Response to Matthew

Matthew has a post up with a call out to “fans and ex-fans of Wilber” to answer the question of whether Wilber’s definition of integral exudes fascistic elements based on the definition of fascism employed by Jonah Goldberg.

Goldberg’s definition of fascism (excerpted from Matthew’s post, Matthew’s emphasis):

I see fascism as a political religion. That doesn’t mean I think there’s some book, like a bible, that if you read it you will become a convert to this political religion. Rather I think it is a religious impulse that resides in all of us — left, right, black, white, tall, short — to seek unity in all things, to believe that we need to all work together to go past any of our disagreements and that the state needs to be, almost simply as a pragmatic matter, the pace-setter, the enforcer of this cult of unity. That is what I believe fascism is.

… Today we don’t use the word “totalitarian,” because the connotations have been so hardened in our minds. But we use these other words like “holistic” all the time. This quest for wholism, this idea that everything goes together, that we are all part of a single political, social organism … was deeply and profoundly central to the intellectual movements and eddies that fed into Nazism.

Now the first thing to say is that I don’t agree with Matthew that this is a “good definition of fascism”. It’s too abstract imo to be of much value. [Goldberg, I think, wants, really needs to make his definition of fascism so broad as to be able to fit “liberals” under its umbrella]. i.e. Before deciding on Wilber’s definition, the first thing I think to ask is: is this even a good definition of fascism?

Goldberg says that everybody has a fascist impulse. Ok, that’s fine. I agree. Why not. So in that sense Wilber does, as do I, as does Goldberg, as does Matthew, as does everybody. I guess you would need to do a fascism scale, as it were, to compare.

As proof that all of us have this fascistic impulse….The National Review, a paper which employs Goldberg, wrote an editorial praising Augusto Pinochet, an actual fascist dictator, upon his death. [While Goldberg worked for the paper btw]. Prior to Goldberg, NR also wrote an encomium to Francisco Franco, another actual fascist.

So yes, “we are all fascists” (the title of a chapter in JG’s book) if you want. Although writing laudatory praises of fascist dictators would I think put one farther down the sympathetic road than some vague desire for unity. But I digress.

Now to the specifics of his actual definition, which I find wanting in many ways.

1)Fascism as a political religion.

–Well….Iberian Fascisms (Spain and Portugal) along with their Croatian cousin are typically referred to as Catholic Fascism. i.e. The Catholic Church aligned with the state was the source of this enforced cultural unity. That seems to weaken his thesis.

German Nazism certainly used the state to enforce its will. It was also however a revival of Teutonic Pagan religion–along with occultist spiritual practices in the inner circle. Himmler read the Bhagavad Gita as essentially his revelatory text.

Political religion as long as you realize that it can be melded with religious religions, which relativizes the state element.

The Fascism that Goldberg has most clearly in mind is Italy under Mussolini (check the subtitle of his book and Ch.1), prior to the outbreak of the war. And that I gather prior to its industrialization and mobilization for war.

But what is totally missing (because the definition I think is not particularly historical or concrete) is the militarization of society. Fascism is not just the desire to seek unity in all things, but in European Fascism actually enforcing that unity through a systematic use of violence.

So it is not some abstract version of “getting beyond our differences” to achieve a goal (that might just be political compromise and pragmatism for God’s sakes). The history of Fascism suggests the concerted elimination and repression of differences–e.g. Jews, gays, and “imbeciles” in concentration camps.

And if you are a fan of the Islamo-fascist label, then the imposition of a non-democratic guardian council of religious clerics who say execute women caught in adultery publicly by stoning in a soccer stadium (i.e. Taliban Afghanistan).

Last time I checked Integral Institute didn’t have an armed militia, brown shirts, or try a putsch against the US government. [Sorry I forgot we are talking about “liberal fascism” here which has a smiley face and a Hitler mustache. A nice, friendly, “feminine” fascism :)].

Now granted Matthew admits that Wilber’s philosophy isn’t fascist outright but rather “exudes” (possibly) fascistic elements. Still, I bring up the history, particularly the violence because I think talking about “fascistic” without describing/analyzing actual historical fascism is highly problematic any way you slice it. Particularly when the definition in question (conveniently I would say) leaves this pervasive violence element out.

