From the Brick Wall of Individualism to a Collective Consciousness: Changing Obstinacy to Survival

There is an assumption that government is a necessary if regrettable fact of life. We need laws and a system to punish wrongdoers. We need some form of economic safety net so that people are not compelled to rob or steal in order to eat. We need a military to protect us from foreign invasions. We need infrastructure development for those projects—roads, sewers, water systems, hospitals, and schools—which we cannot leave to private enterprise or to individual efforts. We need an alternative to armed duels for dispute resolution.

There is another assumption that capitalism is the best way to allocate goods, that capitalism can assure everyone an opportunity to succeed while ensuring that all can contribute. We need rational markets to correctly set the value of goods and services, to raise capital for enterprises which create jobs. We need a certain inequality as an incentive for people to improve themselves, to work harder, to contribute in ways which society values.
But it is these systems—these hierarchies—which conflated with the military to form a “power elite . . . composed of men of similar origin and education, of similar career and style of life, [whose] unity may be said to rest upon the fact that they are of similar social type, and to lead to the fact of their easy intermingling” (Mills, 1958/2005, p. 141) that have fared poorly in what one might assume to be the most elementary task of all: ensuring human survival. Indeed, the record is so abysmal that it is possible to argue not only that the planet would be better off without us but that we should stop breeding and voluntarily go extinct (Huang, July 10, 2006).

The Doomsday Clock, originally devised to reflect the distance humanity stands from nuclear self-destruction, now stands at five minutes to midnight (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2007). If we value our species, rather than seek its extinction, it is pressing that we should find what it will take to adjust our priorities and to act accordingly. My work in the Transformative Studies program at California Institute for Integral Studies towards a doctoral degree is intended to address the large question of how to ensure the survival of humanity in a way that we are welcome on this earth rather than a burden upon it. This essay reflects my initial explorations as I approach the end of my first semester in this program. It will therefore review the problems, my approach, and some of the material I have been exploring since entering the program.

There is considerable question as to how humanity can continue to feed itself and where the species will find the natural resources needed to sustain life and lifestyle. Thomas et al. (2004) estimate that climate change may doom up to a quarter of species in certain ecosystems, particularly scrublands and temperate forests, to extinction by 2050. In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that agriculture, as currently practiced, introduces large quantities of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere; that as cropland goes out of production, sequestered carbon will be released into the atmosphere; and that climate change will impact the distribution of arable land and and growing conditions. While the organization forecast an increase in the amount of land suitable for raising crops and was optimistic about the effects of technological improvement (apparently including the genetic engineering the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists identifies as a threat), it acknowledged considerable uncertainty and it further acknowledged that developing nations faced increased food insecurity (pp. 78-81). Projections of global warming and its effects have grown more dire since (Boutin, October 17, 2005, Eilperin, September 25, 2009; Reilly, March 17, 2009) and the diversion of crop land from food production to biofuel production, commodities speculation, and structural adjustment that makes agriculture uneconomic in poor countries and favors corporate farming have already combined to produce a food crisis, particularly in the developing world (Bello & Baviera, 2009).

Traditional science, having been culturally associated with a eurocentric image of progress (McCarthy, 1996/2006, pp. 85-86; Slater, 2009, pp.69-70; Sztompka, 1993/1999, pp. 26, 28), seems more harmful than helpful: Piotr Sztompka lists the results: “the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulags, two world wars, well over 100 million killed in global and local conflicts, widespread unemployment and poverty, famines and epidemics, drug addiction and crime, ecological destruction and depletion of resources, tyrannies and dictatorships of all brands from fascism to communism, and, last but not least, the ever present possibilities of nuclear annihilation and global environmental catastrophe” (p. 33). McCarthy cites “increasing dangers and risks of medical and technological developments: nuclear and chemical warfare, the environmental and chemical sources of pollution and disease, such destructive accidents to nature as oil spills, the hazards that accompany new medical treatments and surgeries” (p. 90). Finally, to forestall famine, we would genetically engineer crops; and to avoid changing our lifestyles to mitigate global warming, we would pursue a geoengineered solution (Huyghe, 1996; Pusztai, 2001; see also Slater, pp. 120-121).

