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A Critique of Wilber and Beck's SD-Integral

Michel Bauwens

The following material is from P/I: Pluralities/Integration no. 61: March 23, 2005:

Integralism (1): What's wrong with Wilber and Beck's SD-Integral

The following is not a critique of memetics as such, i.e. the general idea that thoughts can spread like viruses, from head to head as it were. In a peer to peer era determined by network-based knowledge transfer, such a viral point of view has merit and can disclose interesting findings. My ill-feeling has more to do with a specific school of thought: Spiral Dynamics, and less with the theory 'in general', which I believe has merit (see for a good overview), than in the specific way it is applied by a particular branch of it. In this article, I will be groping to establish what it is precisely that makes me ill at ease, and increasingly more so: in a crux, it is that the SD-Integral movement, as represented by Ken Wilber and Don Beck, has been rapidly evolving to a political neoconservative movement that uses the scientific basis of Spiral Dynamics as a cloak. The following therefore does not apply o the branch of SD represented by Chris Cowan, who takes great pains to avoid the kind of generalizations I'm referring to.

In the most general terms, the ideas of Spiral Dynamics, have a certain merit. What it says, following the research of psychologist Clare Graves, is that individual thought patterns have a certain consistency, they are a coherent system, and that individuals can move from one system to another, from one level of complexity to another. They are if you like 'consciousness formations', particular constellations of values. If I understand it correctly, it is these underlying value system which makes an individual 'tick'. But the SD system goes further, it uses these value constellations to explain the history of civilization. The history of civilization is explained in terms of societies moving from one 'average value constellation' to another. To make it easier to understand, SD has further applied color schemes, so that people and societies can be labeled blue (divine order, fixed good and evil), orange (strategic individualism), green (egalitarianism), etc... A particularly important distinction made by SD-Integral is that between first tier thinking (where you think that your interpretation is the only valid one, and former stages are to be combated), and second tier thinking, which accepts that humanity moves through developmental stages, and that each have their relative value. The SD system, pioneered by Clare Graves but developed later by Chris Cowan and Don Beck, at some point split. Then, Don Beck and Ken Wilber at some point 'merged' their ideas and activities, with their main focus being the struggle against the "Mean Green Meme".

My gripe is what the system has become: 1) it's tendency to give rise to totalizing, possibly totalitarian, interpretations. 2) That it is used to justify 'reactionary' and neoconservative interpretations of reality; 3) That the movement is acquiring cult-like qualities. These arguments are not directed I think to the branch of the movement directed by Chris Cowan, which I believe has retained an open quality, but to the branch represented by Don Beck, and which has 'merged' with Ken Wilber's thinking, in my opinion with disastrous results. We will also conclude with an assessment, that even on SD's own terms and method, the whole idea of the Mean Green Meme, is in fact a myth without basis in reality.

Totalising/totalitarian vision: Let me take 'peer to peer' as an example. In my latest essay, I offer an interpretation of a major shift in our societies, from hierarchical pyramidal forms of organisation, and the attending mentalities, to networked, 'peer to peer' based organizational forms, and their attending mentalities. By itself, it is not so different from what you could find in SD. But a crucial difference is that I do not 'explain' peer to peer as deriving from the new value constellation (though I hold it as an open hypothesis that the different manifestations of P2P are the result of a deeper ontological and epistemological shift, but in general I do not think that monocausal explanations hold much water). I simply note, empirically, that a new form of social exchange is spreading throughout the social field, and try to explain it through a mix of factors. In the very first version of this essay, written for the post-Wilber community at the Integral World site maintained by Frank Visser, I offer a simple exercise of comparing the empirically-derived characteristics of peer to peer, with the SD scheme. Two problems immediately arise: P2P has elements of green, yellow and turquoise, almost evenly divided. This shows to me that one cannot simply force any part of reality, to conform to a totalizing vision of human evolution, a priori derived from the investigations of individual psychology.

