insight

Indra Adnan

The Politics of Waking Up 4: The Russian Doll Effect

Part four of the Politics of Waking Up Series explores several theories of human development - what significance does Wilber or Maslow's model have for contemporary politics today?

Politics
In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part four. Read parts one, two and three here.

She couldn’t pin him down. All suit and tie during working hours. Then a mad rocker at the weekends. Generally a very strategic type: carefully listening and planning the best way forward – whether in business, or even sorting out our weekends. But occasionally something would set him off and he’d just want his own way on everything. Politics was the worst thing: just like a child, insisting he’s right.

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My friends without kids don’t get it. On the one hand I give them far too much of my time. Letting them go to different schools was the last straw – surely they should just all go to the same one? And then I let them go off with their friends on some hare-brained jaunt, not knowing from one day to the next where they are. But you’ve got to give them just enough care and freedom to help them grow up to be themselves – not just fall in line. If I had ten kids, I’d still treat them all differently – though there’s no doubt they are all family.

***
The call for self-actualisation can exist right alongside hunger and homelessness.
If Human Givens (part three) goes some way to explain why our Western societies are so prone to addiction, what explains the further conundrum of our inability to agree with each other? Why is it that a room full of randomly selected people would find it hard to have a conversation about political issues – even when they all live in the same city, on the same streets? Even members of a family can find it hard to hear each other out on matters that exercise them. It’s as if they talk across each other, rather than engage.

The psychologist Ernest Maslow attributes our differences to a hierarchy of needs – the way we engage with reality is shaped by what we are hoping to achieve. At base, we need the material, physiological conditions to be able to survive and procreate: food, water, sleep etc. But once these needs are met, we begin to develop ever more sophisticated needs – from security to love and belonging, self-esteem and eventually self-actualisation. 

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

This idea of a hierarchy of needs is well reflected in our politics, which focuses on the base needs – food, shelter, money – first, believing that our capacities to deliver the rest will follow naturally. The Human Givens model, however - described in the previous blog - would say that humans have all those needs in our sight from day one. Without security and self-esteem for example, we remain dependent on others to get even our physical needs met. 

Although a developmental model is implied by Maslow, our politics is geared to look at most of us as defined by that first level. We are, in their minds, homo economicus: driven by material wants. Is that true? My own experience after spending two years on a project called Re-Imagining Social Work, is no. The call for self-actualisation can exist right alongside hunger and homelessness. Being seen and heard as a complex human matters at the same time as the need for a bed for the night. If the first gets met, it makes the second incrementally easier to achieve. 

Other developmental models run into similar problems - albeit with different consequences. Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics, for example, posits our different capacities for managing both our internal and external conditions as a colour banded hierarchy. We move up through the colours towards ever higher forms of consciousness and capability.
In order to address the problems we face today, we must be able to talk about how we can all move to the next stage of evolution, both personally and collectively.
The initial premise is logical – that there is a natural arc of development from birth to maturity. From that first total dependence of the new born, we see a slowly developing sense of agency as we learn to interact with the forces around us to get our needs met. 

The first four levels Beck describes – from mystical (purple), to ego-centric (red), traditional (blue), then strategic (orange) – are experienced as zero-sum, with little mutual tolerance. In the same way that adolescents look down on infants, each new level makes us feel better equipped to deal with circumstances as we move towards independence. The lower levels look at the rest of the world with distrust, sensing their own dependence on others. 

The important shift occurs at ‘green’ – a stage of relativism, when suddenly all levels appear to have equal validity and any sense of direction for progress is lost. This is the bridge to what Beck describes as moving from 1st to 2nd tier consciousness - the point at which humans can get an aerial view of the different stages of their lives. 



After green, we come off the ladder of development and see ourselves as containing all the previous stages of development as integrated, rather than conquered. It’s more like Russian dolls, than super-humans. We stop judging the others because we can now experience each level within, but now with less attachment. That feeling of egotistical demanding to be heard can rise and fall away, rather than define us.

Higher levels of development (associated with colours teal, then yellow) map out this new consciousness, which may be described as post-egoic: a deepened, some might say spiritually informed, interdependence with the world around us. This leads eventually to an experience of reality where the inner and outer are entirely fused – which Spiral Dynamics calls coral. Buddhists might describe this as non-dual.