Questions about food security, particularly in developing countries, and environmental quality accompany a projected rise in the world’s population to anywhere from nine to twelve billion people by 2050. Much of that growth will occur in less developed countries (Population Reference Bureau, 2009) and a number of developing countries, including some with food security issues, have largely Islamic populations (Basri, November 10, 2009) and may exacerbate a long history of conflict between the West and Islam which already conflates issues of religion, “terrorism,” militarism, and nuclear weapons. Discourse in the West on “terrorism” too often refers to Islamic armed groups: right wing militias and white supremacist groups employing similar tactics within the United States are rarely mentioned in the “Global War on Terror;” nearly as rare is mention of tactics used by the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan purportedly against Taliban and al Qaeda targets that routinely kill multitudes of civilians (Rodriguez, November 1, 2009; see also Slater, 2009, p. 129). The war and a “hostile image” of Islam in a right/wrong dichotomy serve another purpose: just as it formerly used Communism, the West now uses Islam (Küng, pp. 3-6; see also Slater, pp. 138-139) to support the propaganda of a “seemingly permanent military threat” that privileges a militaristic worldview (Mills, 1958/2005, p. 141). This in turn rationalizes exorbitant military spending that exceeds the sum of the next highest spending nineteen countries combined (U.S. Department of State, 2005).

The West fears that Iran seeks to acquire nuclear weapons and that Pakistani nuclear weapons may fall into terrorist or extremist hands. Among the top military spenders, Iran appears in twentieth place; though not present in the top twenty, Pakistan would join fifteen other countries in that group that are at least nominally United States allies, including Islamic nations Saudi Arabia, ranking ninth, and Turkey, ranking seventeenth (Albright & Shire, 2009; Hersh, November 16, 2009; U.S. Department of State, 2005). But in an overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East, no U.S. ally is as close as Israel, the one country in the region which is not only not dominated by Muslims but which stands accused of practicing apartheid against them (Carter, 2006; Laor, November 9, 2009) and which actually possesses nuclear weapons (Arms Control Association, n.d.; Fernandez, August 30, 2009). This is not a situation where food shortages attributed to the West’s greenhouse gas emissions are likely to help.

But at least in the United States, of this list, mainstream news selects only Iran’s nuclear weapons program and a Palestinian “threat” to Israel as causes for concern. A severe recession which began in the U.S. in December 2007 has called attention to discrepancies between rich and poor, to untoward relationships between corporations—particularly financial institutions—and government, and to an apparent lack of concern for the unemployed (Dowd, November 11, 2009; MacGillis, November 7, 2009; National Bureau of Economic Research, December, 2008; Rich, November 7, 2009). And the H1N1 “swine” flu and a series of food-borne salmonella outbreaks have raised questions about the safety of a food production system intended to maximize yield (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 15, 2009; Keim, May 1, 2009; Rabadan, April 28, 2009). Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (2009) reports that “about 2.6 billion people – half the developing world – lack even a simple ‘improved’ latrine and 1.1 billion people has no access to any type of improved drinking source of water,” elevating risks of a number of often lethal sanitation related illnesses.

Though at present the mainstream media pays considerable attention to an economic recession widely described as the worst since the Great Depression, Morin and Kern (1999) more generally criticize the global economic system for a series of crises. They also take aim most profoundly at capitalist economic ideology for having substituted greed for generosity (pp. 48-49). Classical economists are coming under fire for focusing on money rather than on energy in an argument suggesting that economics should pay more attention to the laws of thermodynamics (Gronewald, October 23, 2009). Morin and Kern also point to an ecological crisis—now often overlooked with a recent focus on climate change—of nuclear power plant accidents, floods, drought, air pollution, water pollution, soil and groundwater contamination, soil erosion, and urbanization (pp. 50-51).

