The Transformation Age: America Burning

Robb SmithArticle, Cognitive, Futurism, Integrative Metatheory, Leadership, Money, Perspectives, Politics, Sustainability, The Transformation Age, World Affairs, Worldviews 2 Comments


he Transformation Age Series is a series of written articles and accompanying webcasts that Integral Life CEO Robb Smith hosts for the Integral Life community in real-time as the Great Release (TGR) unfolds, giving rise to the Transformation Age.

The Transformation Age: America Burning

America has been on fire these past few weeks. A nation struggling with its racist past, its contemporary racial shadow, its deep political and cultural polarization, and a divisive president who will never be capable of leading a nation, we continue to find ourselves in the heart of The Great Release (and this time, not from an economic depression or disease pandemic, but from our deep and terrible racist heritage). In this brief article, I want to use a few lenses of integral metatheory—concepts you’ll be familiar with, but applied in ways you’ve never seen before—to see if we can get a broader view of what’s happening.

Let me add my usual disclaimer: these are book length topics and I’ll do them no justice in their fullness with this brief article. The lenses we created took us a few days to think about how to present these concepts visually (we’re experimenting with some ideas that might help you build an integral mind at the same time as you engage content on Integral Life; we hope we’ve taken a step in the right direction). But our goal is to help you start to see the greater complexities and rewards of engaging in fractal integral thinking about a time as volatile as we’re going through, and at the same time walk away with some new perspectives.

As I’ve detailed at length and won’t rehash here, America is undergoing a predictable and natural breakdown, a “great release” that will see it transformed over the next decade or two. The America of the Information Age, the America we have known, is already gone. The America that arises in its place is the America of the Transformation Age. But what this America looks like, whether it continues as a world leader, whether its people thrive, whether it functions well internally, whether it resolves its moral incoherence… these remain unknowns. Americans know it, and are deeply pessimistic about the future. And though I have a lot of views on where I think we’re headed, and expect to unpack these in future articles, the lenses I use here will give you some tools to start thinking now about it integrally.

Lens: Green Technoculture & the Changing Nature of Power

What we do know is America sits at the heart of a Green, postmodern technoculture. Views are formed and shared instantly. Loyalties are emotional and identity-affirming, right up until they’re not, and then they’re dropped for the next thing. Coalitions are amorphous, ever-changing and fickle. Viewpoints have hardened while facts have softened, producing a post-truth normative landscape where, seemingly, anything goes. The Overton Window hasn’t just expanded, the house that held it has been leveled to the ground: a few shards of glass on the ground are all that remain. News and social media feedbacks have accelerated, creating a sense that we’re in a constant state of siege, all continued within a constant Truman Show of reality, narrowcast to us with every notification chime of the smartphone. There is little to anchor our perspectives anymore, and certainly grand narratives remain dead.

And all of the above? It’s changed the nature of power, as I outlined in a New War for Power, and shown below:

Within a Green society, power accrues to those who can convene. Indeed, the power to convene handed the world’s most powerful office to its current occupant, first using the New York media, then using a reality TV show, and finally with Twitter. Those who say Trump is our first postmodern president have it about right, particularly if we look through the lens of Green technocultural structures. The power to convene allowed him to take control of all of the other, earlier powers of prior evolutionary stages: one successful move—one successful, multi-decade convening—that was executed outside the Establishment power structures themselves, and he was able to take control over the power to contract (Orange: e.g., the US dollar, Fed policy, and business policy worldwide), the power to reason (Umber: e.g., casting scientists out of policy making, destroying the Overton Window, accelerating a no-truth orthodoxy), the power to sanction (Amber: e.g., advancing the doctrine of a unitary executive not subject to oversight, calling forth Nixon’s view that if the President does it, it can’t be illegal), the power to expel (Red: e.g., building a border wall, not wanting immigrants from “shithole” countries), and the power to kill (Magenta: e.g., command over the American military and police forces). And once someone occupies that office, our highest and arguably the most powerful in the world, they can use its powers to reconfigure the moral standing and method of all of those powers themselves. In integral terms, as we’ll see suggested in a moment when we look at a holarchy, the super-holon can exert a ton of downward influence on the evolutionary stack of sub-holons.

Lens 2: On-Demand Propaganda

So that’s the Green technoculture and its fickle, fast and power-altering landscape. Inherent in the power to convene is the capacity for influencing opinion. Let’s jump off from there and consider a second lens, which is how social media is being used as a channel for agitprop (agitation propaganda) to influence opinion in order to incite the riots.

I won’t get into the details of the subject, but the Atlantic, New York Times and others have reported on this by looking at the way both domestic and foreign agitators are taking advantage of a fragmented America at a time of acute tension to sow discord as we approach the election. What interests us here is to notice the evolutionary and system dynamics involved so we can see what developmental pressures are building within. Foreign adversaries, and domestic revolutionaries, are using Green-stage technologies (social media, psychographic ad targeting, etc.) to convene opinion towards revolution, towards breakdown, and towards system release inside the United States. This is possible, of course, only because, as a fractured society shot through with irresilience, power monopolies, inequalities, and cultural and economic fragmentation, we’ve done most of the hard work for them. Nevertheless, they’re employing these tools to (what looks like) great effect. In the short-run (1-5 years), an adversary like Russia is harming the US by pushing us deeper into the great release. (Though I think they’ve misjudged the game, because they inadvertently help the US in the intermediate-run (5-20 years) by accelerating our problems, forcing us to contend with the contradictions of Green more quickly than we otherwise would, and pushing us towards a renewal phase that is today already underway, and which is actively creating the structures and mindsets of a Teal, Transformation Age America that is beginning to emerge.)

