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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



The Optimistic Naivety of Integral Historicism

A reply to Salzman's response

Joe Corbett

It's not so much that "Corbett says" power and money are distorting influences on human development... Jurgen Habermas, says this...

I respect Jeff Salzman for his willingness to engage his critics in a public forum of debate. It is only through an open dialogue of ideas and perspectives that we can truly come to understand our own views and those of others. And it is in this way that we can develop our views together, collectively if not always in solidarity, towards the betterment of the whole. However it should be clear that many of my criticisms of Jeff can be generally applied to the integral movement as a whole as led and articulated by Ken Wilber, whose charismatic influence has been enormous and some would even say cultish. My hope is that integral practitioners more generally and Ken himself would take heed of these criticisms and of Jeff's willingness to respond. Alas, that might be a lot like hoping Obama, the candidate of hope, finally comes around to actually being progressive.[1]

In a recent blog and podcast at Integral Life and the Daily Evolver website titled “The Mother of First World Problems”, Jeff responded to my critique ["Jeff Salzman, Ken Wilber, and the Missing Link in Integral Theory and Practice"] of his 100th podcast talk with Ken Wilber.

He begins his blog of the podcast by repeating (once again) how Wilber has articulated the AQAL into the “Big Three” of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, where Truth represents the exterior dimensions of It (UR) and Its (LR). By doing so he commits (once again) phenomenological reductionism, or a reduction of the exteriors into a flatland by the interiors, by imagining that the body (UR) is reducible or empirically equivalent to the body-politic (LR) in a singular representation of exterior reality called "It/Its" (Truth). This is precisely what Wilber accuses materialism of doing to the interiors, but in a more violent reductionism of total exclusion (rather than merely a lack of discernment). Would it be fair and accurate to say of the interiors that they are constituted by a singular Subjective/Subjectivities called Beauty? Perhaps, but that would conceal more than it would reveal about the particular nature of these separate domains, and we wouldn't want to do that unless there was something that we wanted to remain concealed. Given that it is virtually absent in his communication about the AQAL, yet is openly and transparently there in the lower-right quadrant, is there something about social justice that Wilber wants to distract and conceal from his followers, or is it just a part of his shadow self that he can't acknowledge or even recognize in his own theoretical creation?[2]

Also about Jeff's blog, it's not so much that "Corbett says" power and money are distorting influences on human development and are an unhealthy/imbalanced force in society, its that one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Jurgen Habermas, says this, and it is simply unfathomable to me why Ken has abandoned this analysis after reviewing it in The Marriage of Sense and Soul.

One wonders if Ken thinks the Enlightenment was all about scientific materialist reductionism into flatland, forgetting the complimentary political-economic flatland brought to us by capitalism and its class relations of one-dimensional material pursuits. If you're going to critique the excesses of scientific materialism it seems to me you've got to critique the excesses of political-economic materialism, as they are part of the same historical emergence and have had similar consequences on the development of human interiors, namely, a one-dimensional distortion and retardation of human potential through exclusionary suppression and violent oppression.

As with many in the orthodox integral movement, Jeff and Ken seem to suffer from the delusion (or blind faith) that capitalism is a permanent part of the universe, and the conclusion for us to draw from this is to say, along with Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative (TINA). But as others (Zizek, Chomsky) have so astutely observed, the function of capitalist ideology is precisely to get its believers to the point where it is easier for them to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. So yes, Jeff, as Foucault reminds us, institutional power/wealth is an inherent feature of the human landscape, but there is nothing inevitable, permanent, or necessary in the historically specific and arbitrary ways that it shapes and gives rise to the form of our lives.

Moreover, its not so much that, as Jeff says, postmodernists see the corporate-military-police-state as the current incarnation of evil, but rather it's that, in the historical period of postmodernity, the form that evil actually takes is the corporate-military-police-state, a perspective that is shaped not so much by a psychological developmental stage as by historical material realities, just as the reality of evil in modernity consists of imperialist and genocidal state governments, and in pre-modern societies in the despotic figure of the monarch/king (devil). I don't deny that modern capitalism has benefited human development, but certainly not everywhere and not in every respect, and especially in its currently globalized neoliberal supply-side form it has had and continues to have an increasingly negative and destructive role to play in FURTHER human development.

