Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2001

A Spiritual Third Way

By Gregory Wilpert

In this time of ideological upheaval, when the old ideologies of left and right, of socialism, liberalism, and conservatism, no longer capture the political imagination the way they once did, new political visions are required. Some have tried to formulate a "Third Way" between social democracy and conservatism. Others, such as Michael Lerner, have proposed a more spiritually-oriented approach to transcend left and right. In what follows, I would like to present another vision, that of Integral Politics, which is very compatible with the approach of Michael Lerner but is based on the work of Ken Wilber.

What is a Third Way?

Historically, third ways have usually cropped up when people found the existing (two) dominant political ideologies lacking. In the nineteenth century; socialism was originally intended as a third way between conservatism and classical liberalism (basically free market capitalism at the time). Later on, in the twentieth century, social democracy developed as a third way between socialism and conservatism/free market capitalism. It's no surprise that today a number of politicians and theorists, such as the Clinton/Gore Democratic Leadership Council and Tony Blair's New Labor party, have proposed a third way between social democratic and neo-liberalist programs themselves. But rather than representing a true transcendence of the existing belief systems, too often the new program ends up in the ideological center between the two dominant ideologies. Such a centrist third way is actually a compromise rather than a new political theory that overcomes the old ones by providing lasting answers to unresolved social problems.

A true third way for the twenty-first century should transcend and progress beyond the preceding ideologies. Integral Politics fits that bill. By mapping out the relationship of all major existing ideologies to each other and by clearly presenting a new approach to politics, one that integrates the best of what each has to offer and that transcends their shortcomings, Integral Politics presents a true alternative to politics as usual.

The Integral Third Way

Ken Wilber, particularly in his recent writings, has presented a comprehensive map of the cosmos and its development (see especially A Theory of Everything; Sex, Ecology, Spirituality; A Brief History of Everything) that lends itself to the mapping of political belief systems. To summarize briefly, Wilber argues that all systems are simultaneously both a part and a whole: what he, following Arthur Koestler, calls a holon. That is, any system we might look at, whether an individual person, an atom, a society, or a belief system, is simultaneously something that is part of a larger whole, embedded in a larger context, and a relatively independent unit. Further, any given holon has both an inside and an outside. Finally, one can examine the holon as an isolated individual unit and also in its collective context.

Wilber has developed a map that organizes holons conceptually. Like the Great Chain of Being of earlier centuries, the key to understanding this map is that each holon can transcend itself, thereby introducing newer and deeper levels or contexts.

These four quadrants, as Ken Wilber refers to them, correspond to the classical ways of conceptualizing the world in both Eastern and Western philosophy. In the West, ever since ancient Greek philosophy, and especially since Immanuel Kant, the realm of philosophy has been divided into the true (objective truth), the good (moral truth), and the beautiful (aesthetic truth). In the East, Buddhism has a similar conception in the form of the Buddha (individual truth), the dharma (objective truth), and the sangha (collective truth). Roughly, objective truth corresponds to science, the external point-of-view on all holons, both individual and collective (the two quadrants on the right). Subjective truth corresponds to art, which is the internal point-of-view of any holon (the upper left quadrant). And moral truth corresponds to ethics and culture, the internal collective point-of-view of any holon (the lower left quadrant).

As sociologists since Max Weber have pointed out, the key achievement and the key disaster of modern society has been to separate these three spheres from one another. This separation allowed each sphere to develop according to its own logic, rather than being subordinated to religion, as was the case during the Middle Ages and before, when the Church determined what was true, what was right, and what was beautiful. The subordination of these realms to church doctrine made the further development of each realm very difficult. With the onset of modernity, the three realms of art, science, and morality were finally able to develop in accordance with the truths of each of their realms. Today, however, this differentiation has become so extreme that it has become a form of dissociation; each sphere has become completely unrelated to the other and the sphere of objective truth, of science, has taken precedence over all of the other spheres. The integral vision tries to overcome this fragmentation of modern society, not by re-imposing a new church doctrine or the dominance of another sphere instead of science, but by recognizing first the autonomy of each sphere and second that each sphere is intimately related to the other. The integral vision reintegrates the true, the good, and the beautiful in an unforced and holistic embrace.

