Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Evergreen Sustainability of Utopia

If the evidence of the origin and nature of the Great Enrichment is so compelling—indeed, we in the Advanced Sector enjoy its historically unprecedented benefits every day—why then does its antithesis, socialism, continue to compel such widespread allegiance that many of us seek to dismantle the American system that is its highest expression?
I asked this of the eminent author and economist Deirdre McCloskey at a recent public forum in London, and somewhat to my surprise she admitted she could not answer the question.

And yet McCloskey is perhaps better prepared to do so than any living economist that I’ve encountered, now that Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are no longer with us.

She prominently established the foundation for a satisfactory answer to this important question in the first two books of her soon-to-be-completed Bourgeois Era trilogy.  Particularly in the second book, Bourgeois Dignity, she demolishes every theory of the right and the left about the factors that created this massive shift in the trajectory of human political economy, and points out that it occurred because of a singular change in the collective inner consciousness of human beings in Holland and England during the seventeenth century.

Now, McCloskey doesn’t actually say “singular shift in the collective inner consciousness”; what she does assert is that there was a discernible and decisive shift in the rhetoric of social value. 

. . . three centuries ago in places like Holland and England the talk and thought about the middle class began to alter.  Ordinary conversation about innovation and markets became more approving.  The high theorists were emboldened to rethink their prejudice against the bourgeoisie, a prejudice by then millennia old.  . . . The North Sea talk at length radically altered the local economy and politics and rhetoric.  In northwestern Europe around 1700 the general opinion shifted in favor of the bourgeoisie, and especially in favor of its marketing and innovating.  The shift was sudden as these things go.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a great shift occurred in what Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the mind”—or more exactly, habits of the lip.  People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues exercised far from the traditional places of honor in the Basilica of St. Peter or the Palace of Versailles or the gory ground of the First Battle of Breitenfeld.[1]

It’s a shame that, in the very beginning of her insightful argument, she pulls back from examining the habits of the mind whose transformation resulted in those “habits of the lip.”  Rhetoric, after all, is a product of inner consciousness and perspective.  Talk is the crystallization of thought seeking social viability.  That people “stopped sneering” happened for a reason, and McCloskey’s argument would be more deeply served by examining and applying that reason.

It is, in fact, only by understanding (as best we can given our limitations) our interior lives as individuals and cultures that we can appreciate the stubborn resistance to universal embrace of the principles and dynamics that generated (and continue to generate) the Great Enrichment.

Habits of the Mind Are Foundational

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory offers a method for describing what happened several centuries ago to change the habits of the lip, for it insists (among other things) that our Kosmos is a four-dimensional entity, comprising an interior/exterior, single/collective complex of perspectives.[2]  Thus the Integral Model suggests that for everything we can see and measure “objectively,” there is a corresponding interior analogue—a thought, belief, emotion, hunch, etc.  The decision to measure and comment on what we see and hear necessarily precedes the acts of measurement and commentary.  Our interior world is structured, analogous to the exterior world, as a series of ever-deeper dimensions in human spacetime, and the structures of these dimensions can be examined and both described and experienced (relatively) discretely.[3]

So what McCloskey so masterfully observes about what happened in seventeenth century Holland and England has, according to Integral Theory, an interior correlate.  Rhetoric—the spoken word, what we hear when we speak to one another—has an interior, pre-spoken source.  Understanding that source and its place in the evolution of consciousness more powerfully illuminates McCloskey’s important insights.

The Swiss cultural anthropologist Jean Gebser labeled the predominant mode of consciousness in human history since the end of the Great Ice Age and the replacement of hunter/gatherer by agricultural socioeconomic structures the “mythic/membership” wave.[4]  This long period of human development was dominated by a mythical view of the world in which human creative power was projected onto a hierarchy of divinities who wrote the rules by which they would agree to act as patrons of the various farming land-based group or tribe. 

Members of these tribes or clans fulfilled the highly delineated roles necessary for group cohesion in a dangerous and mysterious world; unquestioningly following the rules governing these roles was essential for survival of one and all.  The gods dictated the laws and rewarded the compliant while punishing the rebellious.