Religion, too, shoulders blame for much misery; the theologian Hans Küng (1990/2001) acknowledges:

There is no disputing that in negative, destructive terms [religions] have made and still make an enormous contribution. So much struggle, bloody conflicts, indeed ‘religious wars’ are to be held to their account; so many economic, political and military conflicts have been partly started, partly coloured, inspired and legitimated by religions – and this also goes for the two world wars. (p. 73)

Yet the Armageddon humanity faces is largely secular; the crises we face may often be colored by religious bigotry but are fundamentally secular problems of war mentality, of resource allocation, and of environmental stewardship. The United Nations Development Program has estimated that, in New York Times reporting, “the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and safe sewers for all is roughly $40 billion a year – or less than 4 percent of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world” (Crossette, September 27, 1998; see also United Nations Development Program, 1994, p. 7). We have not been spending that $40 billion that way. Instead, as of 2007, the U.S. was reportedly spending $10 billion per month in Iraq and Afghanistan (Scherer, January 16, 2007).

This would be an absurd situation if it were not so lethal. Yet in the United States, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency on a platform of “change” and of Democrats to putative control of Congress has resulted in a conservative uprising with racist overtones and with guns on display outside Obama speech venues while public opinion surveys indicate public dissatisfaction with Congress and progressives compare Obama’s policies to those of his predecessor (Associated Press, August 17, 2009; Coates, August 7, 2009; Klein, November 4, 2009; Koppelman, September 16, 2009; Krugman, November 9, 2009; MacAskill, September 16, 2009; Millhiser, August 25, 2009; Newport, October 6, 2009; Pugh, September 18, 2009; Robinson, August 7, 2009; Swanson, September 1, 2009). The principal controversy is about a plan to raise U.S. health care system performance to developed world standards—the World Health Organization (2000) ranks health care in the U.S. as the world’s most expensive, but 37th in overall performance, and 72nd in level of health (p. 155).

The failure of sense on health care, despite considerable public support (Bloomberg, September 16, 2009; Sack & Connelly, June 20, 2009; SurveyUSA, August 20, 2009), bodes ill for progress on climate change, where a plurality of U.S. public opinion can best be described as in denial (Begley, August 13, 2007). Many countries’ political leaders agree on the urgency of an agreement to reduce global warming, but they have failed to reach an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions limits and on the financing developing countries need to do their part (Luce & Brown, November 15, 2009; Rosenthal, October 14, 2009). Rarely mentioned is that Russia and the U.S. retain vast arsenals of nuclear weapons (Arms Control Association, n.d.); failing to explain who it needs “a credible deterrent” against or how such a deterrent would actually deter, the U.S. may modernize its stockpile (Barnes, October 29, 2008).

When priorities seem askew, helpful questions to ask include who has which priorities, whose priorities will predominate, and why their priorities will prevail over those of others. Framed in such a way, it becomes clear in a paradigm of hierarchy, that priorities selected by the powerful will predominate. And what we are seeing is that rescuing banks is more immediately important than remedying threats to human survival. This is a stark contrast from the anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s (1902/2006) understanding of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” He thought “the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community” (p. 2).

Apart from the crises of the present, what does hierarchy do for humanity? Rianne Eisler (1987/1995) divides “the great surface diversity of human culture [into] two basic models,” a dominator model and a partnership model; she suggests that humanity survived and even prospered until the last five to seven thousand years (pp. xxiii, 43-44) in a “direction . . . toward partnership.” Then, “following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption” (p. xvii) the West “veered off into a bloody five-thousand-year dominator detour” (p. xxiii). Slater (2009), whose corresponding models are the Controller and Integrator consciousnesses, puts the lifespan of Controller consciousness at eight thousand years out of twenty thousand years of human existence (p. 12). Either way, we are to infer that humans do not require hierarchy or a dominator/Controller consciousness to survive, at least in earlier times with much smaller populations. Instead, our present conundrum is a consequence of a sort of barbarian conquest. Eisler describes an uncertain beginning to this dominator takeover; evidence of disruption appears in Middle Eastern Neolithic and in Old European cultures beginning about seven thousand years ago (pp. 43-44). “We have nothing to go by but speculation on how these nomad bands grew in numbers and in ferocity and over what span of time” (p. 43), she writes.