We can apply this conception of the universe to political belief systems, mapped out on a matrix much like the one at left. On one axis of the matrix we can map the degree to which a political ideology believes that internal or external factors shape us as individuals or as a society. For example, conservatives tend to believe that internal forces shape us; we've all heard their argument that it is the values and lifestyle of the individual that leads to poverty. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe that external forces shape us, that poverty, for example, is the result of unjust political or economic forces. On the second axis we can map the degree to which an ideology emphasizes the role of the individual versus the role of the collective. To use some extreme ideologies as examples, fascism typically focuses on the collective and the internal, in the sense that it is concerned with the internal motivations of people, their values or culture, and with the collective orderliness of society. Libertari anism also sees the individual's values as being the key forces for the individual's success or failure in life, but is primarily concerned with the individual. Leftist ideologies, such as anarchism on the one hand and state socialism on the other hand, see the primary causative forces as being external, usually in the form of the economy or the government. Anarchism focuses on the individual, generally opposing collective forces such as the state, and state socialism focuses on the collective. These examples are taken from the more extreme forms of political ideology, but this model also applies to the more moderate forms, such as "new left," "old left," "new right," and "old right." One can diagram the result of this analysis as in the figure below.

However, the above figure shows only two out of four dimensions of politics. The first dimension is the extent to which an ideology focuses on the individual or on the collective. The second dimension is the extent to which an ideology focuses on external or internal causation.

The third dimension of political ideology is of key importance for Integral Politics: its degree of inclusion/embrace. Just as every holon exists in deeper and deeper contexts, so can political arguments or ideologies. While some ideas or arguments take physical need as their only context, others emphasize emotional truths, traditional/ethnocentric truths, or, at the next level, universalistic truths. In other words, while fascistic ideologies rely on arguments that reference ethnocentric truths, liberal ideologies rely on arguments that reference rational/universal truths. This distinction of truths is hierarchical, going from physical to emotional to traditional to rational, each step transcending and embracing its predecessor, all the way to the top level, that of soul and spirit. It is possible to have a politics that makes reference to this highest level of soul and spiritual truths/contexts. Integral Politics recognizes this nested hierarchy of increasingly deeper and wider contexts.

Finally, the fourth dimension of politics, according to the integral vision, is the type and direction of change that is desired (just as movement or time in the realm of physics is sometimes considered the fourth dimension). Some ideologies argue that social change should occur in a revolutionary manner, others in a reformist manner, and yet others argue that there should be no change at all. Ken Wilber makes the distinction between translation, which is change within any given level or context, and transformation, which is change to a new and higher level/context. This roughly corresponds to the distinction between reform and revolution. Furthermore, some ideologies also differ in terms of the direction of change they seek; some argue that change should move to a higher level, while others argue that we need to return to an earlier level. For example, some radical ecologists argue that society should return to a social organization based on hunter-gatherer tribes, while socialists typically argue that soci ety should find a new form of organization that transcends the current one and has never existed before. Integral Politics argues that all four of these dimensions need to be taken into consideration when developing political analyses and policies. Integral Politics thus provides a "third way" in the sense that it transcends and integrates the existing belief systems in all dimensions.

Integral Politics and Spirituality

The practice of Integral Politics requires a spiritual orientation because it is a vision that lies beyond ordinary rationality. Here, I am making a distinction between religion and spirituality. By religion I mean a specific set of beliefs and practices oriented towards a realm beyond the ordinary; by spirituality I mean an openness towards the non-ordinary, towards the miracle of life and nature, towards the suprarational. Integral Politics is related to spirituality because it requires of its practitioners intuition, a capacity to see things holistically, and an openness to realms beyond the merely rational. The sense of spirituality referred to here is thus very similar to Michael Lerner's conception of an emancipatory spirituality. One can become more attuned to Integral Politics the same way one becomes attuned to the spiritual, through contemplative practices such as meditation. Integral Politics does not merely "add" spirituality to politics. Instead, it finds a place for spirituality in politics an d a place for politics in spirituality.

Historically, Western monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have been what Nietzsche called "Apollonian." That is, they have tried to push the great chain of being in the direction of God and the embrace of the One, towards Spirit. Basically, they have moved humans in the direction of ascent, up the chain of being. The sad result, however, has too often been a rejection of or dissociation from what went before, of the earlier levels, such as the earth, the body, the sensual, and the emotive. To reverse this process, Nietzsche advocated a different type of attitude, one he called "Dionysian," which would bring people back in touch with their basic desires and their bodies. He advocated a descent back down the chain of being, a renewed embrace of the many, instead of a striving towards the one.