And this is what integral analyses of technological, individual, cultural, and social development can no longer ignore or simply play lip service to while making grand sounding pronouncements about the virtues of capitalist modernity with a little conscious intent added in.[3] We are presently facing catastrophic global consequences of an unfettered capitalism that knows no bounds to its insatiable hunger for more things at whatever the cost to human communities and the environment, and now it is time for the integral movement to step-up and stand-up to it, or in other words, to grow some balls after we've finally discovered our spine.

Of course, “standing against” something is exactly what Jeff and the “integrally adept” claim is against their noble principle of inclusion, otherwise known as “the prime directive” where everybody is welcome to the party, as if allowing Republicans, or Nazi's, equal time to espouse climate change denial (or whatever other vitriolic non-sense) is going to be good for the health of the whole. Sorry Jeff, but while loving your way to blissful peace with the enemy may be exciting and good for your sex life, it won't solve the intractable problem of the distorting influence of power and money within the corporate-military-police-state. That is something that needs to be mercilessly critiqued, resisted, and stood against, while simultaneously offering alternatives to replace it. And one is reminded here of the often repeated maxim by Buckminister Fuller, that you never change something by fighting the old system, but only by creating an alternative to replace it, meaning, be the change you wish to see. To which I offer a modification, that you never change something by creating something new without a fight, because the old something will do everything in its formidable power to keep the new from making a difference or even from ever happening.

In the podcast, Jeff says Karl Polanyi's reading of history is a pivotal misunderstanding, typical of mean green, that sees the corporate state as a malevolent force of coercion in the forging of industrial discipline and work regimens on pre-modern (peasant) communities that were formerly based on a harvest time-schedule and on the agrarian values of equity and reciprocity. If so, then where is your alternative history, Jeff, where the transition to industrial life was a smooth persuasion of the better argument that ultimately civilized the savage peasants? The fact of the matter is that the corporate state was indispensable to the rise of modern capitalism by the sword, the gun, the police baton, and the whipping stick, and it still is even today, or haven't you seen the recent and on-going beatings of protesters around the world?

The current state of the world is not simply “the world as it is” that we must find the spiritual wherewithal to accept.

The current state of the world is not simply “the world as it is” that we must find the spiritual wherewithal to accept. It is a world that has been deliberately and intentionally shaped by malevolent (red, blue, orange, and yes even mean green) forces that are no friend to human development. Therefore the world is not, as Jeff says, “unfolding as it should, I guess”, but in an open field of contention and negotiation, delivering us into very different trajectories and historical destinies depending on what alliances and battles are drawn, fought, won, and lost.[4]

Perhaps some or even much of the problem I see with the integral directive of “making friends” by equally embracing all levels, particularly the mean orange meme, comes from its superficial and profane use of the experience of non-duality. The notion that “It's all good”, because how else could it be if “everything is a manifestation of Spirit in the ever-loving unfolding that is the upward arch of Eros”, underscores the danger of mixing the sacred spiritual insights of non-duality with American and capitalist optimism. The result is a bastardized epistemology and historical perspective that ignores how history and the world is actually shaped. When the lion lies down with the lamb the lamb will get eaten, every time. This outlook is much more fit for a trans-humanism, where the outcomes are not wedded to humanistic values so much as they are to the values of an evolutionary triumphalism, victory to the greater glory come what may, “because it's all a manifestation of Spirit anyway”. This is a perspective that can be taken from the comfortable view of a spacious bourgeois room, or from an alien spacecraft, but not from the trenches of everyday life where predators abound in search of prey. At the risk of sounding reactionary and elitist, we integralists have a 'humanistic directive' to be vigilant guardians and directors of the historical trajectory with discriminating consciousness and discerning intentionality.

Unlike Frank Visser, I agree, in principle, with the use of the term Eros as an archetypal energy for describing the kosmic evolutionary impulse toward expansive growth and complexity, but only in the big historical picture. On the smaller scales of time, history is almost always a bloody, messy battle that often results in a regression of loving expanse and embrace. It is certainly the case that (collectively) there have been forks in the road that we have taken, and ones that have been closed-off to us perhaps forever, and this has made all the difference in the world, literally, for the better and for the worse. The point of history is to bring it into consciousness for our own choosing rather than having it happen to us in a way that we simply have to accept or regret. Only then, as Karl Marx says, will we become masters of our own destiny, and only then will history finally be made/created by humans for the first time.


