This meta-narrative is about the superiority of America’s founding principles as a way to organize human society, and the on-going rejection of these principles by an increasing number of Americans.
As we saw in commenting several months ago on Robert Bidinotto’s superb essay “Election 2012 and the Clash of Narratives,” humanity is engaged in a long-term struggle to evolve to ever-higher stages of consciousness, connection, and creativity. Bidinotto shows how our evolution from hunter-gatherer clans to agricultural tribes to empowered individuals in industrial nation-states has included expansions of consciousness to accommodate the emerging circumstances. This expansion has also generated exponential increases in the material circumstances of life, including not just standards of living but magnitudes of health and life expectancy.
Students of Ken Wilber will find this well-trodden ground, for Wilber has done ground-breaking work documenting this journey from a global perspective. His most important contribution is the development of what he calls the Integral Model, which makes room for not only our interior and exterior realities, but for the evolutionary trajectory along which we have been moving since the Big Bang.
The insights offered in the Integral Model are essential to not only leaders but to the American (and, more difficult, the Advanced Sector at large) citizenry. Huge global upheavals in our spiritual, psychological, economic, and political conditions are driving unprecedented changes in how we make, exchange, and apply wealth—both material and spiritual. Without a comprehensive view of how all these dynamics arise and interact, our understanding of today’s world is woefully partial and inadequate. This limitation of awareness also constrains the effectiveness of our response.
If one focused only on the recent sorry American presidential campaign, one would have no idea of the titanic nature of what is happening worldwide, much less where the opportunities to create a better future might lie. (To be fair, one would glean nothing of this from political campaigns in any other country either.)
The Recovering Bureaucrat insists that this shallowness is more the result of our collective American consciousness than of any particular qualities Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney. The truth we regularly avoid is that our political leadership and dynamics are a highly accurate representation of our collective desires and attitudes. This is a logical consequence of our mature democratic republic. All blather about “the 99%” aside, everything happening in our polity is the direct result of our collective, albeit unconscious, agreement. In a true democracy, the citizenry at large bears the sole and direct responsibility for the condition of society. There is no king, no aristocracy, no dictator, no politburo, no oligarchy—no extra-terrestrials—to blame for the world we have created.
So what happens when the largest and most powerful cohort of our citizenry, the Baby Boomers, is infected with a pernicious strain of narcissism? Well, just look around. As social researcher Brene Brown notes in her remarkable 2010 TED talk in Houston entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” we Boomers are “the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U. S. history.” It is not just an exercise in partisan sniping that leads the RB to regularly remind readers of the outrageous magnitude of the federal debt. (Total U. S. debt, public and private, currently amounts to $184,323 per person!) It is simply to point out that no one made us borrow and poorly spend all this money; we freely chose it—and the truth we evade in our addictions is that we have to alternative but to live with the consequences of our choices.
Of course, that is exactly the purpose of addiction, to avoid deeper realities that we fear would be more painful than the ones we create through our addictive behaviors.
Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic, gives us a sense of what we are up against within our individual and collective selves:
Narcissism is an inflated sense of self. If self-esteem is confidence, then narcissism is overconfidence. It’s human nature for people to want to preserve self-esteem and feel good about themselves, but someone who’s narcissistic takes that to the next level and thinks that they’re [sic] better than they actually are. They don’t have a realistic view of themselves or their abilities.The growing chorus of unhappiness about the alleged “hyperpartisanship” in our politics is in part evidence of this sorry situation. We are quick to see in others what we refuse to see in ourselves; hence it’s always the opposition that “refuses to compromise” while we ourselves are the very soul of reasonableness. Why, it’s their stubborn, greedy, and (fill in the blanks) views that are the only reason we have “gridlock” in America.
Because they think they’re great and the world revolves around them, narcissists have trouble with relationships. They lack empathy for others, they have difficulty taking somebody else’s perspective, and they tend to get angry and aggressive when they’re insulted. It’s a trait that causes a lot of problems for other people and for society.
This, the RB submits, is sheer purblind projection. Logic would suggest that in a 50-50 nation, where neither side can force its will on the other, both are equally responsible for whatever “gridlock” may be showing up.
Unfortunately, there are some fundamental psychological and spiritual truths that we as a society show remarkably little curiosity about, preferring instead cant and sloganeering. We refuse to confront that substituting these for genuine dialogue is in fact a form of violence, as are all acts discounting or downgrading another person’s serious and/or heartfelt concerns and beliefs. The overblown and pointless MSM-driven reaction to the vile murders in Newtown is but the latest marker of our collective determination to ignore unpleasant truths about ourselves.
