As Within, So Without

As Within, So Without. The Present Peril and Promise of Human Evolution

I am in a world that is in me.
- Paul Valéry

The world is in crisis. We are in crisis. Change the system? Change yourself first? What could be the relationships between the two? Perhaps we can step back and take a larger, developmental or evolutionary view of this question.

Individual development principles would seem to mirror social and historical development principles which mirror individual development principles which also mirror cosmic development principles. Individuals may internally repeat, contain and express socio-cosmic principles just like ontogeny repeats phylogeny in biological foetal development. Microcosm and macrocosm seem ‘isomorph’: as within, so without.

This developmental process always seems to have a double-sided aspect: one to greater differentiation and individuation on the one hand, and one to greater wholeness and integration on the other. These processes of course do not mean greater degrees of ‘perfection’ or ‘betterment’ in any narrowly moralising sense, (the Pollyanna fallacy), but rather greater degrees of ‘wholeness’, i.e. a greater differentiated encompassing, containing or inclusion of more diverse, disparate and contradictory elements, a greater level of depth or interiority. (Which, nevertheless, is not to say there has not been moral progress in many areas of human evolution as well).

Thus, as societies complexify and differentiate, they produce more individuated or psychologically differentiated individuals, albeit often as narcissistic-egoic ones. As societies economically integrate on a planetary scale (‘globalisation’), this is mirrored internally inside society’s members. Or, vice versa, the external development ‘mirrors’ or ‘goes with’ the internal.

Bar periodic collapse, stalling or regression, overall there would seem to be no alternative to increasing differentiation and individuation, increasing complexity, increasing depth and interiority. It would seem to be the prime driving force of all individual, socio-historical, cosmic growth. Just as societies must seek to integrate increasing differentiation and diversity (or else dissolve into total fragmentation and ‘anomie’), individuals are now increasingly called upon to find their unique paths to individuation as the internal work of integration of diverse, disparate and conflicting elements in their psyches.

Simultaneously, such a movement towards a greater containing of diverse and contradictory elements is not without its dangers. The coin of course has two sides. As Ken Wilber has pointed out, the greater the movement to individuation/integration/health, the greater also the possible danger of pathological isolation, dissociation and fragmentation.

The line between the two can be very fine indeed. This applies both on social and individual levels: both societies and individuals can break down into the pathologies of fragmentation, alienation and the pseudo-integrations of infantile regression or outright psychotic delusion. Individuals may become psychotic, societies turn to mass delusions of ecological denial, xenophobic nationalism, regressive fundamentalism and war. This is one way to read several ominous trends within our current global systems.

We thus tread a fine historical line between the increasing potentials for both greater dissociation and alienation on the one hand, greater individuation, liberation and integration on the other.

It is carefully hidden secret that, given worldwide wealth and socio-economic integration, the social utopia of human autonomy and the ‘good society’ has never been so objectively possible as today. The ‘communism’ or ‘anarchism’ of a democratic global decision-making, a free global commons and a guaranteed minimum income for all divorced from the necessity of wage labour are now objectively possible, for example. As a collective humanity, as increasingly globalised individuals and world citizens, we could, if we but knew it, build a good and fulfilling life for all within the ecological constraints of the planetary biosphere, albeit at very much lower rates of per capita resource consumption than now pertain among the global wealthy.

The nearer the possible realization of such an old human dream, however, the greater both the absence of any emphatic, organized wish to fulfil it and thus also the greater the possibility of socio-ecological catastrophe, social fragmentation and collapse. We thus indeed live in the best and the worst of times.

The external forces blocking the realisation of such a social utopia are again isomorphic to the ones that block our internal change processes. We all contain a seemingly cosmic and evolutionary principle of ‘conservatism’, i.e. a fixation and neurotic hanging-on to previous old solutions, paradigms and coping mechanisms and strenuously resisting change. Our leaders are our own neurotic and narcissistic structures writ large. They represent the resistance of the ‘secure’ past to the emerging present. They represent the need for ‘power-over’ that neurotically derives from unconscious narcissistic legacies of experienced powerlessness, dis-confirmation or fear of dissolution. That is, ultimately, why we continue to believe in and follow them. Their ultimate power derives exclusively from our own collusion and consent. They externally represent our own weaker, ego-centered and fearful selves that resist opening up to our inherent wholeness, collective interdependence and deep change.