That’s why I don’t like people calling Bush-Cheney a fascist nor people calling liberals fascists. Unless your goose-stepping calling for the return of The Third Reich, then I don’t think fascism is a good choice of words.

Other words than fascist–given the history and the connotations involved–that could be used to describe the negative tendencies Goldberg has in mind are collectivist, pathological wholism, and depending on the context, statist. I think the word totalitarian still possesses strong valence; it is telling in my mind that Goldberg wants to extricate fascist from totalitarian because again of the violence/terror issue I would say. Totalitarian to most people, I think, evokes violence (e.g. concentration camps, gulags). And 20th century Progressives were not the most violent of people as compared to the Fascisti.

The only event in progressive-New Deal Liberal America that qualifies I suppose as fascist/totalitarian was FDR’s concentration camps against Japanese-Americans (“forced internment“)–note the violence. Though on the other hand that brutal activity was over-turned by the Supreme Court, which the executive branch obeyed. I don’t think Hitler was accepting a checks and balance system. Perhaps also eugenics legislation, e.g. forced sterilization (promoted by both the left and right at the time sadly in the US).

2)Fascism as wholism (religious impulse).

As I said, in my earlier review of his interview on the book, Goldberg is on better ground here. Again this relates to early Italian (and somewhat German) fascism, though the seeds of violence were already there from the get-go.

This tendency is strong in many ecological critiques of modernity (particularly stemming from Heidegger who in fact never apologized for his Nazi affiliation). Though again you can find that critique from Michael Zimmerman, connected to Ken Wilber.

Now as Matthew has I believe read Wilber’s book Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, he will know that someone who has spent a great deal of time criticizing “holistic” philosophies as having fascist underpinnings is of course Ken Wilber. My own opinion is that Wilber has a deeper philosophical and spiritual understanding of why this drive for unity, as Goldberg says, is within us all and why it can turn deadly and violent and evil. But that is a sidepoint–either way there it is.

For those not in the know about this side of fascism, the short answer is this. Fascism (as Goldberg rightly points) conceived of society as an organism. Like a single body, everybody else then is a organ or digit in the body. If the brain (i.e. The Fuhrer/Il Duce) says move, you move, just like a brain telling the finger what to type. Resistance to this social body is then conceived (in this model) as a contagion or virus. A disease, like a cancerous tumor, in sum. And in medicine, you cut out the tumor–hence for society along this model, you “cut out” the offending disease (i.e. mass systematized, intentional violence and murder). Contagions could be political dissidents (liberals, socialists, communists) as well as races (e.g. in Nazi ideology The Jews as a verminous plague, sapping the vitality of the “pure” Aryan organism).

Wilber, however, holds to a holonic (not holistic) view: namely that individuals are members of society not parts thereof (the latter view is termed holistic and is quasi-fascist). Members as opposed to cogs in the machine have (or should have) the right to choose to participate or not in a group (free within the bounds of the legitimate law of course). Holons and quadrants emphasize that a person is both a free individual and a member of a social groupings. Autonomy and relationality.

The political consequences of this theory is the state is not intrinsically the de facto pace setter of this unity. Wilber’s political philosophy, based on a notion of levels of development, is largely to let each level police itself (as I read his politics). Which is a conservative judgment btw.

Now, whether or not one thinks levels is a valid concept, for the sake of the argument, that is hardly enforced comprehensiveness. Also Wilber’s work being taken up by business interests, religious and spiritual communities, NGOs/development workers, among others, hardly suggests the state as the prime trend setter of the unity (which btw the theory doesn’t absolutize, i.e. unity, as an end in itself to begin with).

Wilber’s work also teaches nonduality, which contrary to misunderstanding does not seek unity in all things–that view is called monism. Nonduality teaches that there is a One and a Many and that the Ultimate Truth is that which is the essence of both, neither seeking to impose the One on the Many nor wanting all the Many-s to fly off in all directions, disconnectedly. Greater integration, complexity, and differentiation.

So in Wilber’s terminology of Two Truths, relative (quadrants/holons) and Absolute (awakening), then neither exudes fascist elements in my judgment.

3)Wilber’s definition of integral as “comprehensive, not leaving anything out”.