Integral Politics, recognizing the validity of the full spectrum of consciousness, from body to emotion to mind to soul to spirit, does not see ascent and descent as an either/or option, but as both/and. Pure ascent too easily leads to a dissociation from the prior levels of being and pure descent too easily leads to regression. Instead, what is needed is an ascent to higher levels of being that simultaneously and consciously reintegrates the levels that went before. In political practice this means that while we seek higher and more appropriate forms of social organization, probably in the form of a better global polity and global economy, we also need to re-embrace and reintegrate community, individual, and the earth.

The Principles of Integral Politics

Based on the foregoing, one can outline some of the core principles of Integral Politics. None of these are meant as hard rules, but rather as mutually agreed-upon guidelines for what Integral Politics ought to try to encompass.

1. Integral vision: Integral Politics is based on a vision that is capable of integrating opposites and of holding them as non-dual. Applying this to the four dimensional map outlined earlier, this means that one needs to realize that political reality, just as all reality, involves individual and collective, internal and external, earlier and later levels of development, the embrace of the many and the striving for the one. Every effort to create a greater unity, whether on a regional or on a global level, must simultaneously include a reintegration of what went before, of the national, the communal, the individual, and the earth. Ken Wilber has given this approach the abbreviation "all quadrants, all levels."

Recently, mainstream third way politics, such as those proposed by sociologist Anthony Giddens and the Clinton/Gore Democratic Leadership Council, have suggested that we can realize that an individual's rights must accompany responsibility for the collectivity. But that is just one way to integrate the two. The key lies in finding forms of social organization that simultaneously preserve and promote individual rights and collective goods. We need a society in which, to quote Marx, "the full development of the individual is a condition for the full development of society."

Left politics typically assumes that we are primarily shaped by external factors and right politics assumes we are shaped by internal factors. Integral Politics would recognize and respect the interiors of each individual and of society just as much as we recognize the external factors that play a tremendous role in people's lives.

2. Integral morality: Added to the "all quadrants, all levels" vision is an integral morality, which Wilber calls the "Basic Moral Intuition." It seeks to preserve and promote the deepest development for the greatest number of beings. In practice, since we cannot willfully rearrange the interiors of individuals or of societies, integral politics would take interiors into account mainly by creating the objective (external) conditions that would allow a maximum of subjective (internal) development for individuals and society.

3. Translation and then transformation: The integral perspective identifies when progress should be incremental, that is, within any given level of development, and when it should be qualitative, from one level to the next. Transformation (revolution), the move from one level to the next, is only advisable once the options for action on any given level are exhausted and society is ready to move to the next level. If the conditions for transformation are not given, then more translation (reform) within the current level is necessary. Integral Politics recognizes the appropriateness of both reform and revolution, but that each has its place and time, depending on the circumstances and the stage of social development. Integral Politics generally seeks to move society gently ahead to the next higher level, but only when and if it is ready.

4. Pathologies of development: Integral Politics tries to recognize when a particular institution or social arrangement has become pathological and is either blocking further development or is actually operating counter to the basic moral intuition. For example, poverty can act as a hindrance to individual and social development if this poverty makes an individual's access to the resources needed for development impossible (adequate medical care, education, food, shelter, etc.). Also, when one group or individual is oppressing another group or individual, this makes the full development of the oppressed impossible or at least very difficult. But just as there can be external blockages to or pathologies of development, so too can there be internal ones. For example, a culture that denies the existence of development, that believes that it represents the ultimate wisdom society has to offer, would reject any transformative or spiritual practices that attempt to bring the culture to a new level of awareness. Her e, of course, education policy figures very strongly because we need to find ways of making sure that everyone, even the least fortunate, has an opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.

An Application of Integral Politics: Globalization

Globalization is perhaps simultaneously both the most complex and the most important issue of our times. It is thus worthwhile to see what Integral Politics would say about it.

An important feature of all development is that each movement to a new level represents greater inclusiveness. That is, when atoms combine to form molecules, they include both the features of atoms and add the new features or characteristics of molecules. This goes on, down the line, to cells and multi-cellular organisms. The same goes for individual subjective development (the upper left quadrant), where physical sensations are incorporated in emotions, which are incorporated in the sense of group belongingness, which is incorporated in rationality. Particularly relevant for the concept of globalization are the collective quadrants, where the units of social development expand from clans, to tribes, to nations, to regions, and finally to the globe, each level more encompassing than the previous level. However, within each of the aforementioned quadrants there are several developmental lines. This means that the dynamic of increasing inclusiveness applies not just to the four quadrants, but to all social lin es of development, whether economic, legal, moral, or political. In other words, globalization, in the sense of global inclusiveness, is a natural consequence of human development. The question becomes at what speed are each of these lines moving towards global embrace.