Even as they and their old (industrial-capitalist, imperialist, ecocidal, power-over) paradigms obviously threaten our very own security and survival and that of our children and grandchildren, we continue to hold on to the delusion that these leaders, or their phoney ‘new brand’ re-packagings, somehow represent the basic security that we think we ourselves lack internally and that we crave.

In that sense at least, we continue to view political and corporate leaders in the way infants and small children view their security-giving parents. We are psychologically stuck in infantile states, not daring to give way to the risks and changes that the all-encompassing processes of growth, maturation, individuation and differentiation would seem to ask of us.

The first step in finding a new level of individuation in personal development is to dis-identify from the previous people or ideas we identified with. Adolescents need to dis-identify from their parents in order to move on into their own lives. Socially, whole societies would need to now pass through this high-growth, ‘adolescent’ stage of history (capitalism) and dis-identify from their parental leaders in order to become more ‘adult’ citizens of truer, more participatory democracies. Our current ‘democracies’ peopled with infantile majorities are thus not democracies in any real sense but heteronomous systems run by elected and unelected (corporate and bureaucratic) oligarchies.

This dis-identifying of course would then be only the first step to both negating the bad and preserving (i.e. integrating) the worthy elements of the old oligarcho-democratic and industrial-capitalist system (e.g. human rights and the rule of law, technologies etc.) that are now needed to build the ecologically sustainable good society.

Given our many global crises, the question then becomes: can we dis-identify quickly enough from our adolescent phase to establish a real, participatory democracy of mature, autonomous citizens and thus both prevent ecocide and realise some of humanity’s deepest dreams of a good society in which there are ‘bread and roses for all’?


Fred's picture

Can we dis-identify quickly enough? Yes, and we will. It'll need to be done on the smallest of scales at first. Maybe in IOPS, maybe here, or maybe somewhere else, but we'll do it, and it will spread around the world, and unconquer it entirely.

Peter's picture

Thanks, Fred. Good to hear from you again. It seems very few are using/participating in LS. IOPS and Common Website-response all over again? Alex has expressed a similar feeling re LS. Maybe we should all have a bit of a chinwag together about such experiential facts, such empirical evidence of three apparently failed online attempts, and consider our options...?

Fred's picture

Sounds like the best place to go with it. Rick and I have a talk planned for Monday 3pm his time. I am open to having multiple talks or rearranging talks and times. Whatever we all feel is best. He and I have been planning the talks in the forums under the "possibility" section. We were going to use doodle to optimize our schedules if need be.

insomnialex's picture

interesting piece, as always Peter. you wicked writer.

hmm, maybe working backwards a bit, i believe i agree with your concept of social maturity, with dis-identification from the provider-class as a necessary step toward a greater wholeness of collective diversity, and stuff. as for -whether we can do it within ecological timelines?? i think we have to accept that damage has already been done which is yet to come to fruition, as you know, and the kind of maturity we need to reach requires the development of collective environments where we (humans) gain personal experience, and the clock will still be ticking.

i do think there is a natural tendency toward collective free-association, but yes, we’re socialized to be dependent kids forever. to whatever degree we can provide and create models from the smallest level-up that encourage more participatory democracy, it takes time for it to become real to us.. to draw our own conclusions and embrace a shift in our perception. some may be hungry for that, and others more resistant while clinging to something else deeply engrained.

there was a segment earlier today on DemocracyNow, Is Trump's Rise a Result of America Declaring War on Institutions That Make Democracy Possible?, with author of “America at War with Itself,” Henry Giroux. claims Trump’s rise is symptomatic, with a strong focus on children’s education. asked how he views the role of schools and eduction, Giroux answers:

“Schools should be democratic public spheres. They should be places that educate people to be informed, to learn how to govern rather than be governed, to take justice seriously, to spur the radical imagination, to give them the tools that they need to be able to both relate to themselves and others in the wider world, in a way in which they can imagine that world as a better place.”

and furthers that the current system destroys the radical imagination and sense of agency.

he views it a failure of the left to think “education is about schooling” and “what they don’t realize is that forms of domination are not just simply structural. They’re also about changing consciousness. They’re also about getting people to invest in a language in which they can recognize that the problems that we’re talking about have something to do with their lives. It means making something meaningful, to make it critical, to make it transformative.”

well, he’s got a point. i suppose if it was standard to be raised in that kind of educational environment, we’d be better fit to make those changes. that is, those institutions won’t be changed until more of us supposed adults shift our own consciousness. how can this be achieved?