Neoconservative vision: What is the crucial problem of society today? Does the destruction of the ecosphere, does the increasing inequality between and within nations, does the turbulence of the international order derive: 1) from the unrestrained neoliberal order which creates a world market without a global regulatory framework; 2) from a group of extremist postmodern academics on U.S. campuses. Incredibly, Don Beck and Ken Wilber choose the second option, and are echoing in their writing almost word for word the interpretations of American neoconservatives, down to their hatred of political correctness and their justifications of an 'enligthened' American empire. Don Beck justifies Putin, thinks of Bush as a 'great leader'; while Ken Wilber hails Tony Blair as the ultimate representative of integral leadership, associating himself (and hailing) with the worst contemporary spiritual abusers: first Da Free John, now Andrew Cohen. Now, there is nothing wrong by itself in being a neoconservative (that is, until you go about invading other countries on false pretenses), but it becomes manipulative when you start cloaking that particular political vision under a false scientific cloak, feeling yourself a superior being in 'consciousness'. Doesn't sound much different from the scientific justifications of a Leninist vanguard party, and we all know where that led us. An interesting study done by the group of Chris Cowan and his partner, actually shows an interesting finding. The group of people who most strongly react against 'green' and its values, and are most likely to devise a concept like the Mean Green Meme, are not yellow second tiers thinkers, as is often implied by Wilber and Beck, but in fact people who identify with blue and orange values. This finding is entirely consistent with the neoconservative (blue-orange) ideology, and therefore, not surprising at all. (see )

Cult-like qualities. Certainly, from my point of view as former admirer of Ken's integral theory, the encounter of Ken Wilber with Don Beck has been an unmitigated disaster. I believe that up to a certain point, Wilber's integralism had an emancipatory character. It also had implicit authoritarian elements, but they had not yet come to completely dominate his thinking. Wilber's inability to deal with critics in an open dialogue had not yet completely revealed itself. The Shambhala website was not yet publishing sycophantic positive reviews and attacking those who differ with Wilber. Wilber was a loner doing personal research, in a rather brilliant way in my opinion. He did not yet single out baby boomers as a threat to civilization. Now as to SD itself: if you participate for a while on some SD mailing lists, it becomes quickly obvious that certain members are using the colour schemes to disquality debate, see below, the second item, for an example of this. In my particular case, this is particularly funny, since at one point Ken Wilber said I was certainly thinking integrally (feeling unsure, I had asked him), while, when I start developing a critique, I have suddenly become a one-dimensional green thinker. Case closed, debate unnecessary. Colour coding has become a Stalinist technique to silence critics, to make a debate on the merits of arguments impossible. The reason of course is that those who agree with SD are 'integral, second tier' thinkers, while the poor sobs who have different arguments, are simply deluded, as-yet-undeveloped souls. People who use integralism or SD in a critical way, such as I do because I believe it has some merits, are called nothing less than regressive apostates. More generally, SD operates as a business, aggressively defends its sole use of terminology (I was witness to an threatening email exchange on this); and is marketed to business and political leaders as a means of social manipulation. Now imagine the world vision of someone using SD in that fashion: hemoves through the world as a superior being, seeing poor sobs around him, in need of enlightenment, knowing that only a tiny few have the potential to become like him. Just like Ken Wilber, who has decided a priori that the Hindu-Buddhist Advaitic non-self doctrine is the final word in spiritual evolution, this making interreligious dialogue in fact impossible, quite a few Beck supporters hold similar but more secular views about the a priori superiority of their form of being in the world. Unbelievably (at least to me), I have even encountered SD-influenced people, who maintain that the poor people in the Third World 'have a right to experience hunger and poverty', as it corresponds to their developmental level!