However, when examining today's world, we can see that the current manifestation of globalization does not represent a globalization along all possible dimensions or lines of human experience. Today, only some aspects of human development are globalized, while others are left out. Specifically, the economic anti some elements of the cultural dimensions tend towards the global, while the moral and political dimensions remain largely stuck at the national level (with the European Union potentially representing a notable exception). In terms of Integral Politics one can classify this imbalance as a form of pathology because there is a dissociation among the different lines of development in the sense that the neo-liberal economic project denies any validity to the development of a global polity.

Not only that, the economic globalization that has been occurring is leading to ever increased economic polarization between the different peoples of the world over the past thirty to forty years. For example, according to World Bank data, in 1960 the income ratio between the world's wealthiest 20 percent and the world's poorest 20 percent was 30:1; today this ratio is about 75:1, with no sign of slowing down. This economic polarization represents a dissociation within the economic line of development, where wealthy groups become ever richer while the poor get poorer or at least stagnate economically. The problem with these dissociations, both within the economic line and between the economic and the political lines is that they present serious social justice issues and create blockages for further development. The massive amount of poverty in today's world makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the poor to achieve their fullest potential. Also, the dissociation between economic and political global ization means that economic processes are divorced from political ones, and thus devoid of democratic oversight, meaning that powerful economic actors can do as they please, while the less powerful suffer the consequences.

Towards a New Systemic Logic: Global Neo-Keynesianism (An Integral Political Economy)

If we take the principles of Integral Politics seriously, we must strive to "preserve and promote the deepest development for the greatest number of beings." In practice, this means that we need to find ways to balance economic and political development through a globalized polity, so that future economic processes do not lead to even greater economic polarization. Historically, this particular imbalance is nothing new, as economic integration has frequently advanced more rapidly than political integration. In what follows I roughly outline a progression of economy-polity relations that provides an idea as to what the next stage of our politico-economic organization might be.

With the emergence of capitalism and the explanation of its functioning that Adam Smith first provided, one can say that there was a phase in which the economy was primarily national and the polity was not supposed to intervene in the economy. The polity was thus practically non-existent as far as the economy was concerned (except to enforce contracts perhaps). This was the phase of classical liberalism, of the basically unregulated national economy, which began in Western Europe around 1800 and lasted until the 1930s. This phase ended as a result of its own instability, as exemplified by the Great Depression. The next phase was classical Keynesianism, which, in accordance with the principles outlined by Maynard Keynes, gave a significant role to the national polity in guiding the national economy (along with some limited international controls). This phase lasted until the early 1970s, which is when Keynesianism collapsed due to its instability. It was unable to manage the contradictions between the demands of the business sector and the general population. The practical result was the increasing indebtedness of the Western welfare states (and eventually a debt crisis for the Third World). Also, the increase in world trade began to create increasing pressure to bring about a new system of politico-economic management, as companies chose the most favorable locations for investment, whether those were within or outside of the polity which regulated them. The 1970s thus represent the beginning of a global regime of economic neo-liberalism that was accompanied by the persistence of national politics. This is basically the phase and type of globalization we are still experiencing.

The next phase will thus in all likelihood be a catching-up of the polity to the same global level that the economy is already operating at. In other words, because international neo-liberalism is unsustainable, due to the increasing polarization and environmental destruction it produces, we can expect to see a new phase in the near future, that of global neo-Keynesianism, when the polity becomes global too and can regulate the global economy. An example of this process is the European Union, which is currently introducing a stronger regional (Europe-wide) polity, precisely so that it can better deal with its region-wide economic, social, and ecological problems.

Many prominent economists have already floated proposals for creating a global neo-Keynesian political economy, such as former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, Harvard development economist Jeffrey Sachs, economic Nobel laureate James Tobin, and global financier George Soros. Their proposals range from introducing a global tax on currency speculation (the Tobin Tax) to the creation of a global central bank to international capital controls. The primary objective of these proposals is generally to dismantle the current regime of "beggar thy neighbor" in which countries compete to offer the best investment opportunities by dismantling all national restrictions or controls on investment (ranging from environmental to labor -- to human rights regulations). Most importantly, such global neo-Keynesian controls can also contribute to a reversal of global economic polarization.

