Corporate Interests, Capitalism and Social Justice: #ITC2015

I wasn't sure to expect from this panel. Knowing Zak Stein's recent publication of his opening preamble, "The Integral Movement is an Anti-Capitalist Movement", I was curious how the attendees and conference goers would respond. The subject was already of high dispute online in various integral discussion threads, and mentioned in my pre-ITC-blog on imagining a world without capitalism. It turns out Bonnitta Roy had a similar notion, as we'll get to in a moment.


The topic for the debate is the following statement: "It's time for Integralists to stop catering to corporate interests and start fighting for social justice."

On the FOR side, we have Bonnitta Roy and Zak Stein.

On the AGAINST side, we have Andrew Johnson and Dr. Michael McElhenie.

Moderating the panel is Lauren Tenney.

Lauren shares the online voting done prior to the panel. 47% voted for, 28% against, and 25% were undecided.


We begin with Zak's statement. His "weak" argument is that we should at least inform ourselves with the basics of heterodox economics (or Marxist economics). The "strong" argument is that, if we are going to be Integral Theorists, we should at least be post-capitalist. We shouldn't label these kind of progressive suggestions as green meme, because too often that is a substitution for actual thought. We're not dialoguing with the actual thought form. 

Too often we take it as a given that we should be transcending and including, without doing the more difficult work of looking at history and discerning what structures actually had to end, or disintegrate. We don't transcend and include injustice, we get rid of injustice. As integral thinkers we should speak, take power, and be opposed to things.

Zak half-kids that the notion of conscious capitalism is a gateway drug. He finds it interesting that the whole suggestion of conscious capitalism precludes alternatives to capitalism. "We naturalize capitalism when we are unable to see beyond it. This is a failure of the imagination."

Endless profit is radically unsustainable. Surplus value literally means the exploitation of labor. "This is why we have global corporations... because of poor, peasant labor." But there are limits, and we'll reach that limit, eventually (unsustainability).

Zak closes by suggesting that markets are inherently violent. Where there are markets, you will find somebody with a gun and a stick. It is difficult to ignore the reality that capitalism is structurally violent.

Now onto the other side.


"I am a carpet bagger," Michael starts with a quip. He acknowledges that the "early" and "mid stage" versions of capitalism were "greedy". Sure. But benefits have also come with some of these problems. Life expectancy has gone up and infant mortality has gone down in places where capitalism has existed. 

"Maslow's hierarchy of needs are being met", and wherever people are living within a capitalist system, people have those basic needs met. 

Michael also brings up the point that over the past century, there has been an evolution of moral values. "We care more now." Consciousness is shifting. He references Stephen Pinker's Angels of our Better Nature and Jeremy Rifkin's Empathic Civilization

By meeting the basic needs of Maslow's hierarchy, capitalism, he argues, has helped to evolve our consciousness. Capitalism has "fed us" to enable a higher level of consciousness to go online. 

Corporations have made strides to become more sustainable, progressive, and provide equality in their workplaces, Michael suggests, and adds:

"Most corporations have greater diversity than we have here in this room, and at the Integral Theory Conference."

Texas Instruments have worked towards greater sustainability, as an example, with their factories having a 95% reduction in water usage. 

Michael concludes with the suggestion that "Corporations are not a force we can ignore".

Back to the other side.


Bonnitta begins with an opening visualization, which, fortunately, she has shared online. I'll cheat a little here and quote it in full:

Imagine a network of universal access to the world’s information supporting the operation of machines endowed with smart AI; a network which produces net zero-margin products and services; as well as machines endowed with quadruple-loop adaptive learning processes capable of designing continual resource restoration practices which renew our biosphere, atmosphere, and oceans.
Imagine a world where people fulfill their natural creativity and community drives by self-organizing participation in craft and artisan enterprises; where people freely exercise their natural curiosity and enthusiasm for relationship, and learning happens everywhere.
Imagine a future where production forces are displaced by a movement of “forces of social justice” where the scope of relationship and participation expands beyond an anthropocentric “we” to include all beings in a larger participatory ecology of the earth.
Imagine the post human who give us the first indication that evolution has not been a story of the “survival of the fittest” but a story of emergence, of the continuous processes of “arrival of the fittest” who will be born, reenchanted with the world.

Bonnitta calls this a "crisis of imagination," similar to what Zak said about the "failure" to imagine a world beyond capitalism. She paraphrases Bruno Latour, who writes that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. 

The end of capitalism can't be seen because of how totalizing it is.

"Surplus functions as an instrument of extraction," Bonnitta says, "this is antithetical to social justice issues". So-called abundant surplus – implied by Michael's statement about surplus goods and Maslow's hierarchy of need – allows for social stratification. 

The aggregation of surplus, as capitalism progressed, led to colonialism. Now, virtual markets (information or predictive markets) are an instrument of extraction for late capitalism.

Bonnitta ends her opening statement with a question for the other side of the panel:

"Where should these surpluses go?"


Andrew opens by taking issue with the title of the debate itself, "It's time for integralists to stop catering to corporate interests".