Thus we see a multitude of gods and religions across both the centuries and the globe as agricultural societies matured and great land-based empires arose.  This premodern era was characterized on the exterior by hierarchical imperial polities large and small, and by an interior unconscious presumption that group belonging was one’s life purpose.

The great writer and psychologist Robert Godwin, in One Cosmos under God, dives deeply into how this mindset saw the world and its own place in it: 

. . . Greek gods were at best indifferent and unpredictable, at worst downright hostile and sadistic.  If they took an interest in human affairs, “it was often to punish rather than to help . . . the gods were like judges in a totalitarian state, who might—or might not—mete out punishment to anyone at any time.”  They were “more like cruel adolescents who delighted in the cunning ways they spread pain and confusion.”

Yes, in this era we hired the gods to keep social order, and woe betide him or her who stepped out of line—as the story of Prometheus so chillingly warns.  But most of us had no curiosity about our condition, embedded as we were in societies whose communications were mostly oral and whose sense of time was linearly cyclical.  Godwin, quoting the German chronicler of consciousness evolution Erich Neumann, writes that

“the unconscious state is the original, basic psychic situation that is everywhere the rule.”  As a result, the average peasant had little sense of a true, individual “self,” separate from the collective:

To them their identity in this life was irrelevant . . . [T]here was also no awareness of time . . . Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur . . . Any innovation was inconceivable; to suggest the possibility of one would have invited suspicion, and because the accused were guilty until they proved themselves innocent by surviving impossible ordeals—by fire, water, or combat—to be suspect was to be doomed.  All knowledge was already known.  And nothing would ever change [italics in original].

. . . Only two powers ran the world (itself evidence of severe psychological splitting), the logical outcome being that life revolved around the notion that “the evil one must be fought and the good one placated.”[5]

This state of our interior affairs lasted for millennia, but as we well know eventually something radically different began to emerge among discernible masses of people in northwestern Europe such that a new society began to arise from the old in Holland and then England by the end of the seventeenth century, as McCloskey (and many others) documents.

What occurred was the shift of identity (the answer to the question, “Who am I?”) from the tribe to the individual person.  Since the end of the Great Ice Age until the fifteenth century the answer to that question was, “I am my tribe.”  Now a new identity was emerging from this foundational perspective: “I am my own person.”

Wilber reviews this emergence extensively in Up from Eden and Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, as does Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin.  Barry Sanders also provides a compelling description in A Is for Ox.  The power of this shift was such that even in its earliest stages people were remarking on and celebrating it, such as the Renaissance Florentine scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in his Oration on the Dignity of Man published in 1486—a mere thirty years after Gutenberg printed his Bible on his new (for the West) invention, providing a tool essential for the individuation project.

Of course this new identity didn’t rush through the populations like wildfire, but on the other hand from the perspective of history it did happen relatively fast.  The mythic/membership stage, arising around 10,000 BC, has existed from almost 12,000 years; the upstart stage has been around for only about 500 years.  But so radically different from the prevailing system was it that in that relatively short time it thoroughly altered the substance of human existence.  The overwhelming evidence of this is the Great Enrichment.

In his Why the West Rules—for Now, Ian Morris offers a scale of social development to chart the economic progress of humanity from the invention of agriculture.  Its elements include energy capture, social organization, war-making capacity, and information technology.  He shows that, for all the centuries of our history from the invention of agriculture, nowhere on the planet did any society exceed a measure of 47—until two hundred years ago where particularly in the West we have shot up to an astounding 906 as of 2000!  In other words, in the past two centuries human social wealth grew 19 times richer than what we had in the previous one hundred eighteen.[6]

When identity was liberated from tribal bonds, human creativity soared.  The individual can create so much more easily, speedily, and exhilaratingly than the collective.  At the same time, a collective of free individuals can voluntarily agree to promote, distribute, and benefit from these creations farther and wider than the rule-bound insular collective.  Moreover, one’s creative capacity becomes an element in one’s personal identity such that it generates a virtuous circle of inventiveness and productivity.