These last five to eight thousand years have subordinated large proportions of humanity, introduced untold suffering, and led us to the brink of self-destruction. Edgar Morin and Anne Kern (1999) point to the violent life cycles of states and empires, to wars, imperialism, violent insurrections, and endless contests for power, but also to monuments, technology, and the arts, to advances in communication, to commerce, and only rarely to “pity and compassion” (p. 2). Eisler’s (1987/1995) description of “a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption” ( p. xvii) also describes the present, which Philip Slater (2009) believes to have begun in the tumult of the 1960s (pp. 6-7). But when Slater writes that “the sixties innovators were long on visibility but short on numbers” (p. 6), he could as easily be writing about subversions, strikes, riots, rebellions, and insurrections of various sorts that have occurred throughout U.S. history and which place today’s violence against foreclosures in a context of a long history (Thill, November 9, 2009; Zinn, 2003/2005).

Slater (2009) points to an increasing pace of change largely associated with technological advance, associating it with an improvement in the ability of left wing activists to spread their consciousness and to link up with each other (pp. 1, 7). Technology also offers this capability to Controllers, so it seems reasonable and even indisputable to expect that technology will eventually substantively effect governance in ways that go beyond expanded invasions of privacy (Privacy International, December 28, 2007). I can not say left wing activists have succeeded in using technology to effect substantial change yet. While Iranian protests against an apparently fraudulent election have demonstrated that technology can be used to challenge the status quo (Morozov, June 17, 2009) and while political activists of all stripes have increased their reliance on the web, what we are seeing so far is little more than a substitution of faster technology with larger storage capacity and increased ease of access for older, more restrictive forms of technology. At this writing, and despite numerous promises of world peace through greater understanding, the only definitive political change associated with a march of technological advance that began with writing and the printing press has been a phenomenal increase in the ability of fewer and fewer people to reach and thus to exercise influence or control over ever dramatically larger populations over ever larger swathes of territory (Carey, 1988/1992). There can be little doubt that the present social order is under pressure, but the outcome of this complex situation may fall in the category of emergent phenomena, meaning that it would be unpredictable from an examination of its components (Mazlish, 1998/2007, pp. 73-74).

The possibility of an emergent outcome raises questions about a dichotomy between the a strong hierarchy in a dominator/Controller model and a weak or nonexistent hierarchy in a partnership/Integrative model. It may be wishful thinking to assume that the outcome of transformation will be a society based on the latter. Eisler suggests that “modern totalitarianism is the logical culmination for a cultural evolution based on the dominator model of social organization” (p. 180). She thus posits the possibility that what emerges from Slater’s chrysalis will be even more authoritarian than what we already have. “Human evolution is now at a crossroads,” Eisler writes. “Stripped to its essentials, the central human task is how to organize society to promote the survival of our species and the development of our unique potentials” (p. 186). Other possibilities could be that violent revolution replaces one set of thugs with another, reconstructing dominator/Controller order with different faces in a similar social structure, or that change might occur perhaps temporarily along less authoritarian lines. Given such uncertainty, it seems hard to argue with Eisler when she quotes Erwin Laszlo writing that we “cannot leave the selection of the next step in the evolution of human society and culture to chance. We must plan for it, consciously and purposefully” (p. 187).

