A Response to Tom Huston, Re: Integral Activism

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Br. C4Chaos (author of this recent awesome piece on UFOs) posted a link yesterday on his Facebook page to our newest magazine piece from Br. Gregor Bingham on the intersection of integral theory and Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine

In response to that post, good friend of Beams Tom Huston wrote the following:

I think integalists and evolutionaries should stay out of the rabbit hole, because our task is to envision--and create--a world beyond the rabbit hole. Getting into a polemical dialectic with modernity and its corruptions will not help our cause; only increasing the dialectic with postmodernity will, and postmodernity is already defined by its ongoing battles with modernity and traditionalism. 

Besides, the fraction of a percentage of people with an integral/ evolutionary worldview simply don't stand a chance against the fraction of a percentage of people in charge of the modern capitalist structure. That's just integral naïveté (or arrogance). Anyone who says otherwise doesn't realize what's actually lurking in the depths of the rabbit hole.

I appreciate Tom’s perspective, but I gotta say I disagree with a number of those points. But before going into what my disagreements are and why I hold them, I want to say this is a debate between friends and I appreciate Tom's comment for helping to nudge this conversation along. I think it's an extremely important discussion for integral and evolutionary folks to have. I think it gets to the heart of some major league issues around how we understand the implications and place of these teachings in the wider world (and activism in particular). 

With that said, onto my disagreements. 

1. The first major problem I have with this view is the notion that “postmodernity is already defined by its ongoing battles with modernity and traditionalism”. Some forms of postmodernity certainly criticize capitalism and traditional cultural systems. Maybe some of those criticisms are valid, maybe others are not. 

postmodernismRegardless, plenty of forms of postmodernity are practically quite cozy --however much they may give official lip service otherwise--with modern capitalism. Consider the title of Frederic Jameson’s great text Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

I believe Jameson’s view is one the integral and evolutionary community radically misses. Postmodernism is by and large a Western phenomenon that is (as Jameson correctly notes) the cultural logic of late [read: postmodern] capitalism. Capitalism itself is very postmodern in its current formation--of a certain kind of postmodern anyway. The ascendancy of finance over manufacturing, globalized markets over nation-state control, and informational over industrialized paradigms in economics are all indicative of a shift to a postmodern form of economics (that’s LR in integral terms). And the ‘cultural logic’ (or LL in integral terms) of said postmodern economics is postmodernity. Western postmodernism is still heavily influenced by the modern values of autonomy, individualism, and free choice (it’s just that postmodernism has broadened the acceptable forms of personal experimentation consider viable). 

2. To an echo a point I’ve made elsewhere on Beams, individual development does generally seem to follow a more transcend and include, dialectical approach. But I think social transformation is not so clear cut. In fact, it might be that when major social change does occur it occurs primarily via negation of the old. I say that in response to Tom’s argument that the integral or evolutionary communities should primarily follow a strategy of trying to increase the dialectic with postmodernism. That strategy assumes that postmodernism is in real dialectical tension with modern capitalism. Point #1 above questions that easy assumption that postmodernity (the antithesis) is really in a strong dialectical tension with modernity (thesis) and therefore integral should strive to become the synthesis that harmonizes the whole. 

coffeeAs proof of my claim that postmodernity might not be so antithetical to modernity as we might imagine, consider that values often attributed in integral circles to postmodernity like multiculturalism and care for the environment are in some cases enshrined as legal protections through the modernist liberal democratic order (e.g. hate crimes legislation). And what’s with Starbucks and all these other stores trying to sell me organic, shade grown, bird-friendly, eco-coffee (or whatever), promising to give back a certain percentage of the proceeds to poor farmers in Central America? As Slavoj Zizek notes, is this a more caring form of capitalism or the market co-opting ecological attitudes and selling them back to us as chic and ethical? Is the carbon offset I can buy for my airline flight simply a contemporary marketized form of a medieval indulgence?  

3. We are in the rabbit hole. Hell I might even say we are the rabbit hole. There's no choice about going or not going down the rabbit hole it seems to me. The choice, such as there is one, seems to be more about whether we are awake to the reality we find ourselves in or not. The subtitle of Gregor's piece is after all 'The War on All of Us.' Clearly not all of us are experiencing the negative effects of that war equally but we don't exist in a vacuum either. 