Human history has been on a wild ride since this revolution in consciousness.  The most critical development was the founding of the United States of America, a self-aware project of the Scottish Enlightenment, upon the principles of individual sovereignty ruled by a remarkable system of self-governance designed to reinforce and benefit from those principles.

Within a very short period of time the U. S. became a magnet for people around the world but especially from northern Europe who sought to make their own fortunes unbounded by the strictures of a more rigid social system.  For over a hundred years the United States provided an open and free society—particularly once it abolished slavery after a bloody civil war—that supported, encouraged, and celebrated inventive wealth creation.  Its global dominance at the end of the period of two world wars marking the failure of Europe’s imperial system was the apotheosis of the individuation project as the clearly superior method of organizing wealth creation.

The rising tide of the wealth created by the revolution of modernity was lifting all boats worldwide, and the communist counterrevolution signally failed to match, much less surpass as promised, the hated capitalist world.  By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ditching of Marxist economics in China in the same decade, the evidence of the unparalleled superiority of the system that McCloskey calls “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange by the parties involved” (or  “trade-tested progress” for short) was inescapable.

And yet. 

In spite of the evidence of its success, first Europeans and then Americans permitted ourselves to begin doubting this arrangement that produced our ever more prosperous lives.  We were impervious to neither the critiques of this new political economy leveled by socialists in Europe and Progressives at home starting in the late nineteenth century nor the psychospiritual shocks produced by World War I and the Depression.

Why would this be?

My hypothesis is that our interior self-sense has not yet fully absorbed the implications of the exterior wealth we have generated.  We see, but cannot yet trust and believe.  And this is because we have not been able to fully establish a deeply-rooted modern psychospiritual understanding that absorbs and answers the concerns that generate tribal counterrevolution rather than wars with them.

Let me explain.

The Unprecedented and Disruptive Gift of the Modern

As Wilber points out, the structural dynamic of the evolutionary process sees each new wave of consciousness emerge out of and transcend the current one, such that the newer entity, while entirely new and unique, nonetheless incorporates all earlier stages.  In the physical realm we see this as atoms emerge out of subatomic particles, molecules emerge out of atoms, chemical compounds emerge out of atoms, and so on.  Each new entity includes the earlier, less complex elements while having its own unique substance and configuration.

In human evolution, the same is true of the stages of consciousness, in both their individual and collective dimensions.  Out of our simplest, most primitive stage of awareness came ever deeper and more complex modes and perspectives.  By the time we reached the Paleolithic Age of our hunter/gatherer social structure, our consciousness had reached what Gebser and Wilber call the magic stage.[7]

The interior psychological structures that characterize the premodern, mythic/membership level of consciousness developed over the course of multiple millennia, solidifying through use and custom into a predictable configuration.  This arrangement in turn reified and undergirded the social systems that were the vessels of human social reproduction.

Magic dominated our consciousness for tens of thousands of years until the end of the last Ice Age when hunter/gatherers began domesticating plants and animals; from this activity arose the mythic/membership structure we spoke of above.  This dominated human social evolution until quite recently when, beginning with the Renaissance, humans began to cultivate individual autonomy no longer dependent upon tribal beliefs and demands.  By the beginning of the 18th century this process was advanced enough in Holland and England that the political economy both adapted to and self-organized to nurture and accelerate this new stage of awareness.

The emergent features of this new consciousness were radical indeed compared to what we humans were used to, and something for which we were completely unprepared.  An entirely new realm of interior awareness opened up, making possible for the first time the capacity to conceive of oneself as an object of contemplation separate from and superior to all other objects of awareness.

Gebser calls this new dimension “perspectival” in contrast to the “unperspectival” two-dimensionality of mythic/membership mind.  “The conception of man as subject is based on a conception of the world and the environment as an object.” Citing the evidence of something astir in the paintings of Giotto at the turn of the 14th century,  he writes about “the latent space hitherto dormant in the night of collective men’s unconscious is visualized; the first renderings of space begin to appear in painting, objectified or externalized from the psyche out into the world—a consciousness of space whose element of depth becomes visible in perspective.”[8]

Barry Sanders points out the critical role that the rise of literacy now plays as a new medium for self-awareness.  Regarding this new “psychic inner-space” he observes in A Is for Ox:

A person must first hold the abstract notions of space and volume in mind before perspective can be described and analyzed, and certainly before it can be translated onto paper as a vanishing-point perspective.  That level of abstraction flourishes in literacy.  Vanishing-point perspective requires more than mere seeing; it requires abstracting and shaping reality through conception and perception.  Tuscan painters  . . . found themselves in a more volumetric space, and they depict a world that have been conceptualized differently.  The new space gets “produced” through a reciprocal relationship negotiated between a literate mind and experience.[9]

This radical psychic discontinuity that liberated perspective birthed individual identity, and that social innovative led almost directly to the new habits of the heart and lip that McCloskey rightly identifies as the ultimate source of the Great Enrichment.

But this revolution is highly incomplete.  As transformative as it has been to our social and physical environment, our inner worlds still remain demonstrably schizophrenic.  The “individuation project” is still unfinished.  Even as Western culture has altered itself (and the globe) fundamentally in response to the enormous psychic energy unleashed by the modern perspective, we most of us still harbor deep fears, neuroses, and illusions that in the dead of the night question the viability and sustainability of what we have wrought.  We have not stepped fully into healthy autonomy, but remained infected by our tribal and mythical pasts in ways that inhibit our thorough maturation.

Counterrevolution as Unhealed Childhood Trauma

Until the process of transcending and including also integrates the earlier stages of consciousness, we will feel at war with ourselves.  As the individual human grows through these stages from conception, we absorb psychic stresses and traumas that remain unhealed even as we age physically.  From infancy to childhood to adolescence, we move through at least four identifiable and distinct phases.  If during any or all of these traumas bruise us sufficiently and without healing they will act as impediments to the maturing of both the originating and subsequent stages.

The psychologists Alice Miller and Theodore Reuben are among many who have identified the kinds and severity of childhood traumas that occur outside the conscious awareness of both children and parents.  In the Advanced Sector, whose culture is centered in modern, personal, and individuated presumptions, this early distress usually remains repressed and hidden from ordinary awareness as we grow, so that it lives, as it were, in shadows from which it continuously impacts our development in unaccountable ways. 

Unhealed trauma subverts healthy psychospiritual growth into fully autonomous adulthood.  This shows up in the adolescent and adult mind as what psychologist Robert Godwin calls “mind parasites”: “self-serving entities that have no business taking up space in our minds, and which prevent us from claiming our divine birthright.”

. . . when the ordinary mechanism for learning from experience is damaged, it does not simply leave a vacuum in the psyche.  Rather, the means for discriminating true and false—for testing reality—is actually replaced by an omniscient, “dictatorial affirmation that one thing is morally right and the other wrong.”  In short, the domain of learning is hijacked by a specific parasite, an omniscient knower who forbids contradictory knowledge on the grounds that it is not just wrong but immoral. 

. . . it is during infancy that we experience a relatively boundaryless mental state, with an understandable confusion of inside and outside, and a consequent ability to anxiously project out what we don’t like, or to magically import what we do.  In their normal operation, these processes are actually essential to the development of a healthy mind, as they are the ground-floor input/output mechanisms that keep the mind an open system, linked with other minds and therefore susceptible to emotional growth and evolution.  But in the wake of inadequate, abusive, or neglectful parenting (or even just the “ambient trauma” of a “bad fit” between parent and child), these normal processes may become visibly hypertrophied, leading to very strange results which are easily detected in both their personal and historical forms.

One of the reasons for the failure to appreciate mind parasites has to do with their very nature: their most basic “trick,” as it were—no different from any virus—is to hijack the machinery of the mind in such a way that the mind does not recognize what has happened.  In addition, this early programming is mostly stored in the pre-linguistic, emotional centers of the right brain, making it beyond the reach of language, and therefore all the more likely to be “acted out” in an unconscious manner . . . Not only that, but once the parasites are hardwired in, they tend to “reproduce” their own dysregulated states.  . . . Thus, until one has systematically identified and eliminated (or at least learned to control) these viral specters of childhood from the mind, one will continue to unwittingly do their bidding, even if it means making oneself miserable in the process.[10]

This parasitic hardwiring ensures that when, as adults, situations reminiscent of these early childhood traumas arise, we will revert to the emotional state we produced in our struggles to survive them without being in the least bit aware that our now present experience is actually a habitual reawakening and replaying of an original one now lost to our conscious memory. 

