An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has spent the last ten years living in Shanghai and Beijing, China. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at


Reply to Astin

Neo-liberal ideology as a
social Darwinian cultural obstacle
to social transformation

Joe Corbett

There is a cultural belief system that underlies much of American social policy, collective behavior, and social structures today... neo-liberalism

In Alexander Astin's reply to my article, 'Social Transformation Toward a More Just Kosmos', he says

“When we even bother to concern ourselves with the lower left [quadrant], we typically try to assess the nature of culture from what occurs in the lower right, but that kind of indirect assessment can be subject to serious error…”

I don't know if this is a specific criticism of my article because there is no reference to what I wrote, but what I can say is that my article identifies several major trends within American culture that are problematic in terms of realizing a more just (equitable and fair) society: consumer materialism and its psychological companion of narcissism; the worship of celebrity and sports icons acting as a new media-generated opiate of the people and a false hope of redemption through entertainment hero's; and religious fundamentalism along with its counterpart in nationalist patriotism, both of which are often driven by fear and hate of the Other.

In addition, I identified the long propaganda effort in the Cold War as instilling an instinctive fear and even hatred of progressive ideas and values in much of popular American culture because they smack of 'socialism', the evil Other to American Goodness.

Certainly, all of these aspects of American culture have institutional correlates in the lower right quadrant.

We can say that consumerism as a lower left cultural value is generated by the desire for economic profit (which therefore also implicates the upper left as well as the lower right), the mainstream media are mostly owned by corporations whose programming choices involve the bottom-line and are pre-selected (censored) for not wanting to offend any advertisers (corporations), and religious fundamentalism as well as militaristic-patriotism are well financed and propagated by conservative think tanks and wealthy supporters in both the private and public sectors whose own view of the world is considerably less democratic and more authoritarian than we might wish to think.

But none of this is to reduce culture to the societal determinants of power and money, i.e. the lower right quadrant. It is merely to emphasize the integral nature of culture and society, and the powerful influence social institutions, policies, and relations have on influencing and skewing the development (or underdevelopment) of culture itself toward forms that are more friendly to and uncritical of the material interests of power and money to maintain and increase their own share of the distribution of power, wealth, and resources, and who therefore institute more authoritarian and less democratic forms of self, culture, and society. The role of power and money in the underdevelopment of culture is indisputable, and it can hardly be emphasized enough.

This brings me to the concluding remark by Astin, when he says,

“Any attempts to bring about social change are likely to founder if we fail to deal with the shared beliefs [lower left quadrant] that underlie social policy, collective behavior and traditions, and social structures.”

Indeed, there is a cultural belief system that underlies much of American social policy, collective behavior, and social structures today, and it is something that I only mentioned in passing in my article, but which serves as a foundational ideological apparatus in the formation of an American (and global) financial and political oligarchy at the present historical juncture of globalization.

It is the ideology of neo-liberalism, the religious belief in the efficacy and rightness of free markets and free trade to shape human civilization, and for private elite-interests to direct the destiny of humanity. It has deep historical precedents in the rugged individualism of the American frontier and the swashbuckling days of imperialist mercantile capitalism in the early modern period. In the 19th century it took the form of social Darwinism in which the industrial inequalities of the Gilded Age were justified as the natural result of the struggle of the fittest, the kind of justice one gets from a war of all against all.

In my article I suggested that there would need to be a re-education of popular culture toward a re-thinking of the private versus public-good divide, which may have begun as a modern revolt against the feudal order and the rise of capitalism in the West, but more recently (over the past forty years) it has been resurrected in the ruling economic and political policies of nation states across the world, beginning as a remnant of the Cold War defense against socialism in Chile in 1973 after the assassination of its democratically elected leader with American assistance, and then it was mainstreamed by the neo-cons Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s.

In the ideology of neo-liberalism the public good is demonized as inefficient, incompetent, wasteful, 'socialist', etc. This demonization is largely the effect of a neo-liberal ideology of individualism against the restraints of society and civilization, otherwise known as regulation.

This ideology of an Atlas shrugged has historical precedents and cultural supports of course, but today it is expanded and propagated by a relatively small group of global political and financial elites to benefit themselves at the expense of the earth and human communities to the tune of much human suffering and to the peril of human civilization. From Goldman Sachs and Wall Street executives to Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the so called Washington consensus has really meant that there is only one political party in charge in America, led by those beholden to the multi-national corporate masters whom the neo-liberal ideology has so disproportionately benefited.

So yes, Professor Astin, I do think we need to deal with the shared beliefs of culture that underlie institutions, policies, and social structures in order to effect a successful social transformation toward more social justice, and I think that begins with challenging and speaking truth to the power and money configurations that are based on neo-liberal ideology and its social Darwinian implications.

Comment Form is loading comments...