I do agree with Tom that we should all try to envision and enact a different kind of world. But the notion that we can “stay out of the rabbit hole” to me is quite flawed. I think practically such a view can easily become a license to be apolitical and basically play the child’s game of “I can’t see you” by covering your eyes. I should say I think the danger of this apolitical-ness is exacerbated in spiritual circles.  

4. The last thing I would say is to ask who is the our in “our cause”? By contextual clues, I guess it’s integralists and evolutionaries (“Getting into a polemical dialectic with modernity and its corruptions will not help our cause...”). If the our is self-described integralists and evolutionaries, my question then is: does it make sense to say those groups should have a cause separate from the wider causes of our time...environmental, political, economic, social, and spiritual? What is 'our cause', if we identify as integralists and evoluationaries? 

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  • Comment Link Jeremy Funston Thursday, 16 August 2012 16:45 posted by Jeremy Funston

    How are we defining 'the rabbit hole' ?

  • Comment Link Amy Jean Cousins Tuesday, 21 August 2012 20:12 posted by Amy Jean Cousins

    Hey Chris -- there are some really interesting points here. My challenge when using broad words like "post-modernity" is that we often forget how much this term covers, and the distinct movements within it: human rights, feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, anti-Capitalism, etc.... And inherent in the meme, folks often pick and choose as to what they decide to identify with. Meaning, not all post-modernists are clued into the fact that, like you said, Capitalism is actually an "ism" and are suspect to Green Washing; they become green consumers, but not green thinkers.
    So I guess what I'd like to add here is how rich, diverse and still emerging post-modernism is -in my view -and how we need to be careful how we choose to speak about it. As the edge of society at large, I don't think we should assume we've "got it". Spiral dynamics models should not be assumed to relay the heart of an emerging culture in all it's complexity. In reality I agree that there is a lot of meme-clashing as people evolve in ungraceful and incomplete ways, with one foot in modernism, the other in post-modernism, but never the less, strive to become better people in this glorious messy trial we call spiritual evolution.

  • Comment Link Amy Jean Cousins Tuesday, 21 August 2012 20:34 posted by Amy Jean Cousins

    P.S. I might change my last words to "cultural evolution", because I do think spiritual evolution can be more elegant on the individual level... cheers.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 21 August 2012 20:42 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Amy Jean,

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your point about how rich, diverse, and still emerging postmodernism is as well as your point around spiral dynamics. I think it of more like there are postmodernisms--and yet I still somehow there's some recognizable set of patterns that can be (however imperfectly) be understood as postmodern.

    It's definitely glorious and messy.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 22 August 2012 02:01 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hey Jeremy,

    Sorry I missed your comment the first time around. I'd have to go back to C4's original FB posting but I think it had to do with a piece around the financial industry (I could be wrong about that one).

    Either way, I would define the rabbit hole as any real serious look into the environmental crises and multiple crises of failure of governance, financial supremacy over politics, the corporate influence over elections (say in the US). Perspectives that really raise a number of potentially frightening questions around the viability of a) life on earth or b) the human species (and a bunch of other higher-order veterbrates). And also those that reveal increasingly shaky foundations to our democratic order as a way of responding to global corporate power.

    This is why I have concerns about linear models of social development. Because I think things can actually go down a cul-de-sac or deadends rather than always and only being dialectical pathologies of progress. I currently think a good deal of what is happening is just such a situation.

    I should add I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Nor am I big on the notion that bankers (or whoever) are particularly evil. I think the logic of how we measure things like GDP and what constitutes real wealth lead to precisely the kinds of actions we've seen.