And so in the aftermath of our national elections, it would be wise to reflect on some salient facts.
Global Transformative Dynamics
Despite Mr. Obama’s re-election, we do remain a 50-50 nation. One party controls the House, and the other controls the Senate (and the minority can still, Harry Reid’s intentions notwithstanding, wield the filibuster weapon). The Republicans have governmental control of 24 states, while the Democrats have just 13. The president still has to work with the opposition to get anything done. The recent “fix” to the “fiscal cliff” merely demonstrates again the challenges of our political geometry—and this is merely the first of a series of increasingly awful problems that he and his new team will have to address.
Looked at through the larger lens that Mr. Bidinotto suggests, ours is a crisis of human evolution, a remarkable opportunity for breakthrough even though there is little evidence of that happening on a mass basis any time soon.
Here’s the global situation within which the American particulars arise. The bulk of humanity still lives in pre-tribal consciousness, in societies dependent upon agriculture and extraction for their existence. Key parts of the globe like China and India have awakened to the advantages of becoming industrial economies; this will be a key dynamic in the global political economy for the next several decades.
The Advanced Sector, anchored in industrial and postindustrial forms of economy and society, comprises less than 19% of the world’s population. Its consciousness is that of the autonomous individual, with just a smattering of transpersonal awareness popping up here and there. What this means is that, in the Advanced Sector, it is unconsciously assumed that each person has the right to make his or her own life regardless of the opinions of others, and the entire culture is organized to support this presumption.
This means that 4/5 of humanity dwells in the prepersonsal, tribal realms, where identity is projected onto my group/tribe/clan/family. Here I know myself primarily as a functioning and integrated member of this social unit, and its unconscious assumptions predominate. Survival depends upon my following the rules exactly, because all the other groups outside my own’s boundary are always and everywhere potential existential threats.
We saw this level of consciousness quite emphatically in the aftermath of the U. S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, when the totalitarian lid was removed and all the tribal dynamics of Iraq were unleashed. The MSM quaintly called this “sectarian violence,” but it was also a useful glimpse into the consciousness of most humans on the planet today.
This dominant prepersonal, tribal consciousness obviously has been many millennia in the making. It first arose at the end of the last Ice Age when the retreat of the glaciers helped create the conditions favorable for the discovery of plant domestication, animal husbandry, and agriculture. This was accompanied by the invention of writing and the rise of new roles for men and women, since a pregnant woman could not manage an ox-drawn plow. It was also the period when the first great religions arose, based on the myths we still recognize today. The societies that were developed to support an agrarian economy were necessarily rule-bound; one had to play one’s predetermined role in order for the tribe to survive and for each individual to have enough to eat.
Eventually tribes accumulated enough surplus food to permit social role differentiation, so that they could afford non-productive workers like priests and warriors. Over the many thousands of years after the invention of agriculture, societies were actually structured like what the Occupy people fantasize America is, with the 1% dominating the rest. Empires were the rule, from the Egyptians and Assyrians, the Shang and Zhou in China, the Mauryan and Gupta Empires in India, to the Aztecs and Incas in the Americas.
It was only in the period after the Italian Renaissance, which began around the start of the 14th century, that a noticeable shift began. It was centered on the emerging notion of the dignity and autonomy of the individual, whose soul began to be understood as equally important to God as that of kings and nobility. Renaissance art and literature began to reflect this new understanding; Dante and Petrarch wrote in vernacular Tuscan Italian to reach ever larger numbers of readers. Gutenberg’s introduction of moveable type and the printing press around 1439 was an accelerant for the spread of literacy and the rise of an autonomous interior life that characterized the new consciousness. Within a century Martin Luther was leading a reformation of the Roman Church based on the certainty that a person’s faith in Jesus the Christ alone was sufficient for salvation, radically available and applicable to everyone. And with that the social, political, and economic upheavals that we take for granted today were off and running.
The RB has noted before that the major turning point of this revolution in consciousness was the establishment of the United States of America based upon the principles of individual liberty and sovereignty established in the Declaration and protected and promoted by the limited government based on consent of the governed set forth in the Constitution.