The first two-three years of life, this “pre-linguistic” period, is the realm of magical “thinking,” during which time “the newly emerging images and symbols do not merely represent objects, they are thought to be concretely part of the things they represent, and thus “word magic” abounds:

Up to the age of 4-5, [the child] thinks that he is “forcing” or compelling the moon to move; the relation takes on an aspect of dynamic participation or of magic.  . . . Closely akin to this participation is magical causality, [where] the subject regards his gestures, his thoughts, or the objects he handles, as charged with efficacy, things to the very participations which he establishes between those gestures, etc., and the things around him.  Thus a certain word acts upon a certain thing, a certain gesture will protect one from a certain danger; a certain white pebble will bring about the growth of water lilies, and so on.[11]

So consider the challenge to maturation into a fully psychologically healthy adult with reliable mental acuity that is created when trauma occurs in the pre-verbal period of magical belief: we will fail to regularly and easily distinguish magical assumptions from rational ones.  Our mind parasites will promote this, keeping alive the original emotional mood in which are embedded these magical impulses that will have more reality to us than thoughts that contradict them.

Traumas originating in later phases of development, particularly in adolescence, will have similar impacts upon maturation.  Adolescent disturbances will have the tendency to freeze mythic belief structures: those that establish our security in our tribe in return for us knowing and playing our roles as expected.  Teenagers are notorious for focusing on how we fit in to our crowd, and unless we develop the internal strength to “go it alone” without reference to our peers’ opinions, we will be stuck to one degree or another validating the rigid structures that guarantee our crowd can defeat yours and thus enable our own survival.

It turns out that the self-government experiment of the Scottish Enlightenment launched by the Americans in the late eighteenth century depended—as the Founders knew full well—on developing a citizenry preponderantly dominated by mature individuals no longer seduced by magical and mythical thinking.  Alas, they launched this a century before useful knowledge of human psychology became available; thus they had few tools beyond exhortation to encourage, not to mention guarantee, this collective maturation. 

What they did do—and this was an achievement impossible to overstate—was establish a government unable to interfere with or influence much this social development, being wise enough to accept that government in its arrogance and myopia could only make it worse.  They created a society in which the emerging modern individuation project could proceed relatively uninhibited by the kinds of tyrannical social structures that predominated in Europe and the rest of the globe.  To this boisterous and chaotic experiment they attracted the adventurous and restless of Europe, those to whom the experience of America revealed both the stultifying limits of their own premodern cultures and the glorious possibilities they suddenly saw for themselves outside those boxes in the New World.

They let loose the political economy that Adam Smith foresaw, creating and nurturing a vast free market to permit the “trade-testing” McCloskey identifies as the practical means of rewarding and incentivizing continuous innovation and improvement. 

But they failed—through no fault of their own—to generate the citizenry that could sustain this.  The experiences of Europe that culminated in the unmitigated disaster of World War I undermined the self-confidence of the American elites, a process begun in the decades before with the mixed messages of the Progressive Movement.  The massive explosion of wealth creation after the American Civil War created new social tensions along with unimagined opportunities, but the open and free markets of America ironically also divided and diminished the capacity of its leaders, falling far short of the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, to guide the nation towards the better angels of its nature.

There followed “the war to end all wars” a century of bitter warfare, characterized by a violence and instability that could not help but activate our magical and mythical mind parasites.  If the emergence of a nation of free individuals nonetheless still led to the unimaginable excess of the twentieth century, then perhaps the whole project of modernity was fundamentally flawed and must be replaced by something kinder and gentler.

Defending the Fundamentals of the Great Enrichment Is the Great Imperative

And yet, even in the face of the senseless slaughter of millions and the devastation of thousands of square miles of human inhabitations, the Great Enrichment continued its exponential spread across the globe almost without pause.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, we humans numbered 1.6 billion; by the end we were more than 6 billion.  GDP per capita rose from $1,000 to almost $8,000, and life expectancy expanded from 33 to 70 years.  And we have already seen the more comprehensive metrics offered by Ian Morris, showing the same exponential growth curve worldwide.