i often gravitate, from an American perspective at least, to the need for democracy in the workplace, with cooperative ownership. i think, if available, it comes to feel very natural to people, despite a lack of early life training. it’s real, it’s your life, it’s empowering, you find your sense of agency. and with that kind of experience i think it becomes natural to expect, demand, create that kind of agency in the political sphere as well. but how shall people get to there when it’s not much available? come together and create it i suppose.

as someone who has spent plenty of time in the typical workplace format, it can be a bit frustrating and gag-reflexing to watch folks strut their authority, and even more disturbing, the degree to which most workers view this whole bizarre little pond dynamic as “normal.” and what’s super lame is that so many things that would make it a happier, more functional workplace could be achieved with a little democracy, and i personally know this but whatever ownership/management could give a shit about that. but why am i seeing this while others do not?

there were some personal tendencies to ideas about worker ownership before i got to reading that i wasn’t the first to think about it. but i think what has been most transformative for me is time spent in semi-formal social groupings, including online. it’s hanging out with people who dig the collective voice and potential, respect a balance of influence and seek to empower each other, and have come to find this natural. this is not the dynamic i find in most typical social settings, but it’s offered more clarity and hopefully made me a better listener and communicator. and it doesn’t take too much to create a social group of this sort if you’re looking for it. and i would think the potential to change the economic landscape and other things increase when there are more people engaging this way, not even requiring much time devotion. so what does it take for more adults to gain that kind of experience if they are not looking, as they may not even think to look for it? thoughts?

Peter's picture

Thanks for the comment, Alex, and good to see/read you around again after your online break (can sure understand that...). Yeah, i think all your ideas good ones in terms of dis-identifying with the order-givers, different education systems/styles, learning in cooperative groups...In similar vein, i used to be a big fan of something called 'social learning' in Germany, i.e. most people learning about the system and widening consciousness through actual participation in social struggles which first almost always started by focussing on immediate interests or defence of something immediate, then gradually widening to wider concerns in the process of struggle itself...with 'action-embedded' intellectuals like yours truly providing the odd prod and intellectual stimulus towards connecting various struggles and dots...

was a nice theory, and I worked with it in local eco-activism in Germany and here in Oz for about 30 years, from maybe 1976 to about 2007. Gave it a shot, but nothing, i think, really changed...Meanwhile, back in the cosmos...

insomnialex's picture

whatcha think Peter? did any of that aid your own life? do you think any of that helped lay foundations for something that did change for the better? or did any of it lay foundations that simply weren't strong enough in number or in isolation to have deeper impact?

while recognizing the possibility of a 'good society', are we narrowing the gap to tackle some of the larger issues or otherwise sitting on a potential shift?

Peter's picture

'Aid own life'?: not aid, felt more like really having no other option than to act in the ways i order to stay true to self, feelings, values, feel in sync with a certain direction/energy in history/evolution as i read it even...part of a social movement and outside it at the same time, like inside and outside the world at the same time, a part engaged and another part disengaged, watching myself acting...many years ago a dream i had reckoned that all the activism was in order to demonstrate 'courage' for some personal reason, maybe having to do with early birth and hospitalisation traumas, so that might be another layer to the activism onion in my case...

'lay foundations for something that did change for the better'/: dunno at all. Probably not. Know i did influence the odd students, who told me so. But, based on the above personal context, doesn't really matter. i was influenced by one or two teachers just be them being what they were, authentic, not interested in material trivia. figure that's how it works, really, (influence) not just by words, rational stuff, arguments to and fro...

Here's a nice quote i chanced upon today that fits in here, both re my activism, 'blind activity', and historical activism in general that emphasizes plans and policies and strategies [might be good one to put to the Alberts etc.]:

"There is the fact that to a very great extent people do not know what they are doing until they have done it, if then. The extent to which people act with a clear idea of their ends, knowing what effects they are aiming at, is easily exaggerated. Most human action is tentative, experimental, directed not by knowledge of what it will lead to but rather by a desire to know what will come of it. Looking back over our actions, or over any stretch of past history, we see something has taken shape as the actions went on which certainly was not present to our minds, or to the mind of any one, when the actions which brought it into existence began. The ethical thought of the Greco-Roman world attributed far too much to the deliberate plan or policy of the agent, far too little to the force of a blind activity embarking on a course of action without foreseeing its end and being led to that end only through the necessary development of that course itself." (R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 1946)

insomnialex's picture

well, what do you ya think? is Trump the worst or best thing that could have happened?