This is what Matthew is really after. Now the reason I took the country road to get here is that I think minus understanding that context just outlined, the words “comprehensive, inclusive, not leaving anything out, balanced” could easily be misunderstood and I suppose placed in the context Matthew places them be read (read into?) a fascistic echo. Those words don’t make any sense without some basic sense of Wilber’s thinking I argue.

Parenthetical remark: Per the earlier comment that this fascist, if you will, tendency is within all, then yes “comprehensive/not leaving anything out” could veer towards a kind of collectivism and by this definition must have some of that “f-word” within it. So could anything (by the definition), so I’m not sure how much learning takes place there. Again I don’t think fascist makes any sense minus militarization & violence, but whatever, there it is.

But given “everybody is a fascist” the real question is does Wilber’s definition of integral have say more fascistic elements than others? More tendencies in that direction in other words. Gotta judge on a gradient for this idea to have any specific relevance, make any heads or tails of this, I think.

The problem I have with the way Matthew has written his piece is that he helpfully gives Goldberg’s definition of fascism–and the quotation is long enough to give him (Goldberg) space to expound on what he means by certain words. The definition of integral from Wilber is de-contextualized and gives no reference from him (KW) concerning what he means by those words quoted.

The parallel would be if I were to summarize Goldberg’s definition of fascism thusly: a holistic, seeking unity, political religion.

Would you be able to answer a question based on that definition? I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. I’d get some sense, but it could also be open to major misinterpretation, particularly when placed in a context that (seems to me) like a leading question. If I saw such a line, I would rightly want to know what the author means by holistic, a political religion, etc.

I think the same thing should be done with the Wilber quotation. Wilber is a philosopher and is using those words I believe in a specific philosophical context. [The quotation in question also functions as an attempt at a summary of his view, which like all summaries is prone to obscure and dumb down more than it clarifies or articulates.] In other words, I’m not sure Wilber means those words in the way that (so-called) common wisdom/understanding might suggest. Might, might not, but minus any other information, how am I or anyone else in a position to judge?

Philosophically, I would maintain those words (by his own theory) apply only within his conceptualization of the integral worldspace. So the comprehensiveness in question, is already highly circumscribed and contextualized. And again voluntarily chosen. So I see a chasm there from that to fascism (as poorly defined by Goldberg imo).

And hell, even minus the philosophical question, things like comprehensive, not leaving anything out, and balanced sound like very good qualities I would want in for example a judge, a college admissions board, a police officer/criminal investigator, an actuary. They might just mean thorough and not, I don’t know, fascistic.

Context matters.

Even if one thinks that Wilber’s definition of integral needs no more unpacking, the charge of exuding.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines exude as 1. “oozing forth” (as in sweat) as well as:

2. To exhibit in abundance: a face that exuded self-satisfaction.

I take Matthew’s question about whether Wilber’s def. of integral exudes fascistic elements to be of this second definition. By that meaning of the term, then no I don’t think his philosophy exhibits in abundance fascistic elements. [Maybe MD has a different understanding of exuding?].

A)I think the definition of fascism provided is a poor one. (see above for argument as to why) And that’s not just a dodge, btw. Rather I think an argument that makes government-managed health care a version of fascism is wrongheaded at the least, ideological at the worst. One could make an argument such a system is illiberal, excessively statist, especially if the government-managed system has a monopoly, but fascist? Particularly if it is installed by democratic process and not say via violent revolution.

B)I don’t think Wilber’s definition of integral (or philosophy more broadly) exhibits in abundance fascistic elements.

–Again I think a legitimate debate could be had on a question of liberal vs. illiberalism. 1)In the theory itself 2)In the practice. Questions about how much emphasis and what role, if any, the federal state legitimately has. Is discussion free enough in the integral community online (a la Habermas)? But fascistic, come on.

–But again I’m going to harp on this point, without the systematic use of violence as a weapon of terror to upset the status quo governing system attempting to create the conditions necessary for a revolutionary takeover of power—-how is this fascistic?

[On how Goldberg leaves out the history of right-wing American fascism, here.] Jonah’s response to that piece here.

