The twentieth century philosophy of Objectivism staunchly opposed statism and collectivism and defended laissez-faire economics as the salvation of the all-important individual. This philosophy, born of the passions of Ayn Rand, the Russian-American philosopher and novelist, is one of the most influential edifices for rationally defending an essentially pre-ethnocentric worldview — that is, a mindset dominated by an individual’s own needs and wants, incapable of much psychological insight into oneself or others. Rand once said:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Rand did not intend to encourage raw, brutal domination or criminality, I don’t think. She decried motivations rooted in power-lust or the desire to beat others. And yet according to Objectivism the achievement of an individual’s happiness is an end to itself, without any understanding of what creates happiness or any ability to distinguish immature forms of happiness from more mature forms. It’s a “rebel without a cause” philosophy (very popular, as it happens, with teenage boys).
The limits of Objectivist philosophy
The result is a philosophy easily misunderstood and misused by individuals without the psychological maturity to employ it as a pit-stop along the path of philosophical self-discovery, not the end of the line. In Russia and elsewhere today, intellectuals sometimes recourse to Objectivism (or more mild forms of libertarianism) in reaction to oppressive governments. When they embrace Objectivism with too much enthusiasm, their newfound liberation may become a mask for greedy, chaotic, self-destructive impulses run amok.
Could an Integral philosophy such as one drawing upon the work of Ken Wilber, Don Beck, Steve McIntosh, Allan Combs, Ervin László, or others become a sort of 21st-century alternative to Objectivism, one that could provide a healthier psychological foundation capable of bringing societies further along the developmental spectrum rather than regressing them into pre-ethnocentric rationalizations? According to a new article in Integral Leadership Review, there are hopeful signs.
Integral philosophy: an alternative to Objectivism for emerging societies
In “Notes from the Field: The Implications and Remarkable Moments of ‘Russian Davos,'” psychotherapist and organizational consultant Eugene Pustoshkin describes the cultural moment in Russia like this:
Today’s Russian society, gradually empowered by online social networking and information-based, increasingly cybernetic ecosystems (which is rapidly interiorized as a natural environment by consciousness of both younger and older generations), witnesses unprecedented trends of social integration and defragmentation which, most likely, will eventually catalyze massive shifts in Russian cultural consciousness. For instance, the Internet allows reconnecting Russian emigration (which fled the country in the end of 20th century) with the “continental” Russian population and reunions of classmates and childhood friends as I observed in many instances—including my own parents who now communicate with their friends who live in a surprisingly diverse set of countries from the Americas to the Middle East and Asia.
This openness to the world pressures Russians into leaving the habitual tunnel of nationalistic self-isolation and start inhabiting the worldspaces of global citizenship and unity-in-diversity of us all. What the candid American philosopher Ken Wilber calls Eros and Agape, the forces of loving transcendence and embrace, almost tangibly comes into play in this large-scale dynamic intercourse, thus manifesting the viscerally felt zeitgeist of novelty in Russia. Of course, Freudian neuroses and fixations, resistances of all sorts to novelty and self-healing, addiction to power games and a scarcity-based mindset (which drives towards zero-sum exploitation and opportunistic corruption) generate enormous force of self-harming, self-defensive tendencies, something that Freud called Thanatos or the destructive force. In addition to these obstacles Ayn Rand’s psychologically inadequate Objectivism apparently somehow started to play an important role in rationalizations of the elites and entrepreneurs, remaining an influential attractor for construction of a selfish narrative (with her books having been translated to Russian and promoted by libertarian intelligentsia in the recent years). However, the deepening exposure to the world’s best wisdom traditions and integral practices may counteract this trend (especially if a set of actions is to be taken to systemically distribute information on the plurality of perspectives in the coming years).
Read the whole article.
According to Pustoshkin, the Internet and social networking have unleashed a wave of newfound social integration, bringing people together across diverse stratums and distances into greater interaction. These developments are beginning to turn Russians away from “nationalistic self-isolation” towards greater “global citizenship.” Indeed, one can look at phenomena such as the use of Twitter by Iranian rebels and imagine that the World Wide Web may be shifting many cultures in unprecedented and poorly understood ways throughout the world.
It is human nature for people facing the loss of their distinctive cultural identity to react with powerful emotions, sadness, fear, and anger. Mourning creates the opening for new ways of creating meaning out of cultural chaos, but denial of a changing reality can close the opening just as fast.
Into a dispirited and vulnerable population the limited philosophy of Objectivism (which was arguably more suited for a world in a cold war) can become a festering cancer. A philosophy extolling the virtues of immaturity can cease to empower newbie entrepreneurs and others to taking control of their own destiny, and instead encourage them to start fucking other people over.
In contrast, an Integral worldview provides a genuine philosophical alternative. Integral philosophy in Russia and elsewhere can empower people by insisting on the protection of the sovereign liberties of individuals while also making space for the individual’s responsibilities to families, neighborhoods, communities, nations, and the global commons.
Objectivism and Integral thought: two different views of the self
Integral thought is grounded not in Ayn Rand’s pledge to “never live for the sake of another man,” but in the wisdom of the world’s mystical traditions, scientific discovery unfettered by religious restrictions, and postmodern insights into the culturally constructed nature of reality. If it will have more appeal to rising leaders, it may be on account of its having a more hopeful and forward-facing vision for humanity.
Objectivism and Integral philosophy share a common starting point: the self. As Ken Wilber wrote in the Foreword to Conscious Business:
But perhaps the best place to begin with an integral approach to business is with… oneself. In the Big Three of self, culture, and world, integral mastery starts with self. How do body and mind and spirit operate in me? How does that necessarily impact my role in the world of business? And how can I become more conscious of these already-operating realities in myself and in others?
However, whereas Rand concerns herself with the self’s desires and wants, Wilber employs a much more expansive definition of self. On my reading, Rand’s writings use language of value statements similar to what one would expect of persons at preoperational cognitive development (Self-protective Stage 2/3 in Cook-Greuter’s model) and formal operational cognition (Conscientious Stage 4).
There’s nothing wrong with articulating a philosophy with the values she does per se; but thinking your values are the only valid ones is symptomatic of early stages of cognitive reasoning, a rather shaky foundation for building a worldview which supposedly elevates Reason to the highest pinnacle. Surely there are more adequate philosophies for an enormously complex world.
An Integral philosophy allows for a more complex self to emerge, a self-in-relation more at home in a globally interlinked 21st century world than the defensive self lauded by Rand, the Russian émigré who fled oppression to find salvation (and fame) in personal autonomy. Whether Russian intellectuals and elites will be more influenced ultimately by Objectivism or Integral thought or some other philosophy, the choice they face is momentous for all of us.