We should be under no illusion, however, that global neo-Keynesianism is an end-point in our politico-economic development. It too will sooner or later suffer from the internal contradictions that national Keynesianism suffered, and we, as a global society, will then have to look for a new systemic logic. However, until then, global neo-Keynesianism is the most likely alternative.

Towards a New Cultural Logic

A key element of Integral Politics is the attention it pays to the internal, subjective, cultural side of things (lower-left quadrant). My discussion about globalization so far has been about finding a new systemic logic; that is, I focused on a discussion of the external, objective, social side of things (lower-right quadrant). The insight of Integral Politics is that solutions that focus exclusively on the external (the social-systemic) will be deficient if they are not accompanied by a focus on the internal (the cultural). In other words, global neo-Keynesianism, as a type of integral political-economy, needs an integral culture if it is to move from a mere translation to a transformation of our society. Governments and their populations will be unwilling to implement global neo-Keynesianism if they don't also feel a certain amount of solidarity and compassion for the world beyond their national borders. The peoples of the world have to be willing to think in terms of humanity, rather than in terms of their own nation, more than ever before.

This expansion of human sympathy to cover the globe, however, is only one part of what integral culture means. Another part implies the ability and willingness to integrate individual and collective, objective and subjective, ascent and descent. Integrating individual and collective, in terms of globalization, means that the benefits many receive from global trade, culture, and interaction cannot impinge upon the integrity of each and every individual on the planet. For example, this would mean that we need to actively protect the rights of indigenous cultures, of minorities, and of the less powerful in general. At the same time, the rights that individuals have cannot be divorced from their responsibility to society and to the environment.

Integrating objective and subjective means, in the global context, the realization that the move to a new global systemic logic has to be accompanied by a new cultural logic.

Finally, integrating ascent and descent means that while we develop a new global consciousness and a new global political-economy-in other words, new higher integrations--we also have to take care of what went before, of our community and of our natural ecology. A global neo-Keynesianism needs to be accompanied by a return to the local (not a local tribalism, but a cosmopolitan one). We need to do this because we are human and have limited human scales of reference, such as the local community and the local environment. These human scales become more important precisely because the global is also becoming more important.

The local becomes more important in the age of globalization not just because of its more human scale, but also in the name of democracy and social justice. As power leaves the national level and becomes a global matter, it also becomes more removed and more abstracted from everyday experience and everyday individual concerns. One way to reinvest the individual with power and responsibility is by returning power to the local community. Practical examples for such a process can include greater local sell-sufficiency in the sphere of production (more local trade), the introduction of local currencies (which have many economic and ecological benefits), and greater autonomy in decision-making, particularly as far as the expenditure of state revenues is concerned. The expansion and empowerment of democracy at the local level must, of course, be accompanied by a democratization of power at all levels, from local to global.

Some might say that the observation that globalization is a necessary dynamic that ought to be promoted cannot be combined with a call for localization. This, however, is not necessarily true if we would honor both the local and the global by globalizing such things as sympathy, solidarity, communication, and the production of products that can only be produced in limited locations (e.g., tropical fruit, rare medicines, sophisticated technology, etc.) and localize the production of basic goods (e.g., staple foods, basic household goods, simple electronics, etc.), our connection to the earth, and our connection to our community. Ultimately, Integral Politics means integrating oppositions that were previously thought to be mutually exclusive.

While the Integral Politics outlined here does not constitute a concrete political platform, it is possible to generate concrete policies out of these principles. Integral Politics can help move politics beyond the typical left-right stalemate and present a true "third way," one that brings politics to a new level and finds solutions that are not just compromises, but are solutions that emerge from a higher understanding, from the unforced unification of opposites. And, Integral Politics can answer our basic human desire for spirit, by recognizing the validity of spirituality and by giving spirituality an important role in formulating a politics for the third millennium.

Gregory Wilpert is a visiting Fulbright professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela and co-facilitator of the politics branch of Ken Wilber's Integral Institute. He thanks Wilber, Jack Crittenden, and Thomas Jordan for their useful criticisms of this article.

Source Citation

Wilpert, Gregory. 2001. A Spiritual Third Way. Tikkun 16(4): 44.

tags: Global Capitalism, Integral Theory, Spiritual Politics, US Politics  
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