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber’s genius was to apply all these levels to a vision of reality, mapped by four-quadrants. The quadrant arises through two axes – from individual to collective, from internal to external. These offer four lenses through which we can see the complexity of any human phenomenon: not just the view from the inner and outer world of the individual. But also the inner and outer world of society – inner meaning culture and values, outer indicating structures and governance. Together they form an integrated picture of life at any given moment. 
We were tired of studying Wilber’s theory in meetings that were sometimes dry, competitive, overly cerebral. We wanted to explore its implications for our daily lives more actively.
All of this can seem elitist: until you reach the second tier, it can’t help but look like people at higher stages of development looking down at the lower levels. Yet in order to address the problems we face today, we must be able to talk about how we can all move to the next stage of evolution, both personally and collectively. And in so doing, become more capable of transforming what we ourselves have created.

Maybe we need a different image than the ladder to demonstrate the universality of the approach. And softer language. Something more like the rings of a tree that show all the stages of growth as essential to the integrity of the tree, rather than as stages you leave behind? 

I hosted, with Matthew Kalman, the London Integral Circle for ten years as the 20th Century morphed into the 21st.  Round about 2005, all the women in the group began to meet separately as well. We were tired of studying Wilber’s theory in meetings that were sometimes dry, competitive, overly cerebral. We wanted to explore its implications for our daily lives more actively. What the French novelist Michel Houellebecq would call leaving the map for the territory. The women’s integral group talked more about community, health, politics – all forms of what we called embodied learning. 
Sophisticated executives with infinite resources, can regularly display child-like ego when challenged – resorting to bullying to get their way. 
Although the men set up their own group (to explore their feelings about this change), the spell was broken - and the LIC slowly stopped meeting. What the nature of that spell was, and in what ways that shift felt positive, will be explored more in following chapters. It’s a pattern that is being repeated elsewhere in similar circles and is as much about new ontologies – ways of seeing and being – as new cognitive capacities. 

The challenge for future circles will be whether or not they can integrate these shifts well enough to contain the transformation of the whole space that is being asked for – typically by the women. This has major implications for the evolution of our society.

Suffice to say, Wilber’s theory remains hugely relevant to both ‘the map’ and to ‘the territory’ – whether in personal or political development. Being able to see the diverse levels of agency in a room, a community or in a nation, points at a very different idea of the public realm than the one currently promoted by politics. While class divisions were once relevant, they now trap people into simplistic ideas of what agency is and how it develops.
Politicians who claim to know “what the people want” - without acknowledging that will always be a diverse mix of needs - do not have the capacity we need in leaders today.
The individual development journey could be completed quite early in life: young parents for example, often display second tier abilities in their relationship with their children, regardless of material resources. They can see when to lead directly and when to stand back and let independence develop. On the other hand, sophisticated executives with infinite resources, can regularly display child-like ego when challenged – resorting to bullying to get their way. Those early year frustrations don’t disappear with age, but can re-assert themselves under pressure.

But if the conditions in which we live makes us feel powerless, we will be experiencing a ‘first-tier’ sense of frustration most of the time: looking down on those we feel are naïve, looking up at people who seem more capacious. Unable to call out seniors for their very junior behaviour.

The important intelligence here is that human beings are diverse, not just because of manifest traits – colour, gender, age etc – but also internally, due to their different experience of agency. Transformation will not only deliver more equality and new forms of power, but also new ontologies: evolved senses and experiences of being together. These are all factors that politics cannot ignore.

Politicians who claim to know “what the people want” - without acknowledging that will always be a diverse mix of needs - do not have the capacity we need in leaders today. Creating the conditions for far more subtle political spaces to appear will be the key to our future development as a society. 

The breakthrough to developmental literacy is as important as the introduction of emotional literacy once was.

Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.
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Words by Indra Adnan
Indra Adnan is a psychosocial therapist and Co-Inititator of The Alternative UK, a political platform which responds to the question: if politics is broken, what’s the alternative? She is also a lifelong Buddhist and the founder of the Soft Power Network, consulting to Finnish, Brazilian, Danish and British governments.