  • Comment Link Robert Lyons Wednesday, 29 August 2012 00:48 posted by Robert Lyons

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    ~ B. Fuller

    I'm torn. Counting myself among the raggedy-assed multitudes, I defer to Mr. Huston's hard-won standing within that sliver of a percentile of humankind, the elite among integralists/evolutionaries. I want to be informed and persuaded by his perspective on this question. It strikes me as akin to the pearl of wisdom from Bucky Fuller, quoted above. And count me among the front-line volunteers who want to be catalyzed into the New World that Tom is creating. But then, it seems, my guts get involved. And I wonder if Tom isn't espousing an Ayn Randian (Fuck the loser, leeching multitudes!) version of Integral/Evolutionary Enlightenment, or if he expects to be somehow "raptured" beyond the very serious harm that is being done to the life support systems of this planet -- systems upon which his own life depends -- by other elites and the less-enlightened masses. To borrow from James Lovelock, we've induced a "morbid fever" in our host, Gaia. And what do fevers do? They kill pathogenic cells. Absent some concerted immunological response, we are going to get cooked. But maybe Tom already owns property in the northern latitudes. Are you proposing transcendence without inclusion, Mr. Huston, and moving north?

    "The health of the entire spiral is the prime directive, not preferential treatment for any one level."

    ~ Ken Wilber

    How integral is Integral if it's not concerned with and wisely intervening at the more fundamental levels of the Spiral, down even to the very bottom of the rabbit hole?

    Proposition: Cage match! Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! On the question of integral activism, Tom Huston vs. Terry Patten. Be there!

  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Wednesday, 29 August 2012 12:12 posted by Joe Corbett

    tom says, "integalists and evolutionaries should stay out of the rabbit hole, because our task is to envision--and create--a world beyond the rabbit hole". i've heard this one echoed far and wide, not just from tom.

    indeed it is the task of evolutionaries to create a sustainable alternative, but to do so without going deep into the rabbit hole and challenging the status-quo of modernity and its corruptions will allow and invite systemic collapse, and hence imperil the environmental and social conditions under which any viable and relatively pleasant future can be built.

    second, thus far, the alliance between modernity and postmodernity has been a disaster, evidenced in the fact that obama's compromises with the right and having a female (hilary clinton) in charge of foreign diplomacy has done nothing but further entrench america into a regressive rightward shift in both domestic and foreign policy. and as chris said about the economic implications, what good is this alliance when all that may come of it is an expanded consumer palate. so much for postmodern multiculturalism and diversity lifting the level of collective consciousness. its just more food for late capitalism and friendly fascism without something more than a synthesis of these two levels.

    on the other hand, i think engaging postmodernity from a higher level than capitalist institutions of profit and power, with the vision of post-capitalist institutions of sustainability and empowerment, could indeed pull postmodernity forward rather than backward to obsolete models of culture and society.

    so yes, alternative models must be built as exemplary supports. but they alone will not make the old institutions just go away. that will happen only when postmodernity no longer needs them to survive and thrive. the old institutions will only go away when they are no longer able to monopolize the agenda and buy the loyalty and engagement of the postmoderns.

    and this brings me to my first point above, that the old institutions will become obsolete either tragically by catastrophic collapse, or consciously by confrontation down the rabbit hole before catastrophe. its our choice.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 29 August 2012 19:57 posted by Chris Dierkes

    thanks Robert and Joe.

    Awhile back Trevor wrote a piece talking about Joanna Macy's three pillars of the Great Turning.


    Those three pillars are:
    holding actions, shifts in consciousness, and and structural changes.

    I think Tom was strongly promoting shifts in consciousness but went too far in diminishing the value of the other two (holding actions like Occupy and structural changes like Permaculture, Complementary Currencies, and the like).

    Not everyone is going to be as involved in all of the three to be sure but holding actions and structural changes absolutely require going down the rabbit hole. And I agree with Macy that all three are vital.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 29 August 2012 20:01 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I should also say this is one of the reasons why I really appreciate Charles Eisenstein. I think he is able to hold all three in a very creative way.


  • Comment Link David MacLeod Thursday, 30 August 2012 04:35 posted by David MacLeod

    Right on, Chris! And I should have remembered to include that Transition Voice piece when I put together my recent blog post on Eisensten (http://integralpermaculture.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/charles-eisenstein-inspiring-occupy-integral-and-transition-communities/)

    In regards to 'holding actions,' I'm fascinated by the perspective currently held by Grace Lee Boggs, who's been an activist for over 70 years, involved in all kinds of movements. She says "It becomes clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough."