The Ongoing Clash Between Tribe and Individual
The centuries since that decisive moment have been characterized by an unending political, cultural, and economic struggle between these two waves of consciousness and their political economic bases. The older tribal mentality and the societies that it manifested were not going away peacefully. The wars that have ravaged Europe since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) have essentially been between these two ways of understanding, organizing, and interpreting humanity.
And the tremendous technological breakthroughs made possible by the rise of modernity and science also helped embroil the entire globe in this consciousness revolutionary war. Once capitalism, the economic engine of individualism, demonstrated its unparalleled capacity for exponential increases in wealth, it became a formidable ally in the impulse for global transformation.
This magnificent progress in material well-being notwithstanding, even in postmodern America and Europe the older level of consciousness has neither disappeared nor been entirely displaced. Wilber notes that each new level of consciousness not only transcends the earlier ones, but it still includes them. So, we all have access to these earlier stages. Indeed, each person is “born at zero,” and has to grow through all the initial levels to reach what we understand in the Advanced Sector as autonomous adulthood.
Abraham Maslow’s theory of the “hierarchy of needs” suggests that our autonomy is build upon successive achievement of the various props—physical, emotional, and intellectual—that support the mature person. Our breakthroughs into greater levels of consciousness correlate with the fulfilling of these needs.
We can each of us see this struggle of consciousness within ourselves. Most of us grow into adulthood with significant unfinished emotional business from our childhood and adolescence. Most addictive behaviors are the markers of these unhealed traumas. This is part of the reason why we Boomers have reached the dubious achievements in indebtedness, obesity, drug abuse, and medicalization that Brene Brown calls us out on. In spite of the significant advances in psychology and unprecedented access to all the world’s wisdom traditions, too many of us remain trapped in victimhood and scapegoating. Our denials are reinforced by our incapacity to accept responsibility for creating this reality.
What is more elusive is seeing how all these dynamics work in us as a society. We start from the awareness that whatever is showing up for us is of our exclusive creation. Mostly unconsciously, we create the good, the bad, and the ugly of our world. We are responsible.
The ability of the individual to claim and act upon this responsibility is the single most revolutionary break from the tribal, agrarian order. In tribal societies, the individual does not have responsibility for his own life. If someone seeks to defy the tribal order, exile or death are the inevitable consequences. The case of Said Musa, the Afghani who was ordered executed in 2011 for converting to Christianity, is emblematic of the way the tribal world works.
One can empathize with this form of identity and social organization. When everyone knows and follows the rules, society can face the threats from the outer world with cohesion and power. It can promote enormous stability, and while it will never generate significant social surplus and therefore grow wealthy by virtue of its own resources, it can provide a (relatively) secure life.
The eruption of individual consciousness, however, means that we will never know this for sure, because the way of the individual has proven superior to the way of the tribe. Even though fewer than one fifth of humans have achieved individual egoic consciousness, the political economy that this consciousness unleashed dominates the globe. The advances in health, nutrition, education, communication, longevity, and per capita income generated by the First World have impacted everyone. There is probably no remote corner on earth that hasn’t been changed by the most advanced achievements of humanity.
And now something even newer has exploded onto the global scene: the Information Age and the even higher level of consciousness necessary to sustain and stabilize it into its appropriate political economic structures. As if we needed this third dimensional headache!
The Imminent Evolutionary Challenge
Thus comes our next evolutionary challenge: development of the ability of the universal collective to discern and claim mutual responsibility for the world we jointly create in the cauldron of our universal emotional/mental world.
The Recovering Bureaucrat asserts that the breakdown we are experiencing globally is evidence of two critical dynamics. First, that we have reached the barriers of what individual consciousness by itself can contribute to the well-being of the planet. Second, the simultaneous existence of three distinct prepersonal and personal stages of consciousness is helping shake things up to make space for an entirely new, transpersonal, wave of awareness to emerge.
Discovering the opportunities and dangers in this opening will occupy the leading edge of human evolution for some time to come. The RB will devote future posts to looking at what it is and what it is not. He will be particularly critical of the self-described “green” political current, which arrogates to itself the label of postmodern and postindustrial but is, in fact, riddled with the narcissism described by Wilber, Brown, Twenge, and others. It is tribalism squatting in and besoiling a powerful new and unprecedented consciousness.
The RB in his less rigorous moments wonders if the world is running more amok than ever, but in his more enlightened thoughts appreciates the beauty of the way the universe works. More than ever, he is grateful to our founders and their predecessors for the wisdom and courage it took to create the United States of America, for here we still have a solid foundation from which to create the future desired by the better angels of our nature.