But how should “we . . . plan for [the end of dominator society], consciously and purposefully” (Laszlo, 1985, quoted in Eisler, 1987/2005, p. 187)? First, evidence does not support the assumption that experts make better decisions, but rather that groups make better decisions explicitly “when the naïve, ignorant point of view is present” (Slater, 2009, p. 177). Second, if I oppose hierarchy and authoritarianism, then it follows that I cannot prescribe the shape that society should take; for to do so would be to assert my (illegitimate) authority. Indeed, Slater criticizes “many on the left . . . [who] see themselves as godlike architects who stand outside a static world and try to mold it. They construct a mental blue print of change and attack all who fail to meet its specifications” (pp. 183-184). Such change is, he writes, “monolithic, coercive, and top-down” (p. 184). But, in an alternative approach, I can share ideas which we may discuss (Gordon, 2008, pp. 7-8). I can be a “participant[,] exerting influence on a changing entity that includes [me]” (Slater, p. 184). I may say, let us see what we can work out together. And what we implement should be the outcome of a process “based on non-hierarchical structures, horizontal coordination among autonomous groups, open access, direct participation, consensus-based decision making, and the ideal of the free and open circulation of information” (Juris, 2008, quoted in Gordon, p. 15). Or, as Slater writes, “Integrative-induced change is heterogeneous, spontaneous, and grassroots” (p. 184). And yet, having done this, we must remain vigilant against a risk “that patterns of hierarchy and exploitation may always re-emerge, even in societies oriented against them” (Gordon, p. 44).

The threat that authoritarianism may reappear should not be diminished. A considerable portion of the population appears to lean in a conservative, authoritarian, dominator/Controller direction and may continue to do so even after any transformation. Slater (2009) argues that “social systems are held in place by contradictions” (p. 184); he insists that Integrators must work with their opponents, i.e. capitalists (pp. 186-187). Bradford Keeney (1983) argues for the substitution of complementarity for contradiction in our view of these distinctions (p. 111). But it is hard to see how any transformation to a partnership/Integrative model can integrate conservative theorist Richard Weaver’s “tyrannizing image,” which he defined as

a center which commands all things, and this center is open to imaginative but not logical discovery. It is a focus of value, a law of relationships, an inspiriting vision. By its nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower. (Weaver, 1964, quoted in Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 2002, p. 162)

Weaver’s tyrannizing image establishes a central ideology guarded by a coercive hierarchy based on allegiance to that ideology. George Lakoff (2002), a self-described liberal, explains that conservativism assumes “that the exercise of authority [entailing reward and punishment] is itself moral” (p. 67) and explicates the hierarchy of “natural order:” the god of Abraham is superior to people, adults are superior to children, men are superior to women, and people are superior to nature (p. 81). Moreover,

The Strict Father [conservative] moral system itself is right and good; it could not possibly be wrong and still function as a moral system with a strict right-wrong dichotomy. Opponents of the moral system itself are therefore wrong; and if they try to overthrow the moral system, they will be engaging in an immoral act. The moral system itself must be defended above all. (Lakoff, 2002, pp. 97-98).

T. S. Eliot (1948/1962) similarly understood culture as hierarchical but constructed it differently from Weaver, as a value judgment on attainment and as enabling people to specialize in crafts (p. 22). He saw attainment in various crafts as a unifying force through an appreciation shared by the community (p. 24). One of these crafts is an elite to rule through inherited privilege (pp. 35, 47). But where Weaver’s tyrannizing image leaves little room for diverse views, Eliot values diversity as enriching a culture (pp. 57-58). The difference appears to be in that Weaver ranked—following Plato—an ideal knowledge, a truth-with-a-capital-T two levels over the ordinary knowledge of human experience (Foss et al., 2002, pp. 160-161). Weaver’s tyrannizing image derives its authority from this ideal knowledge, while Eliot offers the possibility that a dominator/Controller culture may adapt to new information. Neither Weaver nor Eliot offer the possibility of participation in a partnership/Integrative model. But where Slater (2009) argues that “Control Culture and Integrative Culture are [now] too equally balanced for either to tolerate the values of the other” (p. 37), he advocates accommodation of Control Culture through dialogue (pp. 186-187).

