Abandon all hope, ye who enter this existence

Near the end of The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler (1987/1995) writes,

Human evolution is now at a crossroads.  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.  In the course of this book we have seen that androcracy cannot meet this requirement because of its inbuilt emphasis on technologies of destruction, its dependence on violence for social control, and the tensions chronically engendered by the dominator-dominated human relations model upon which it is based.  We have also seen that a gylanic or partnership society, symbolized by the life-sustaining and enhancing Chalice rather than the lethal Blade, offers us a viable alternative. (p. 186)

It is probably fair to say that since writing these words, Eisler has made it her life’s work, in several books and in the Center for Partnership Studies, to promote this alternative, an alternative I have recognized as humanity’s only hope for survival, particularly as threats posed by climate change manifest.  And so it was with high hopes that I began a class with Riane Eisler and Susan Carter in the spring semester of 2010.

Eisler (2002) offers ways to implement partnership in one’s own life which require resources that a prolonged period of unemployment suffered by many has deprived me of; the response of elites to the pain of so many and the failure of the left to effectively challenge policies that have favored the wealthy darkens my outlook (Reich, March 12, 2010; Sahadi, November 12, 2009; Singer, January 1, 2010). Eisler (2007) does argue for a more caring economic system and systematically critiques the measure (gross domestic product) of the present economic system most heavily relied upon by elites. But Philip Slater (2009), in The Chrysalis Effect, probably does as good a job as any in detailing the recent failings of the hierarchical dominator system, which he refers to as Control Culture.

Slater (2009) nonetheless expresses an optimism best understood in light of complexity theory as described by Fritjof Capra (1996) in The Web of Life.  To summarize complexity theory, begin with the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe as we know it.  I have not seen a description of what “order” existed before the Big Bang, but only of the Big Bang itself as an explosion.  Now, explosions are not things we associate with the creation of order; rather, we see them as catastrophic and as destructive of any forms of order which precede them.

Yet out of the Big Bang, this massive explosion that destroyed whatever came before it, we find stars and galaxies.  And circling around many of those stars, there are planets.  And on at least one of those planets, there is life.  And among the life forms on that planet, there is at least one that regards itself as intelligent.  But Capra (1996) does not argue for “creation science” or intelligent design.  An “intelligent designer” is not needed for the eddies that form in rivers flowing to the sea, nor for the swirling whirlpool of water draining from a sink.  Indeed, as Capra compellingly explains, patterns form in any dissipation.  These patterns take on attributes, called emergent phenomena, that are not seen in the components that precede them, but which are as fundamental to our existence as the elements from which we are made.  These patterns coalesce, creating ever higher orders of complexity, each with emergent phenomena.

And so it follows that there are patterns of which we are a part, with attributes we can at best dimly perceive, in increasing orders of complexity “above” us.  In this light, it becomes possible to comprehend, if not necessarily to agree with, the hierarchies of existence described by Allan Combs (2002) in The Radiance of Being.  Slater (2009) uses the metaphor of a caterpillar, eventually overcome by linked imaginal cells that ultimately dissolve the old body and from its materials, create a butterfly.  In this metaphor, the imaginal cells symbolize partnership-oriented people, whom Slater calls Integrators.  But where Eisler (1987/1995) cites Erwin Laszlo to the effect that “we ‘cannot leave the selection of the next step in the evolution of human society and culture to chance’” (p. 187), Slater argues against any attempt to impose a grand scheme (pp. 183-197). Slater is optimistic of an Integral outcome, but given an understanding of emergent phenomena and of our limited abilities to perceive them, the best we can truly say is that the outcome is unknown.  And indeed, quite in contrast to Slater, Eisler suggests that “modern totalitarianism is the logical culmination for a cultural evolution based on the dominator model of social organization” (p. 180).

Even more pessimistically, it is possible to suppose that, just as an eddy current itself may eventually dissipate as surrounding conditions change, the pattern that is forming, in which human-induced climate change is a component, may offer no accommodation for humans or for many of our fellow species on this planet .  The particulars of our extinction, be it from nuclear holocaust, mass starvation, plague, or some other cause, do not particularly matter.  And as Slater (2009) argues, our present social order is powerless to avert this outcome.