The un-scientific merits of the MGM (Mean Green Meme) hypothesis: To recapitulate what Wilber/Beck have been saying. The egalitarian thought system of 'green' has become pathological, because it has merged with an aggressive 'red' element, and fiercely combats the emergence of yellow-turquoise integralism. Because of this, it blocks the further positive evolution of our civilization. At the same time, they claim that yellow, because it just emerges from 'green', is vehemently opposed to the latter's limitations. An interesting study by Dr. Natasha Todorovic, see the URL above, has tested thes claims by using a battery of SD tests, to make out if the hypothesis can be borne out by using the movements own scientific method. If I understand correctly, the method is as follows: when presented with a number of 'value-laden' phrases, people will naturally select the one's that are closest to their 'colour-scheme' center of 'value gravity'. When green people are tested, the study uncovers that they do not at all have a red element, and that they do not oppose 'yellow' integral statements. This by itself invalidates the MGM hypothesis, because they are in fact no such people, no such pathology. But the study goes further: yellow-based 'integral' individuals do not oppose green value statements. This second finding makes it very strange that a movement which bills itself as consisting of 'yellow-turquoise' integral individuals are so hell-bent on combating the MGM value constellation. Where then, could such a feeling come from, is the third question that the study addresses. To uncover this, the various colour constellations are then tested as how aggressively they reject green. The result is clear: it is the blue-orange constellation which hates green values. Thus, this gives a strong indication of which consciousness constellations the leaders of the SD-Integral movement are coming from. It is their own dominant blue and orange value systems (i.e. what I call neoconservatism) that is responsible for their making a priority of denouncing MGM, and it has no relationship with their purported 'integrality'.

Integralism (2): A Reply to a SD critique: is peer to peer 'green'?

What prompted the above piece was a reminder of what kinds of thinking are now used by some in the SD-Integral community. In the course of receiving comments on my preliminary draft version of the essay, I received a number of critiques, most were friendly, some pointed out that there were some glaring mistakes, such as my early interpretation of the non-commercial nature of free software and open sources. Such criticisms are very valuable for an author. The following critique though, is an ideological production, since it precludes the author from reading with an open mind. But because this kind of disinformation is likely to spread to uninformed readers, and I don't have a chance to respond to the mailing list myself, I offer some arguments of my own. I will call the author "Robert" for convenience's sake and I thank him for the opportunity to clarify my own ideas. This is one thing a polemic is good for.

"I believe that the P2P and Human Evolution article is a typical example of Green vMemetic view. The article's basic theme originates from a consciousness that operates either at a good Green/yellow center of gravity a la SD or at Yellow cognition and Green value a la Wilber's multiple lines. Isn't it true Why does it belong to Green vMeme?

1) It rejects the evolutionary thrust of Wilber's work and its implication of hierarchy (holoarchy) because evolution means stages of being."

Bauwens reply: Notice first of all the nature of the debate. One does not use rational arguments to invalidate or validate the empirical claims or the interpretation of the essay, but one characterizes the 'stage of consciousness' of the author. This is a ad hominem attack, stating in fact that the author has a 'inferior mode of consciousness'. The funny thing in my particular case that when I agree 100% with Wilber, I was called 'integral' by Ken himself (unsure, I had asked him specifically), but as soon as one becomes a partial critic, one falls down a stage or two. This is very similar in nature to the debating style in vogue in Stalinist parties, when those who disagree are necessarily victim of 'false consciousness', and only those who follow the party line have the correct consciousness. In this case, there is a correct SD-position against which all others are compared, and found wanting.

The charge that I reject social evolution is also factually wrong, for anyone seriously reading my essay, since every 'C' section is specically devoted to placing P2P in an evolutionary scheme of succeeding social formations. Thus, I do not reject evolutionary schemes, only the assumption by Wilber, that the consciousness states of mystics (psychogenesis) is an indication of coming sociogenesis of society. To give an example, Wilber has consistently  supported spiritual abusers, first Da Free John and now Andrew Cohen, even though they lead totalitarian cults, on the grounds that they are realised. So, in my view, one can still accept human evolution, but it has to be a full four-quadrant empirical description and interpretation of the past. The methodology of Wilber himself is flawed, since his orienting generalizations, his claim that his synthesis reflects a consensus in a field of research, is in most cases simply not true, as shown in detail in Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition. The conclusion is that we cannot simply trust Wilber's integrations, but that we must all effectuate our own. We are all singularities effecting particular integrations of reality, as does Wilber, as I do, as every social interpreter does, as every human being in fact does.

So in the essay, we look at an emerging form of social exchange, and give grounds for an interpretation that it may be a form that is poised not only for serious growth, but possibly a form of social dominance. At the same time, see my three scenarios, I leave room open for an eventual defeat of this social form, or for its abuse for non-emancipatory ends.