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 5:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “But again I’m going to harp on this point, without the systematic use of violence as a weapon of terror to upset the status quo governing system attempting to create the conditions necessary for a revolutionary takeover of power—-how is this fascistic?”

    exactly! very, very, very, well put, bro. you continue to amaze me with your depth of understanding of Wilber’s (very confusing) philosophy 😉


  2. The problem I have with the way Matthew has written his piece is that he helpfully gives Goldberg’s definition of fascism–and the quotation is long enough to give him (Goldberg) space to expound on what he means by certain words. The definition of integral from Wilber is de-contextualized and gives no reference from him (KW) concerning what he means by those words quoted.

    I’m sorry you have a problem. But if you think what I wrote, it is perfectly defensible to address people who already know Wilber’s work with a question containing a material requires a bit of explanation (namely Goldberg’s definition). In other words, it isn’t necessary to re-explain Wilber’s work to a bunch of fans or ex-fans of it.

    Regarding your dislike of Goldberg’s re-definition, I don’t think violence is required for the kind of definition that Goldberg seeks: namely, a philosophical one based upon principles, where something perhaps is evident across decades, at the root (Goldberg argues) of both violent and non-violent demonstrations of said principles.

    It isn’t a neat and tidy argument to make that if fascism is socialism, and because American liberals/progressives favor many things socialist, then American libs/progs are fascists. But it is a plausible argument to attempt to make. The Democrats are proposing, depending on the candidate, socialized medicine, or something extremely close to it.

    And, I might add, your use of the accepted definition of fascism as an argument against a person who is seeking to demonstatae a re-definition is in order is, well, shallow.

    The question with Wilber: we all know his work (and, yes, I’ve read and studied the entirety of the CW): does he or does he not seek a “totalizing framework” for understanding, well, everything?

    If yes, then his framework, his work, is close enough to fascistic for government work.


  3. The use of the traditional definition, as you call it, I don’t think is shallow. I just think it’s a better one than he offers. If he’s trying a re-definition then I think it’s worth checking in with the existing one, to see if the new one is an improvement or not. I think overall it’s not.

    I think the problem is trying to fit fascism in the traditional framework of left or right. I think it is better seen as a revolutionary system–hence off the traditional spectrum. Far right weirdly connects more with far left than with regular old left or right.

    I’m not saying he’s not describing a real issue philosophically. I just think fascist is a poor word to use. And yes given its history of blood, it’s needlessly (imo) controversial.

    My point is that fascism is not socialism. So your deductive chain (“if fascism is socialism AND…) I believe breaks down at the first stop. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

    Fascism as Hitler admitted used the word socialist in its label in order to co-opt actual socialists.

    The Fascists governed (whatever the theory espoused in say 1920s Italy) as corporate state-controlled capitalists.

    Again when he deals in the abstract, I think it is to the detriment of his argument.

    That doesn’t mean btw I’m pro-socialist. I just think socialist is socialist and fascist is fascist.

  4. There is certainly a history, which is worth telling of authoritarianism in the American progressive/left.

    I think his book could have detailed that history, which there is a great deal of ignorance concerning. However by going down this “it’s a grand niece of fascism” and fascism is from the left, that gets lost.

    One of Goldberg’s proposed subtitles for the book was The Totalitarian Impulse from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.

    The difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism is one of systematic, endemic, calculated terror and violence. Both to gain power and also to rule.

    Authoritarians no doubt employ violence but often sporadically and usually only circumstantially (e.g. Singapore).

    When he already has words that explain what he is driving at, why the revisionism of fascism?

    Particularly when his version of the right is a unique and not exclusive form of the right–namely libertarian conservatism. Seems to me he is saying anything that’s not libertarian right is therefore left and hence in some fashion connected to fascism. For sure, fascism is not libertarian conservatism. If anybody thought so, then they were mistaken and his book has put that idea to rest.

    But the obverse is not therefore true.

  5. When he already has words that explain what he is driving at, why the revisionism of fascism?

    I can only laugh at the irony of you using that kind of argument.

    Anyway, we disagree, and I’m done until I have a chance to read the book. Which I’m assuming you haven’t, either.

  6. […] what I wrote on my post on this book: Still, I bring up the history, particularly the violence because I think talking about […]

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