Slater (2009) derives hope from his caterpillar metaphor, in the overwhelming of an immune system that preserves the status quo, which results in its subsequent collapse, I see the dominator system not as the caterpillar about to be subsumed, but rather as a predatory wasp that lays its eggs within the caterpillar and whose larvae consume the caterpillar from within.  Humans have until now survived this, outbreeding its catastrophic effects, but we are about to exhaust the resources that have enabled us to do so.  This wasp will now overcome us.

For in the end, it is the Controller characteristics that predominate even in those whom Slater (2009) sees as Integrators, that lead us for example, to insist that the United States must remain a single country, even as its relatively small share of the world’s population consumes a grossly disproportionate share of the planet’s resources.  The experience of President Barack Obama’s first year in office has shown that we insist on dragging those who oppose us where they would not go because we insist so stridently on going there.  And vice versa, when our opponents are in power.  Obama has finally managed to pass his health care plan, and as far removed as it may be from the single-payer system to be found in most other developed countries, it is nonetheless demonized by its opponents as “socialist.”

To even the extremely limited extent that we may regard this health care plan as a step towards a partnership society, it is absurd, and indicative of a dominator society, that we impose it and its high costs on those who cannot afford it and on those who so strongly oppose it; and that we impose it with a restoration of funds for abstinence-only education and with restrictions that will further stigmatize and degrade women’s access to abortion. I see it instead as an affirmation of dominator values, both in the manner in which it was passed and in its regard for reproductive health (Allen & Young, March 21, 2010; Greenwald, December 22, 2010; Hamsher, March 19, 2010; Stein, March 27, 2010; Wheeler, September 8, 2009; YoGo, March 19, 2010).

If I am left to Slater’s (2009) caterpillar, I am to hope that somehow in all this tumult a new Integrator or partnership order will arise.  Instead, I see an uprising not from the left but from the right, in a conservative populist backlash, the Tea Party movement, which bears more than a trace of racism (Koppelman, September 16, 2009; MacAskill, September 16, 2009).  And why the right?

The Democrats and their liberal apologists are so oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country that they think offering unemployed people the right to keep their unemployed children on their nonexistent health care policies is a step forward. They think that passing a jobs bill that will give tax credits to corporations is a rational response to an unemployment rate that is, in real terms, close to 20 percent. They think that making ordinary Americans, one in eight of whom depends on food stamps to eat, fork over trillions in taxpayer dollars to pay for the crimes of Wall Street and war is acceptable. They think that the refusal to save the estimated 2.4 million people who will be forced out of their homes by foreclosure this year is justified by the bloodless language of fiscal austerity. The message is clear. Laws do not apply to the power elite. Our government does not work. And the longer we stand by and do nothing, the longer we refuse to embrace and recognize the legitimate rage of the working class, the faster we will see our anemic democracy die. (Hedges, March 29, 2010)

I see no evidence that Slater’s imaginal cells are coming together to effect change; even the movement that coalesced to elect Obama is riven between those who accept politics as “the art of the possible,” and by those who are flabbergasted by how little change their toil has produced and by Obama’s full-body embrace of the status quo (Greenwald, December 18, 2009; Swanson, September 1, 2009; Walsh, December 22, 2009).

And so I see the fate of our species left to an unpredictable outcome of emergent phenomena in a higher level of complexity.  And I simply cannot find grounds for optimism in chance.


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Capra, F. (1996). The web of life.  New York: Anchor Books.

Combs, A. (2002). The radiance of being: Understanding the grand integral vision; living the integral life (2nd Ed.).  St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Eisler, R. (1987/1995). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. New York: Harper SanFrancisco.

Eisler, R. (2002). The power of partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Eisler, R. (2007). The real wealth of nations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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Walsh, J. (2009, December 22).  “Why Democrats must pass healthcare reform.” Salon.com.  Retrieved April 9, 2010, from http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2009/12/22/progressives_and_health_care_reform/

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YoGo (2010, March 19).  “Nothing Undemocratic About Enactment of Healthcare Reform.” Daily Kos.  Retrieved April 9, 2010, from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/3/19/848027/-Healthcare-Reform-Passage-is-Model-of-Democracy

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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