""Catering' is pejorative", he argues. He then invites us to see what it is like "on the ground," and on "the inside" of corporations and capitalism.

Like Michael, Andrew argues that we shouldn't stop engaging, and that this sounds downright dangerous. We should continue to engage "relevant stakeholders" who have the ability to "get things done" in the world. 

"We should meet corporations where they're at", and learn "the art of integral consultation". 

Michael critiques the other side of the panel for speaking in generalities and not pointing out that the "evil corporations" are actually people. "We're dealing with humans. They love, they have families".

He suggests that integral is not mutually exclusive with capitalism and corporations, but aligned. As integral consultants, we can "sustain their ethics".

Michael closes: When it comes to social justice, corporations can become allies


Zak quickly responds by making a point that the alternatives to capitalism are all around us if we start looking. He encourages the attendants to question the idea that "capitalism is enough".

Bonnitta echoes Zak's point by articulating the other panel's "totalizing discourse". 

"Everything is a corporate interest. Capitalism... keeps capturing the gifts that we've fought for, and somehow we are the beneficiaries of them". 

Bonnitta suggests that this "totalizing discourse" is hidden, or implicit, in the argument by the other panelists. 


Michael now responds to the suggestion that there are alternatives with a retort that a system outside our capitalist system will fail. "Outside attempts have always failed", he suggests, and points to ISIS, Iraq, and the US foreign policy in the Middle East. 

The Q&A portion begins.

The first question is from Nathan, who asks what the "unique strength of capitalism" might be. 

Michael and Andrew respond with the suggestion that it is "striving".

Zak counters that. "Humans were striving long before, and will strive long after, capitalism".

Now back to the other side, Michael suggests that, well, greed, too, existed before capitalism. But, as Stephen Pinker argues, civilization has evolved to become nicer. We now have organizational models like Holacracy, which function through nested hierarchies of distributed power.

Zak replies: "Greed is an artifact of artificial scarcity". 

"Pinker is wrong," he says, "that whole argument is a consolidation of capitalism". Many of the reformations we're seeing are capitalism's concessions to radical movements.

"Holacracy is not going to Foxconn". Zak explains how the workers at Foxconn, without being able to protest poor working conditions, were committing suicide as a form of protest. The buildings now have nets under the windows, so the workers can't even kill themselves.

Andrew and Michael both respond to these general critiques by suggesting that abandoning capitalism would have dire, systemic fallout. "Would you abandon capitalism? Would you abandon yourselves?"

They admit that "extreme, unfettered capitalism" has been direly problematic. 

Bonnitta replies: "corporate America is running scared... Ask yourselves: are you accommodating them? Despite your higher self, your vision for human flourishing?"

Zak articulates that inequality is compounding, and that we should look at the broad historical scope of inequality. The only thing that stopped increasing inequality has been the two world wars of the 20th century. We can't just put bandaids on capitalism, when seen from this perspective. "We are entering a new era where the accumulation of wealth at the top of society, where inequality, hasn't been seen since the gilded age".

Bonnie chimes in here, stating that "we're not critiquing persons, but a structure".

A few more questions go up. I ask one too. Trevor encourages us to see both sides as important and holding spaces at this conference, and in the integral community (as well as a few other words that you'll have to catch the recording to hear repeated).

Immediate Reflections:

From being in the room as this debate went on, there's an added, audible layer to the debate that can't really be conveyed through text. Despite the fact that we didn't tally the numbers (for, against, undecided) at the end, the most audible folks in the room where clearly on the for side. Zak and Bonnitta were on point, supplying facts and clearly knew their "heterodox economics". 

There were audible grunts and groans, amens (Trevor), and visceral reactions to some of the things that Andrew and Michael were saying. Particularly the suggestion by the against panel that "outside intervention has always failed". Aside from not making sense in the context of the debate, the other suggestion by Michael and Andrew that critics should try to understand capitalism "inside out" seemed to belittle the human lives who are well aware of what it's like to live within it. Exploited laborers are not "outside" the experience of capitalism. Nor are the change-makers who are working, actively, to imagine new social systems. 

It's clear to me who "won" this debate – who had the facts, and not just the rhetoric. 

Bonnitta made another excellent point that, despite the tectonic paradigm shift in the room evidenced between the two panels, the integral community is trying to make the world a better place. I'd like to acknowledge Andrew and Michael for the work they're doing. There's nothing wrong, per se, with "working within the system" (something Gail Hochachka pointed out introducing Karen O'Brien's keynote). But it's not enough, and, clearly, the direness of the situation isn't felt on what is arguably the more conservative end of the integral movement. 

We're in need of practical, systemic visions. Planetary culture has never existed before. It's high-time we get that imaginative, daring, and innovative, left-leaning "radicals" who aren't outside the system, but deep in it, rewiring it. Hacking it. Recoding the ideology in the search of some more complex, rhizomatic articulation(s) of human social systems. It's possible. It's the "concrete utopias" that are truly terrifying for the conscious capitalism futurists because they do not require their ideology.

It is not the future we need to inherit, let alone imagine. This is the long-term project for the integralists. As Zak noted, post-capitalism is already happening. We just need to look.