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Teasing Apart Values from Stages of Development
We have an all-too-hasty tendency to associate particular values with phases of human or social development. This is especially true of people who explore developmental philosophies such as Spiral Dynamics, Integral Theory, Metamodernism, Jean Gebser, etc. However it is also rampant in conventional political history. We say things like, “Modernity stood for liberty, equality and justice.” We say things like, “The progressive movement is about expanding our circle of empathy.” We say things like, “Conservatives values tradition and authority.”
Is any of that true?
Or, more precisely, does any of that limit the truth? I am increasingly tempted to think of the full complement of human values operating at every so-called stage of individual or social development. Just as, for most of us, our full complement of limbs and organs goes with us through our phases of human maturation.
Consider the cherished “liberal modern” notion of meritocracy. It is celebrated as a leap beyond dogmatic, faith-based civilizations that operate by the kingdom-logic of heredity, hierarchy & holiness. Instead of all that old nonsense, we now recognize that individual competence should be institutionally rewarded. This will create progress, freedom and a culture of competitive self-esteem. As long as those dreaded postmodernists don’t disrupt the whole endeavor!
Okay — but don’t those postmodernists also have a notion of merit? Didn’t traditional and tribal cultures also arrange themselves according to some sense of merit? Surely the modern difference is not in the fact of promotion-by-merit but in the specific style through which merit is evaluated.
Speaking very roughly we could say that in tribal/barbarian/village/horde culture there is a form of merit associated with the emotional-musculature discharge of intensity. That is true whether it is the demonstrated intensity of the legendary warrior on the battlefield, the creepy intensity of the shaman returned from meditation among the dead or the matriarch announcing her claims around the fireside. All these forms of demonstrated intensity are treated as merit and form valid arguments in the negotiation for who gets to control which portions of the group’s “seized wealth” of food or booty.
In the larger, ethnocentric meta-tribal “kingdoms” there is yet another system of meritocracy. This time we discover such prominent factors as heredity, scriptural authority, symbolic patriotism and official-sanction as key elements for allowing the group to decide who has merit.
Modernity does not specially discover meritocracy. It shifts its oligarchy from ethnocentric purity to (nominal) diversity and expands into metropolitan internationalism and a culture of business-driven “paper contracts”. In this scenario we find that merit is basically treated as the capacity to profit from the layout of society. From the early constitutional monarchies and federations that ascribed rights to large property owners to the contemporary control of bureaucratic legislatures through donations and lobbyists — the attribution of merit, in practice, is to accord institutional rewards to those who have demonstrated that they can take control of a large percentage of financial flows while insulating themselves from negative feedback effects.
As the American Federal response to the 2008 financial disaster demonstrated, investors and CEOs who were able to largely insulate themselves from the disastrous economic fate of many citizens were substantially rewarded and further empowered by the liberal/modern/democratic legislature. A similar pattern was repeated during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States where we saw massive financial handouts to the largest corporations and biggest investors with tragically little, and often woefully mismanaged, support for workers and small businesses. These are only two dramatic examples of the pattern of treating, as merit, the conditions of (a) controlling resource flows (b) insulating oneself from the condition of one’s fellow citizens.
Of course we are not trying to lay all the problems of the world at the feet of modernity, nor to deny the array of contributions it has made to history, but we are challenging its rhetorical (marketing) claim to have uniquely discovered meritocracy. In fact its whole spiel, drawing on a small cluster of 17th and 18th century authors, of being the avatar of merit, progress, fairness, freedom and individualism is highly suspect once we find these values present in every form of society.
It has been said that conservative have a unique relationship to Heritage Values but do the Progressives not look back upon their moral and political exemplars? It has been said that Care is a uniquely progressive value but is it not true that Traditionalists care for the families and communities-of-symbolic-loyalty?
Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral instincts had led him to make the claim that cosmopolitan liberalism has winnowed down the normal human complement of moral virtues. They, for example, he claims, no longer treat “disgust” as a sign of immorality. They do not think sodomy and incest among consenting adults should be criminal no matter how it makes them feel. Okay, but then what does he make of the massive liberal fixation on the “obscenity” of Donald Trump. In observing their fervor against him, despite his apparent crimes and incompetence, are not justified in thinking that great percentage of their complaint is simply that he is “gross”?
My observation then — aside from decoupling the notion of meritocracy from the notion of modernity — is twofold.
Firstly that our analysis of social and cognitive operating system must be separate from the most overt and conventional rhetorical claims associated with any particular system.
Secondly that in order to make progress toward an upgraded system that integrates the full complement of human values, we must look not just “including the values of all the stages and blocs” but also at achieving the healthy, balanced prominence of all those values at the most advanced stage of social operating system that is currently viable as a popular movement and policy agenda.
The integrative political thinkers should focus less on “combining the virtues of traditional, modern and progressive approaches” and focus more on “establishing the balanced set of healthy, authentic virtues within a refined notion of progressivism”.