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Beyond Liberal, Left, and Progressive: An Inclusive and Revolutionary Politics for Tomorrow

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Review: Ken Wilber. The Integral Vision: A Very Short Introduction to the Revolutionary Integral Approach to Life, God, the Universe, and Everything. Shambhala. August 2007.

Review: Ken Wilber. "Integral Politics: A Summary of Its Essential Ingredients", excerpt from Book Two of the forthcoming Many Faces of Terrorism trilogy. www.kenwilber.com. April 2007.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." -- Winston Churchill

Ken Wilber would probably agree with Churchill's famous dictum. He would catalog the failures of anarchism, monarchy, republicanism, aristocracy, socialism, communism, and all other forms of government. Then he would add to them the failures of liberalism, conservativism, and democracy. All these political movements create a "fragmented, broken, partial, tortured mess of political chaos." None are integral enough.

What does it mean to say that every political system and movement in history is tortured? What alternative is there, if even democracy is a sorry mess? What does integral mean? And who is this Ken Wilber, anyways?

The last question is the easiest answered. Wilber is a prolific author of more than twenty books of psychological theory and philosophy. He's one of the most widely translated authors in the world today, and his influence extends from leading mystics and teachers of Enlightenment to the world of former presidents and vice presidents (Bill Gore and Al Gore have praised his books).

Now Wilber is writing a treatise on politics called The Many Faces of Terrorism. According to kenwilber.com, the treatise "is actually a trilogy of books ... with each book, to be published separately, being around 450 pages long." The excerpt "Integral Politics" outlines an Integral Political Theory and has already been made available in draft form through Wilber's blog.

The terrorism trilogy is premised on a political theory that gives prominence to four major scales, not all of which are included in mainstream politics. The four: the tension between externalist and internalist views of the causes of human suffering; translative or transformative approaches to the nature of change; the role given to individual versus community or collective; and something called altitude. The first three scales are fairly self-explanatory and familiar to most students of political theory; however, Wilber's theory may be the first in history to accommodate the relative altitude in which various political movements are grounded.

Altitude refers to a stage of human development, either individual or collective. Basically Wilber is arguing that the reason there is so much wrong about politics is that current thinking is too partial and limited. He points out that various political movements are based on a spectrum of developmental stages. Lower rungs on the ladder are fraught with pathologies of egocentrism. Middle rungs succumb to pathologies of ethnocentrism. And -- yes -- even the higher rungs are cursed with pathologies of their own. Any political theory that wants to connect to reality will need to pay attention to the different stages of development that support all political movements, according to Wilber.

In the Integral Political Theory, the fundamental conflict in American politics today is not between Democrats and Republicans or progressives and conservatives (those categories blur critical distinctions and can't account for the diversity of actual political thought). Instead, Wilber sees the most central conflict as that between internalists and externalists. Internalists see the cause of suffering in the self's motivations, values, and human nature whereas externalists see the cause of problems in forces external to the self. The Right blames you for your own misery, whereas the Left blames other people.

Integral Politics rejects the partial distinctions of Right and Left in favor of a more complex analysis. The first step in such an analysis is to index or catalog very political system in history, and then identify its ingredients according to a comprehensive map of consciousness: the integral map. And what, pray tell, is the integral map?

It's a model called AQAL (short for "all quadrants, all levels"). As Wilber envisions AQAL, it is the most revolutionary philosophy today because it's probably the first in human history to take advantage of all known cross-cultural research into human evolution in personal, cultural, and social domains.

The Integral Vision (Shambhala, 2007) is Wilber's most recent effort at presenting the AQAL model to a fresh audience in relatively simple (but not overly simplistic) terms. In just over 200 pages of a 7 by 5.7 inch, full color book filled with beautiful art and helpful illustrations. The AQAL model is introduced in five short chapters, with a sixth discussing a practical application called "integral life practice". A seventh chapter is a guided tour through a spiritual practice called a "Witnessing meditation".

Wilber explains how the AQAL model of human development includes five scales called states, stages, lines, types, and quadrants. The more notes on the scale you can hit, the better the pitch of the music you can make. Wilber briefly shows how the AQAL model sheds light on topic such as gender dynamics, morality, spirituality, healthcare, business, and ecology. The result is an accessible overview of Wilber's most original ideas and the work in progress at Integral Institute, the Boulder, Colorado-based think tank.

The elements of AQAL should be familiar to readers who have perused Wilber's "Integral Politics". The four scales of Integral Political Theory are an application of the AQAL map introduced by The Integral Vision. Three of the axes of the politics are types of political movements; the fourth, altitude, is a way of talking about stages.

In "Integral Politics," Wilber describes the challenges facing liberal, progressive, and left-leaning politics today (among other topics). He traces the origins of liberalism to the French National Assembly of 1879, when those on the left side of the aisle espoused ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Unfortunately for the history of liberalism, the ideals conflicted with each other. Therefore, Wilber says, the Left chose to emphasize an individualistic political conception of liberty married with collectivistic conceptions of fraternity and equality.

The modern Left inherits the tension between the individualistic and collective axes of politics, plus other tensions as well. According to Wilber's analysis, in the US political system, the old wing of the US Democratic party inherited Enlightenment ideals, but the new wing has arisen with a higher, more pluralistic and postmodern altitude of consciousness. Both wings are Left, but they share divergent values owing to different altitudes. Wilber's analysis explains why the old Left of the Democratic Party shares many of the values with the new Right (they're actually comrades at the same altitude, but with different approaches to the translative/transformative axis), and why the old Right sometimes appears to share values with the new Left (e.g., both have a favorable view of spirituality).

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I'm a Seattle-based writer exploring integral approaches to values, politics, culture, religion, spirituality, and contemporary life. My books include Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007), the first published "how-i-found-my-faith" sort of memoir in the Integral Spirituality tradition. I am currently blogging at my eponymous blog, (more...)
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