Meta Realities, Utopias: Imagining Impact at ITC2015

This article was originally published on Reality Sandwich.

“Transformative cultures”, as we call them on Reality Sandwich, consist of a wide distribution of different communities, teaching philosophies, practices and social engagements. There are generations of counter-cultures who have worked towards, generally speaking, a sacralization of the modern world and a more symbiotic relationship with the planet. This is why I was excited to accept an invitation to return as the official live-blogger for the MetaIntegral Foundation’s Integral Theory Conference 2015. 

Following the successful 2013 conference, which I was also grateful to attend and blog about (you can read some of those posts here), the Integral Theory Conference moved from examining the “Kosmopolitan” hub of integrative and holistic meta-theories, like Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism and Meta Realism, and Edgar Morin’s Complexity theory, to “Integral Impact”. This year asks the important question: what are meta theories like Complexity Theory (articulated brilliantly at ITC2013 by Alfonso Montuori of CIIS), or Integral Theory, doing to have real impact, on the ground? Rather, what does impact mean when it comes to articulating new “world views” that try to re-imagine Western, or global civilization? Not to mention – all of these aforementioned perspectives do appear to be quite cognitive. Is this the proper way to respond to collective and systemic planetary crisis? 

The quick answer, really, the place where advocates of these meta theories begin, is yes. Complex thinking, as Edgar Morin has popularized the term, is arguably the only approach sophisticated or equipped to respond to a complex crisis. 

While this may sound like something we might nod our heads to in a TED Talk, or amongst educated friends over coffee, it is one thing to recognize this insight as a truism and another to develop a rigorous and sophisticated means to discern actual impact. What are people doing with these theories? Integral Theory, in particular, has become increasingly criticized for entertaining conservative and imperialist biases – developmental models of consciousness evolution, with Western societies placed at the top* – so, clearly, there is much work to be done. 

Integral Theory and the Hard Problem of Impact

Yet another critical question to ask is: where and who is impacted? In this recent article via, “United States of Inc.: Corporations as Nation-States in Silicon Valley’s Latest Utopian Management Scheme,” Laura Miller rightly points out the compelling, but also deeply troubling, vision of Holacracy, which radically re-imagines the corporation as a national entity, and its employees as citizens. Its founder, Brian J. Robertson, has acknowledged Holacracy’s inspiration in the works of Ken Wilber and Arthur Koestler

Yet, how does all of this make sense with recent statements by ITC participant and integral metatheorist Zak Stein: “The Integral Movement is an Anti-Capitalist Movement“?

The stronger form of my argument is that, once we know more about capitalism, if we want to be true to the principles of integral meta-theories, especially Wilber, Habermas, and Bhaskar, integral practitioners should be explicitly and actively anti-capitalist or trans-capitalist. Thus, revolutionary praxis, or totalizing depth praxis—integral activism aimed at replacing capitalism with a new economic system—should be one of the goals of the integral movement, perhaps its most important goal.

Admittedly, this is a debate preamble, however, the point is made clear here that meta theories can be taken in radically different directions, and perceived, as a whole, as both radically “progressive” and whole-sale conservative. Despite the fact that many advocates of Integral Theory promote the methodology to be inclusive – to see all political views along a developmental spectrum – the inability to lean into the progressive, the radical, lingers like a specter and calls into question the whole agenda. Indeed, the absence of defense in the cases of the most radical and progressive views, and an all-too-common support in favor of traditionally conservative and capitalist social philosophies seem (see Joe Corbett’s essay, “Conscious Crapitalism“), to me and many others, as the furthest thing from radical. It’s downright complicit. 

It would be unfair to stop here without an explanation (and the common defense) of Integral Theory promoting ideas such as “Conscious Capitalism”. To elucidate the unfamiliar, let’s take a look at the most recent publication to come out of the world of Integral Theory, an essay by Michael Zimmerman of the Institute for Cultural Evolution. In a response to the recent papal encyclical, Zimmerman inquires: “How ‘Integral’ is the Recent Papal Encyclical, ‘On Care for Our Common Home‘”? 

“After publishing his Encyclical, the Pope invited left-wing eco-activist and author Naomi Klein to help advise him on its economic position. Klein and many other left-Greens, including Pope Francis, condemn ‘consumerism’ and regard capitalism primarily with suspicion. Green discloses nature as having value in itself, as opposed to modernity’s view of nature primarily as a stock of raw material for enhancing human power, wealth, comfort, and security. Many Greens have dissociated themselves from modernity, even though they depend on its humanistic values for their education, their wealth, their technology, and their knowledge that there is a ‘biosphere’ that can be threatened in the first place.”

The problem, perhaps, with the Integral Theory methodology is the framing of worldviews as distinct, socio-cultural stages of development, prescribing certain clusters of values into an associated group. In this case, “Green” is a marker for progressive, ecologically sensitive, and pluralistic values. The use of “modernity” in this context is the worldview recognized as a cluster of values around capitalism, instrumentality, and technological positivism (i.e. the myth of progress, growth to goodness). It makes little sense to divide these two, or to say that “Green,” that is, the increasing consensus today, relies on the mode of consciousness best summarized as a Heideggerian “Standing Reserve.” By reifying “modernity” as a level of development, rather than perceiving it as a failing ontological relationship with the Earth in need of more critique, supplanting, and innovation, how exactly can Integral Theory offer the transformative vision that is – or was – the promise of an integral worldview? The most pertinent question here is: is revolution even possible working with such a methodology? One where a “conveyor belt” model is used to positively describe the evolution of culture. We return to Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology“, once again.


What Kind of Meta Reality Are We Choosing?

In a now well known speech, scifi and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin used her award to make a statement on the radical nature of fiction to imagine the kinds of utopias we seek to realize: 

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Indeed, it is the act of speculation, of Utopia, and vision that meta theories find their upending and instigating spirit – theories which drive us to enact some other, better world. So, what kind of world are we daring to imagine? What kind of utopia are we articulating? That, after all, is a question of impact. Are we, in fact, supporting a kind of evolutionary capitalist utopia of corporate management, one in which the nation state is supplanted entirely by the “conscious capitalism” of the Holacratic business-citizen? Do we want such a world? What other worlds dare we enact with our meta theorizations, what other utopias are possible? It seems that is at least what Zak Stein is asking for ITC2015. For the confused reader, it is also where this writer finds himself aligning. “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction,” writes Walidah Imarisha. She calls this “Visionary Fiction” in her anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. It is pertinent to consider these kinds of meta theorizations are a form of speculative, utopian fiction, in which we imagine different horizons. Different utopias.

So we are left with the question: what kind of utopia do we wish to enact?

More pertinent to my own situation, since I’ll be flying in on the 16th and hope not to spoil the meet-and-greet: are radicals invited to participate in this conversation of impact without being snubbed for being too “Green”?

I look forward to conversing with all of you.

Featured Image: Public domain. NKTP Draft contest, Vesnin Brothers, 1934