    One internet commenter called her ideas "the stuff of fantasy affordable only by someone aged 95." To which another commenter responded (I wish I'd said this): "..she has lived through more violence ugliness and unpleasant futures, and survived, than most of us will ever have the intestinal fortitude to attempt. She can and is entitled to comment on a different approach for the reason that she has seen the violence so many people on this site seem to wish for. Grace Lee also understands, unlike most of us younger types, that it is not utopia that we need, it is stability and the space to develop that goes with a stable social environment. Constant conflict wears us out....constant fear mongering wears us out. Read the book, as I have, before you so cavalierly condemn a woman with more hands on experience in the arena of political and social conflict than most of us will ever have. A complete study of her writings over 70+ years would be beneficial for each of us. She has been there and done that and has a lot of T-shirts. While you are at it, check out the work and writings of her husband, James Boggs. This is the kind of historical background that could serve us well now."

    I'll have my own blog post on this soon, but this review is what inspired me to purchase her book, "The Next American Revolution - Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century":

    (please follow the link above, it's worth reading!)

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 01 September 2012 17:45 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi David,

    Thanks. I'll have to check out those links. Wow that's an inspiring story to be sure. Actually last night I just started Van Jones' new book (Rebuilding the Dream). I'm just right at the beginning. I'll have to let you know how that one goes.

  • Comment Link Robert Lyons Saturday, 01 September 2012 20:21 posted by Robert Lyons

    There’s a lot of insight, love, passion, and rambunctiousness around these issues, and contending but not mutually exclusive visions (of greater or lesser clarity) about where the leverage points are that is shining through this conversation.

    And today, Chris, I find your dropping Joanna Macy's Three Pillars of the Great Turning into the mix here to be very clarifying. Individually, we might focus more on shifts in consciousness over holding actions, as that may be where our best abilities and "Unique Gifts" have the most to offer and deserve emphasis. But at the same time, it seems fair to say that all the participants in this conversation (and it's companion, The Shock Doctrine: The War on All of Us, by Gregor Bingham ~ http://bit.ly/NDuTFo) are nose to stone in one or more of these Three Dimensions of the Great Turning.

    So you've got a knack for stably transmitting the Awakened state and engendering increasing confabs, local and non-local, of We-Mysticism. Thank you! We need this. ~ Shift in Consciousness. (Indeed! My goodness: What will culture look like when THIS is the starting place?!)

    You there, you're tenacious at documenting, lobbying, blowing the whistle, or even blockading destructive acts. Boy, do we need you too! Thank you! ~ Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings.

    And yes. "What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity? What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our Earth as supply house and sewer?" And what some of us are doing with our community gardens, consumer cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, watershed restoration, local currencies, and so on, is modeling and making real this other vital dimension ~ Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives.

    Ding! Ding! Ding! Not a single bell to ring or preferential treatment for any one level of the Spiral, but a growing chorus of tintinnabulation of diverse human beings ever-newly committed to our greater realization of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, AND Justice.

    I deeply appreciate these conversations here at B & S as being pedagogical and even therapeutic, in the very best sense. I come here to get some of the mere stuffing blown out from between my ears, and to rub up against others whose understanding exceeds or supplements my own -- hoping, as some of the brighter lights here might hope right along with me, that some of it rubs off. It may be working! If my woolly-mindedness is revealed or I've stepped on anybody’s toes, somewhere or another I need to work this out. Thank you Beams and Struts for this meeting place and this opportunity.

    Also, just want to share a couple of gleanings from this past week:

    "There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

    ~ From letter to a young activist, James H. Forest, by Thomas Merton

    (I have done the burnout thing pretty badly, myself, more than once, and even to the point of “killing the root of inner wisdom” -- dark place. The Bush/Cheney years gutted me. Rather, my life response to the events of those years allowed my guts to spill out. Don’t want to do that again.)

    News about the recent anniversary of Dr. King's, "I have a dream," speech bought to my attention the life and work of Baryard Rustin, who I hadn't really seen before. I’m adding a book by him and another about him to my reading list month. From the Washington Post last year, "Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, was crucial to the movement" ~ http://wapo.st/oYwE2m

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Sunday, 02 September 2012 18:30 posted by David MacLeod

    Wonderful comment Robert - I love it! And thanks for the link to the story about Bayard Rustin.

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