2) It tries to apply the theory of P2P, which originates from the network programming world, to other domains, such as economy and politics. It is similar to New Ager's typical habit of applying the conclusion of one domain (i.e. Quantum Physics) to another (Mysticism). (And I can say this with more confidence because I am a web programmer and know the rationale behind the rise of P2P software.)

Bauwens reply: <Again, this is not true at all. True, as far as I know, it was the filesharing technologists who were the first to name the P2P principle, even though its principles were already implicit in the design of the internet. What I do in the essay is consistent with the sociology of form, it looks at a form of social exchange, and how it pervades different social fields. For example, if we take the form of 'commodification', we can see how it is happening not only in the economic field, but in many other, for example, New Age spirituality is often 'sold' on a marketplace, or contemporary political parties often function as marketing enterprises. The method consists of discovering in empirical reality, a 'form of social exchange', i.e. one abstracts an 'ideal type', which then helps in uncovering the same phenomenom more precisely and differentiating it from others. This is for example, what allowed me to distinguish 'peer to peer' from the gift economy, different processes which are often confused. These subtilities are obviously lost on the critic. Again, the technical aspect of P2P is only one aspect, as the characteristics of that form, which I describe, are used in political organisation, spiritual search, and many other fields. The critic should really need to do some reading about how the same principles are applied by theorists and practitioners in many different fields, since he cannot read what is in the essay, I can provide an extensive bibliography. However, I do argue in the essay that technology is enabling the spread of this form, since without it, the p2p relational dynamic would be confined to small groups in physical proximity.

3) It assumes that everybody is equal. Here is a relevant quote: <quote> Again, peer to peer appears as a radical shift. In the new emergent practices of knowledge exchange, equipotency is assumed from the start. <end quote> What is equipotent is the computer, forming a node in the network. It ignores completely the levels of subjective consciousness of the users of those computers.

<It does not at all. First of all, I take great pains to distinguish equipotency from equality, and even devote a whole section to showing the difference, but this critic has seemingly missed that entirely. Equipotency is the sampe principle that applies to elections: everyone is assumed to be able to make a political choice, despite subjective differences,and there were indeed political forces, those against general suffrage, who were against it. Similary equipotency in commons-based peer production means that there is no prior condition for participation, but the expertise is immediately proven by the participation itself: either you can or you can't program, you can't play jazz or you can There is communal verification of this equipotency, which is 'non-formal', and not located in formal procedures such as diploma's etc.. See the University of Openness for a good example. I should add that the very concept of equipotency is used,and was suggested by me, by participants in free software projects: Human participants, not machines.

4) It rejects hierachies, especially those that are found in business companies (feudal authoritarian system)

Bauwens reply: >The essay does indeed maintain that in the contemporary knowledge economy, the hierarchical authoritarian nature of classic organisations, based on information scarcity, has become counter-productive. At the same time, I do recognise that this same system was unavoidable as long as such objective conditions of scarcity persisted. The reason P2P emerges and frequently bypasses such classic organisational forms is precisely their inability to adapt to complex realities requiring quick adaptation. Nowhere does the article say that such hierarchies will completely disappear, since I clearly link P2P to conditions of abundance, which are available in non-rival immaterial goods. Moreover, I also mention that P2P processes have their own hierarchies, but the difference is that they are fluid, depending on conditions, expertise, communal validation etc.. Bureaucratic authority does disappear but there are other forms of hierarchy, such as 'natural leadership'. However, there is some research to indicate that 'treating participants 'as equals', makes for more successful cooperative projects.

5) It advocates participative spirituality, thus rejecting all guru models of spirituality (quoting from Jorge Ferrer's book is one good clue) for everybody.

Bauwens reply: <Let me state that I'm very proud to cite Jorge Ferrer, who wrote a seminal book on contemporary participatory spirituality and has offered a cogent critique of the epistemological problems evident in the Wilber enterprise. The section of participative spirituality makes it clear that though I personally advocate the participative techniques, I am totally open to inter-religious dialogue and to the traditions and treasures uncovered by thousands of years of spiritual searching. It is only that P2P advocates do not believe there is one tradition with authority for the future, and also, that the relevant psycho-technologies and insights can and should be divorced from the authoritarian, sexist, patriarchal traditions they're embedded in.

