunger, I am convinced, but I am not convinced of the “God” part. In terms of reading liberation theology, the writers I have read so far have been fairly reticent about telling us what their version of God is. Part of me thinks that they are uncomfortable with the concept. After all, how can we untangle any idea of God from the empires and kingdoms of domination. Even if they would like to posit the primacy of Jesus Crucified, Christ Pantocrator still remains watching us from above: the Lord of the Universe who doesn’t allow a head to fall from your head unless it is his will that this occurs. The main question that one would take away from the dueling absolutes in Casaldaliga’s formulations is that if God is an absolute, why does the other, hunger, exist? There is no satisfactory answer.
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