But this is further evidence that in its extreme form, hierarchy is not just a social structure for a self-interested elite seeking to sustain the status quo, even to the severe detriment of the greater portion of humanity. It is, rather, an existential threat to humanity. Intolerance towards diversity means that two cultures, say a fundamentalist Islam-dominated society and a conservative Christian-dominated society, each with its own tyrannizing image, cannot reconcile themselves to each other’s presence. Any right-wrong dichotomy, where “I” am right, an other is wrong, and where it is moral for me to exercise authority to enforce my view upon that other, justifies an apocalyptic—possibly nuclear—war against that other. Consequently, any people who continue to favor hierarchical social order following a transformation to an egalitarian order can be expected to use violence to achieve power.

Change will therefore require 1) a defense against dominator/Controller holdouts, and 2) widespread persuasion on such a scale as to marginalize holdouts and to minimize the need for that defense. One possibility might be through a spiritual movement adopted by major religions. Eisler (1987/2005) points out that dominators co-opted neolithic religious symbols to support an androcratic (male-ruled) worldview, but where an obvious line of inquiry might be on a role for religion in transformation, she barely follows up, contrasting the eschatological views of evangelical Protestant politicians with a contemporary revival of life-affirming spirituality (pp. 187-188). There may be good reason for this: the vast majority of major world religions are authoritarian. While in their original Axial Age forms, these religions not only devalued but actively challenged doctrine, preferring to emphasize empathy, compassion, and ethical behavior (Armstrong, 2006), as societies grew and the Axial Age came to an end, spirituality turned authoritarian. Socrates saw hope only if “real philosophers” ruled (Armstrong, p. 313). Plato advocated genetic engineering in his authoritarian and theocratic Republic (Armstrong, pp. 321, 324-325) in a vision Karen Armstrong condemns as “coercive, intolerant, and punitive” (p. 325). Aristotle saw women as “a defective form of humanity” (p. 327). The Chinese turned to law and order to end the constant warring of a multitude of kingdoms (p. 331); Legalists there advocated a standard model of behavior, enforced with “draconian punishments and a rigorous penal code” (p. 332). The Bhagavad Gita argues for war (Armstrong, pp. 362-366), and a caste system developed in India (p. 375). The Judeo-Christian-Muslim line of spirituality scarcely needs mentioning. Of the major religions, only Taoism might be said to be anarchist (Ames, 1983), but in China, it came to “seem impractical” (Armstrong, p. 371).

Converting the entire world’s population to Taoism may seem unlikely, but Küng (1990/2001) argues that religion alone commands the authority to “provide the foundation for an ethic which is practicable for larger straits of the population and which is above all unconditional and generally binding” (p. 42). The transformation Eisler advocates is arising among the people (pp. 188-189) but Küng relies on authority and has been prominent in efforts to unite the world’s religions in issuing a global ethic (Küng, 1990/2001; Küng & Kuschel, 1993). The resulting Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is egalitarian and affirmative of human rights and dignity (reproduced in Küng & Kuschel, 1993, pp. 17-39); it can be interpreted in a way which is substantially consistent with Eisler’s gylanic consciousness and it might be seen as an early step in social transformation.

The paradox is in a need for authority to replace authority with no authority. If we see what might perhaps be a successor document to the Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as a model for authority divesting itself, then we must also understand that the adoption, imposition, and enforcement of such a document are themselves authoritarian acts. Authority is needed to supersede itself but has an inherent interest in the status quo and would therefore be acting against its own interests. If we could rely upon authority to do this, humanity might be facing solutions rather than inaction on the threats to its existence. It is conceivable, if implausible given structures like the Roman Catholic Church, that spiritual authorities might do this. It is harder to imagine that the elite in any other hierarchy would. Transformation is unlikely to be pure. While anarchists seek to avoid “taking power” (Gordon, 2008, p. 55), “social transformation will also likely involve some forms of non-defensive coercion, against owners for example” (p.68).