6) But it already rejected the evolutionary ethos hinted by past mystics! Talk about invisible contradiction, just like the famous performative contradiction implicit in many extreme postmodern ideas.

Bauwens reply: <Since I do not reject human evolution per se, there is no performative contradiction, though I'm not even sure what the author is here hinting at. My position of mystics is that there are not an example of future social development. What they did was uncover a number of hidden potentials of the human bodymind, but their behavior and communities are not exemplary for contemporaries in any systematic way, though we may of course learn from thousands of years of human experience. Human social development will not be a result of copying the authoritarian nature of traditional religious communities, nor of the spiritual, sexual, and financial abuses of many contempary spiritual masters. And this is precisely what is implied by Wilber and his praise for Da Free John and Andrew Cohen: that the ghastly things happening in these communities, well described by former devotees, are in fact counter-examples of human emancipation, but rather forms of spiritual slavery.

Robert: I think this article is a manifesto for the creation of Green vMemetic economic system.

Bauwens reply: <If one does accept the psychological reductionism of SD, then indeed that would seem a logical conclusion. I'm not saying that SD has 'no validity' at all, but that is is not appropriate to generalize from the psychological findings of Clare Graves, a total interpretation of society, and that it is especially sad to use it to see oneself as some sort of Ubermensch who stands above the fray with a right interpretation. If on the contrary one has an open mind on peer to peer, and one is empirical, we would see that the P2P form of social exchange has in fact elements of green, yellow, and turquiose, see the table in my essay version on the Wilber site which demonstrates this. But that is not a problem for me, only for those who believe SD is the only right interpretation of the richness of human experience, and who use it in a clearly ideological fashion.

But the most important clue is how the author rejected the stages of Wilber's model, but kept the 4 quadrants. Apparently Dr. Beck has said that many people who call themselves integral use the 4 quadrants happily but consciously or subconsciously avoid focusing on the levels.

Bauwens reply: <I use the quadrants, and I use levels, as shown in the beginning, it is only that my levels are not pre-given by the SD system, but use more mainstream social scientists and philosophers such as Norbert Elias, Louis Dumont, Foucault and Deleuze, Negri,and others. SD and Wilber do not have a monopoly on holarchical interpretations.

Robert: It's fascinating to see how some people embrace Wilber's idea, and then after a while do a 180 and reject it, and keep only the parts that they like. Isn't it a clear example of narcissism in action, no?

Bauwens reply: <This one is fairly typical of some SD ideologists and their way of communicating on their list, by innuendo, name calling, using their colour-schemes to disquality debaters. From my point of view, narcissism is part of the human condition and it affects all of us. It affects me, my critic, and his thought masters. It is also irrelevant in a debate about ideas. Are my empirical facts right or wrong? Are my interpretations of these facts valid or not.? On this score, unfortunately, the critic has shown himself unable to read the text for what it actually says, and has only seen his projections, filtered by strong ideological blinders.The above argument also shows how some SD-integral people view intellectual property. In this precise case we should remind this critic of the following: ideas are not owned by anyone. Once in the public domain, we can use concepts, how we like, those of Marx, those of Wilber, those of anyone, without any obligation, except attribution. What is implied in the critic's position is that there is one right interpretation of reality, that we have to accept totally, and that it is not acceptable to be inspired by parts of what a thinker has to say. This is a very sad, totalitarian, cultic position and interpretation of Wilber's work.

Now, in an ironic ending to this polemic, I would like to permit myself to use the same weapons as my critic, i.e. to use colour coding as a weapon, instead of debating arguments. In a revealing study by the organisation, (see item above) another branch of the movement which does not seem to use SD in this blatant ideological manner, it is shown that the people who most strongly criticize the 'Green Meme', who are like Beck and Wilber advocates of the notion of a Mean Green Meme wrecking our civilization, are those who test 'blue' or 'blue/orange' on the ClareGraves scale. It's conclusion, "less than 7% of the people located at yellow reject Green". The data actually show that 'integrative yellow' is the position from which 'green' values are most appreciated. What does this say about the position of my critic? See

See also: The cult of Ken Wilber

From P/I: Pluralities/Integration no. 61: March 23, 2005: compiled by Michel Bauwens.

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