As a whole, we humans have yet to draw the appropriate conclusions and wholeheartedly organize ourselves accordingly; clearly rational evidence is insufficient to the task.  It appears that we are still facing the same challenge and obstacle that the Founders identified as a potentially fatal flaw: the development of a mass culture of civic virtue mature enough to handle the trials of self-governance.

Our inability to do so is analogous to the inability of a drunk with diabetes and kidney failure to give up drinking: something inside us, something hidden and demonic, blocks our progress toward health. 

Socialism attracts because the idea of it satisfies the unhealed child within so many of us: it offers security from an identifiable enemy.  It promises that we will no longer have to struggle, suffer, and still possibly fail at making our own way in the world.  It assures us that we can have a peaceful world devoid of risk and randomness where everyone gets what he needs. Our conscious minds may say no, but our traumatized and unhealed souls say yes. 

The sad evidence of this fact is the impossibility of carrying on a rational dialogue with most socialists, steeped as they are in the degenerative postmodernist disdain for Reason—but then again it’s equally as difficult for most of us to change habits just because evidence suggests we should.

In spite of the tremendous transformations we humans have experienced as our consciousness has deepened since the birth of the modern, we have yet to reach back and heal that which still throbs painfully in the shadows.  Our society accurately reflects this failure back to us: as the social researcher Brene Brown has chronicled, “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”[12]  Seeing these not as moral failings but information about our collective inner condition is the beginning of wisdom.

It is, indeed, in dealing with the habits of the heart that we will generate even more creative habits of the lip, leading next to the rhetoric of vulnerability and healing so that we cure ourselves of—or at least learn to control—the mind parasites that find solace in magical and mythical thinking.  We may have at the beginning of the modern era stopped sneering at the innovator, the renegade, the heretic, but now this toxic self-violence has crept back into public discourse.  This counterrevolution is but a desperate attempt to stop the hand of time, to freeze our world into a dependable environment, to take from our lips this cup of self-creation, self-responsibility, and self-governance.

Fortunately the disclosures about the dynamics of the mind and soul generated and sharpened by modern inquiry offer us information about the possibilities for transcendence that our Founders could not have.  And although our times are quite chaotic and the way forward is murkier than ever, the principles are timeless.  We have within our passionate hearts the wherewithal to complete the modern individuation project and move to an even more powerful and human-centric mode of consciousness, one that actually does what the socialists merely dream of.

We are poised to generate out of this human inner civil war a new birth of freedom, dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created with the equal right and responsibility to make of our lives as we choose, and that government of free, mature, and self-accountable people shall not perish from the earth.

[1] McCloskey, Deirdre, Bourgeois Dignity, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 7.

[2] See Wilber, Ken, The Integral Vision, (Boston: Shambhala Books, 2007).  “Kosmos” is Wilber’s word for the multi-realmed Existent: the world of physical, biological, noetic, and spiritual dimensions.

[3] I say “relatively” because, as Wilber demonstrates, these structures exist on a continuum whose internal “boundaries” are more zones of gradation than concrete and impervious borders.

[4] Gebser, Jean, The Ever-Present Origin, (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986)

[5] Godwin, Robert, One Cosmos under God, (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2004), pp. 162-3.

[6] Morris, Ian, Why the West Rules—for Now, (New York: Picador, 2010), pp. 135-71.

[7] Wilber adopts a version of a color gradation scheme developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen in their book Spiral Dynamics to indicate the various stages on the spectrum of consciousness; cf. Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Books, 2000), pp. 195 ff.

[8] Gebser, op. cit., p. 11.

[9] Sanders, Barry, A Is for Ox, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 72.

[10] Godwin, Robert, op. cit., pp. 139-45, passim.

[11] Wilber, Ken, Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, from The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Vol. 6, (Boston: Shambhala Books, 1995), p. 225.  The quote if from Jean Piaget.

[12] Brown, Brene, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TedX Talk, Houston, 2010.

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