Spirituality thus seems a likely starting point for transformation. In a dominator/Controller view, Plato conceived of truth as transcendent, according to that “which [is] eternal and beyond the shifting confusion and imperfection of the physical plane” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 8). In this view, an objective reality exists but those things we experience are mere approximations of that reality. Weaver’s tyrannizing ideology makes sense from this perspective. As Richard Tarnas explains, “since the Forms endure, while their concrete expressions come and go, the Forms can be said to be immortal, and therefore similar to gods” (p. 9). But ideas more recently in fashion, and certainly not attributable to anarchists like Peter Kropotkin or Emma Goldman, are that knowledge is relative and subjective (McCarthy, 1996/2006, p. 87) and that culture is pluralistic rather than totalitarian (p. 88). If indeed there is not one truth but many, if indeed the idea of a “grand narrative” is incoherent (pp. 88-89), then the idea of an entire world undergoing an essentially monolithic transformation to an essentially monolithic end loses plausibility. But what may also lose plausibility is the notion of a single world order or even an order prevailing over any great number of people which presumes and seeks to impose a single “objective reality” or which seeks to preserve the status quo. Reality may come to be seen for what it is: anarchic. And transformation might take the shape of a revelation of that anarchic reality. If so, it would turn out that Taoists, seen as “impractical” (Armstrong, p. 371), have something relevant to offer after all:

Returning is the motion of the Tao.

Yielding is the way of the Tao. (Lao Tsu, trans. 1972/1997, chap. 40)

Eisler (1987/1995) recalls the imagery of “the serpent that sheds its skin in periodic renewal” as a symbol whose meaning was reversed to take on a Satanic association in the dominator worldview (p. 187). She points out that “men [in contrast to women] . . . often tend to see their human need for affiliation as ‘an impediment’ or ‘a danger’” (p. 189). Skin, hide, and armor plating are all defenses against impediments and dangers. Conservatives see “life [as] difficult and the world [as] fundamentally dangerous” (Lakoff, 2002, p. 65). But what distinguishes us from animals is a need for “a higher level of ‘growth’ or ‘actualization’” (Eisler, p. 190). For snakes to grow, they must shed their skins. And each of us have our own skins to shed.

The human situation is dire. And it is evident that the dominator/Controller way of ordering the world cannot be reconciled with survival of the species. Change will clearly not be easy; Slater (2009) observes that “we’ve been steeped for so long in this cultural system that many people assume its customs and norms are locked in our DNA” (p. 12). And yet it is also hard to imagine that change is not coming; the crises are now so overwhelming that humanity is faced with a choice: change or die. In the face of doomsday, an emergent outcome is possible. What would be preferable is an partnership/Integrative outcome, one which this essay suggests might be achieved through spiritual leaders leading the people to a recognition of reality not as monolithic but as relative, manifold, and anarchic. Following this path, spiritual leaders could withdraw their blessings from secular European governments with which they partnered in the Middle Ages. They could then divest themselves of their own authority, advising people to cooperate to ensure the survival of the species.

There are obvious questions. How can hierarchies as entrenched as the Roman Catholic church be persuaded to abandon authoritarianism? How do we raise the values of empathy and compassion above the value of individual gain which so many in authority have recommended for so long? How do we do this in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change? What do we do with the legacy of nuclear weapons? If we understand any system of exchange as privileging the parties most able to say no, how do we establish systems for people to get the things they need in places where their production is impossible or ill-advised? In short, how do we remake the world with a far larger population than what it had the last time partnership/Integrative ideas were tried?

Much must be left to people to work out together, rather than prescribed in advance. For that prescription, that grand plan, would itself be authoritarian. This transformation is a leap of faith. But if I may abuse an analogy of people having to leap out the windows of a burning building, placing faith in the nets firefighters have stretched below them, we are those people and we are also the firefighters below. We must rescue ourselves or be consumed.


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Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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