It seems that conservatives, libertarians, and liberals are all talking past each other. It is as if each group has their own way of thinking that excludes the others –- whether it is because they consider one of the others less complex, more interested in feeling than thinking, or they consider what the others believe to be complete nonsense. If this is the case, is it possible for these groups to be able to talk to each other at all?
Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics lay out a hierarchical theory of psycho-social development that may perhaps explain why these groups are talking past each other. In other words, they develop a theory that explains both the psychologies of individuals and the social structures of individual societies –- and show that different people, and different societies, think in particular ways for particular reasons.
What they –- and I, with some modifications –- propose is that human societies go through spiraling cycles of new levels of complexity, switching between individualistic and collectivist forms of social organization. This is often preceded by individuals who lay the groundwork for the new social organization. And even when one form of social organization is left behind, there are people who continue to think that way. And, to make the situation even more complex, we continue to have aspects of the lower levels holding up the new levels of complexity.
But that is all very abstract. What we need are details. Basically, Beck and Cowan suggest that we start off in survivalist mode –- what helps the individual survive is what we do. This is really the level of purely animal survival: food, drink, sleep, and sex. Next we develop into the roving bands/tribal mode –- this is in the present day both athletic teams and the family unit, and is the kind of thinking we mean by “family values.” This is the level of ritual, traditions and symbols. At its worst, it is the level of racism, superstition, and fear of change. Once this level becomes repressive, we get development of the powerful individual mode – this is in the present day in rock stars and rebellious teens in general, as well as in gang members. In the past, this was ancient Greece during the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Rome during the Roman Empire. This is the time of heroes and strong leadership, storytellers and mythology. To the extent that these two groups exist in the modern world, liberals have a tendency to label them as victims and to try to leap them –- and sometimes those in the next level –- into their kinds of societies. Since you cannot skip levels, since each level develops naturally out of previous levels, this is inevitably disastrous.
The next level is the level of authority and order. This is the realm of modern-day conservatives and those on the Right. At this level, it is believed that the world gains meaning from doing your duty, respecting traditions and heritage, and obeying the religious laws. Conservatives believe in good and evil, right and wrong, in sacrificing now for the future, love and charity, and in patriotism. At their worst, they fear trespassing upon the ordained order, are nationalistic and tend toward theocracy and authoritarianism. Many are royalists and, in the United States, have Puritan tendencies. Historically, this was medieval Christianity and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.
Following this is the development of capitalism and science -– the realm of the modern-day libertarian, or classical liberal. There is strong support for reason and science. Such people and societies are optimistic and willing to take risks and are highly pragmatic in dealing with the world, even if they are idealistically pro-freedom in political issues. Such people and societies support personal rights and liberties, and were responsible for abolishing slavery – the irony of the most capitalist country in the world being the last to abolish slavery does not negate this fact. In fact, Emerson, whose thinking exemplifies this level of thinking, was a staunch abolitionist. Other thinkers at this level include Adam Smith, John Locke, Lord Acton, Voltaire, Machiavelli, and Descartes. At its worst, it promotes deterministic thinking and results in alienation.
Next is the development of egalitarian thinking –- the realm of the modern-day Left. In fact, it was in the first expression of this level in the French Revolution that the terms Left and Right were first developed. It is equally interesting that the Left represented a new level of collectivist thinking beyond capitalist thinking, and the Right represented the old form of collectivist thinking in the Royalists and religious thinkers. At its best, postmodern leftism emphasizes being socially responsible, caring for all people, finding ourselves, and treating workers well. It promotes pluralism and relativistic, postmodern, multidisciplinary thinking. At its worst, like all collectivist thinking, it promotes feeling over reasoning. And more, having much of its thought based in Marx, it leads to welfare states, socialism, communism, and even fascism, is anti-hierarchy, and supports economic redistribution. It is in fact deeply conservative of its own status quo, and supports anti-free speech codes like political correctness. In opposing free speech and other individual liberties, people at this level tend to be in agreement with conservatives more than they are willing to admit. For example, both will end up favoring anti-pornography laws, but for very different reasons.
Now, each of these levels tend to be exclusionary, rejecting each other. Those above reject those below as being too simplistic, and those below are just plain confused about what is going on at higher levels. But there are two levels (so far –- more will emerge over time) above the egalitarian level –- the integrationist and the holistic. The integrationist is a return to individualism, but it also sees the values of each of the levels below it. People at this level attempt to create a society were all of these levels can work together –- both the individual psychologies and to develop a more integrated society. Thus, it tries to promote environmentalism, capitalism, religion, heroic individualism, and families simultaneously. Beauty, truth, and ethics are united into one way of thinking. Knowledge and competency are emphasized, as are fluid, nested hierarchies and interdisciplinary, chaotic, fractal thinking. This level is the first truly self-aware level, and there is no longer any fear of yourself or the world. Nietzsche may not have been the first of such thinkers, but he’s the transitional figure that allowed for this kind of thinking to emerge. And as for holistic thinking, which is only just beginning to emerge, we have such thinkers as Frederick Turner. Everything is understood to be connected to everything else, there is interest in wholeness of existence, and patterns and living systems are emphasized. Such thinkers are interested in bringing holistic order to the entire society – and thus supports a kind of holistic hierarchy, or holarchy.
This is but a brief outline of how the different forms of thinking evolved. For further discussion of these ideas, you might also be interested in a piece I wrote on it for The Freeman. I think if we come to understand how different forms of thinking emerge, we can stop speaking at cross-purposes to each other. The lower levels are all necessary parts of our thinking, and each level is needed to help us develop a more complex and just society. But conservatives, libertarians, and liberals won’t be able to do it. That is up to the integrationist and holistic thinkers, whose thinking is more complex, and who understand the value of each of the different levels.