[1] On this note, I would like to quote a comment on Jeff's confession to being an “Obamapologist” at the Daily Evolver website by “Charles Marxer”, apparently a Darwinian Marxist, my kinda guy:

“Jeff an 'Obamapologist'? Really? Of course, like the rest of us progressives, you like what he SAYS. But look at what he DOES, at his actual policy decisions. After accepting a Nobel Peace Prize (!), he's become a serial killer who is 'comfortable' with selecting names from a weekly 'kill list' for so-called targeted drone attacks that have killed more than 2000 people so far, most of them civilians, including old men, women, children, brides, grooms, et al. in at least 6 countries. He reserves the right to assassinate American citizens and others without due process. He ramped up the illegal war in Afghanistan and now renews his commitment to aggressive war in Iraq, after earlier participating in the disastrous attack on Libya. He looks the other way as Israel systematically bombs and starves the citizens of Gaza, reducing them to the condition of junkyard dogs. He violates the Constitution by refusing to prosecute high crimes committed by top officials of the Bush administration. He's a corporatist who lets the Justice Department pass on indicting 'too big to jail' CEO's of the predatory Wall Street Banks that nearly destroyed the financial system. He leads no fight to raise taxes on corporations or to strengthen labor unions, or to eliminate massive subsidies to agricultural, energy, and other industries. He does nothing about the world's largest prison population, a huge percentage of which consist of black youth stuck there for petty crimes. He continues to deport record numbers of undocumented workers. He has persecuted and prosecuted record numbers of whistleblowers and journalists. He supports the horrendous TPP agreement. He has authorized billions to upgrade the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal. I could go on.

That's a lot that needs defending. As an Obamapologist you've got a heavy stone to roll. As an integralist, you shouldn't even be trying. As Ken Wilber has written, every stage of development has its triumphs and disasters. Obama, I'm afraid, has become an agent of disaster, and no integralist should be afraid to say so.”

[2] I have sometimes wondered if there is a tacit agreement among the inner circle of integralists to understand social inequality as a direct reflection of spiritual inequalities, and therefore inequality is not only not a problem but is to be cherished and even encouraged. While Maslow's hierarchy of needs is certainly relevant here, since the fulfillment material needs are a pre-condition for the realization and fulfillment of higher needs and developmental levels, this should be all the more reason why integralists should encourage social equity of outcomes and the fulfillment of post-scarcity social conditions rather than the zero-sum games of competitive capitalist accumulation in an unforgiving meritocratic system.

[3] For those ready to proclaim “conscious capitalism” as our savior, consider the magnitude of the problem we face on a global scale amid plenty of entrepreneurs (and their political cronies) who have no interest in adding conscious practices to their business (and political) model and have every intent to utterly destroy any competition from empathic 'soft players'. Moreover, retaining the exclusive owner/worker class relation is inherently problematic, and doesn't offer any solution to the spiritual plagues of exploitation and alienation in the productive process.

[4] Another way of looking at the nave historicism of integral orthodoxy, if Salzman can be said to represent such an orthodoxy, and my own view of history, is the difference between two theoretical approaches in sociology. On the one hand, the functionalism of Emile Durkheim, Talcot Parsons, and Anthony Giddens (one of the brains behind the “Third Way” thinking so fondly embraced by the likes of Bill Clinton in his forging of a Washington consensus with Newt Gingrich and the Republican conservatives), which seeks to explain how modern complex societies hold together in functional fit; and the conflict theory approach to society and history found in Marx, Habermas, and Polanyi, which focuses on how societies change based on the differences and conflicts of interest that are generated within them.

In this sense, the difference between the functionalists and the conflict theorists may be characterized as the difference between the Rodney King and corporate Democrat, “Can't we all just get along”, view of society and history, which is also the approach taken by the ICE project on American political polarization, as opposed to the survival, self-defense, and autonomy, “by any means necessary”, school of thought espoused by Malcolm X and the ascendant New Right in America. So the question is: how does society and history really operate? By pacifist persuasion, or by means of militant force? And may I remind any detractors of the conflict approach, Gandhi probably never would have succeeded had there not been the real threat of violence from more radical forces, and his cause may never have taken hold with the masses if he didn't have a close family friend well-positioned within a major Indian media outlet.

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