So we see a picture emerging of a landscape of rampant aperspectivalism, an irresilient empire at the end of its hegemonic cycle, and enemies engaged in a feeding frenzy of social agitation in order to accelerate its demise. Now let’s turn to other important lenses. The first is the failure of national leadership to play the role any super-holon has to play when there is disruption inside a holarchy—that of system memory, the absence of which further degrades the nation’s ability to maintain social cohesion and moral focus. The second lens, and the one I conclude with, is to consider the US’s struggle with a Unity-Diversity tradeoff over the past 50 years (I also call this a whole-part boundary problem), one where it has struggled to contend with—that is, stay a coherent, unified whole—in the face of the sheer onslaught of diversity that the Green evolutionary structure entails (and that we looked at briefly above).

Lens 3: Top Level of Holarchy Fails to Contextualize Lower Revolt

When we look at the past week of protests through a wide angle lens, one of the things we can notice when we really step back is just how quickly and intensely we human beings look to social hierarchies in the face of real and troubling events. Even those of us who find our president otherwise abhorrent were genuinely hoping to hear a unifying message of love, reconciliation and reform towards the systemic and historic racism that we confront.

But why? Why should it be the case that we look to the highest echelons of our society and power when we want to hear messages of coherence? While there are undoubtedly good reasons from evolutionary biology, there are also important reasons from the systems sciences, which tell us that the higher-order holons in a holarchy actually serve the lower-order holons by setting the context in which those holons act. One simple way to think about this is that lower-order holons contribute, higher-order holons contextualize: each sub-holon does the work of the stack, while the highest has to hold the context for the sub-holons and the whole stack. This role played by the super-holon is to act as the system’s memory, which can be thought of as holding and communicating the history, values, common purpose, functioning, commitments and other items that constitute the entire system’s context: that is, its broad purpose. When members of a society don’t have a reliable shared context, it is incredibly disorienting individually, and corrosive nationally.

Below I have created a simple diagram that shows you a three-level adaptive cycle holarchy. I (more or less) arbitrarily chose the topics within the holarchy to serve as an illustration of how super-holonic contextualization works (or not, as we’ll see). What it is showing is that for each of those holons, we can consider where in its own adaptive cycle each is, some of what might be going on internal to them, and how that might be influencing the super-holon above, sub-holon below, or both. Again, my goal was not to apply this entire holarchy to the race protests, which is why I used gun control and political parties instead. What I try to show, as you’ll see when we look at the national holon, is simply the importance that the national super-holon play its memory role well. We actually rely deeply on our leaders to remind, reinforce and reinvigorate our shared context, our common values, and shared destiny. This has always been the most important role of a president for a very good reason, and this lens helps us understand why these past weeks, as tragic as they have been, have felt even more unsettling than normal. Also, my aims here aren’t partisan, I could make this critique of any leader who fails to provide context; my goal with these various lenses is to help us better understand where our actual problems lie, and I hope it’s becoming clearer that figuring out how we get back to a shared context remains among our most urgent of national problems. I firmly believe that much of our surface problems come from not understanding which are the deeper, more structural problems we should actually be trying to solve.

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At this point, a fair-minded critic would point out that our current president is a symptom of a fragmented, polarized electorate; he wasn’t elected to unify, he was elected to satisfy the grievance of a divide, and so his natural talents don’t run to the role in the system I’m pointing to. To which I’d reply: that’s exactly right! That is precisely the kind of evidence that tells us how irresilient the nation is (my main claim in The Great Release). In other words, systems that are going through disruptive release phases like the US are, by definition, in a disordered state whereby disordered leadership that only appeals to factions within the system should be expected—and yes, here I do mean “state” in the technical sense used by integral metatheory: a temporary configuration of reality at a given snapshot in time through which all other interpretations and behavior are lensed and enacted; the polarized, disrupted, siege-mentality state of the nation refracts all other aspects of national life through it. Among other things, we are going through a massive legitimation crisis, and this brings us to our last lens.

Lens 4: Legitimation Crisis of a Diversifying Social Holon

It is easy and obvious to see that America is divided, has a trust problem, and that this creates a sense whereby one group of citizens don’t think the other group has legitimacy when it holds power. We heard of full-scale, albeit fringe, attacks on the legitimacy of President Obama, and more recently we hear of full-scale, more mainstream attacks on the legitimacy of President Trump. More generally, we can bear witness to the fact that for decades there has been an increasingly stark and vitriolic set of divisions in the nation about our political values, policies and coalitions. It’s ugly out there. But again, for our purposes we can set aside the specifics of any given legitimacy question and get one level above it to see the broad problem of legitimacy through the integral lens of a whole-part boundary of a national (social) holon.

Below I walk you through the case.

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What the slides above argue is that we face a legitimation crisis rooted in the fact that the whole is no longer a cohesive, resonant container for a growing number of its members. In other words, the mainstream idea of America is losing its legitimacy because the idea itself is outmoded by the relationship between the “size” of the container and the diversity of its members. Something has to give, and it is. We’ll come back to the different political agendas for re-legitimizing it in a moment. But first, let’s understand what’s actually happening.

The entire point of a nation is to act as an identifiable and resonant container for its members. That is, a nation is precisely that thing that holds a people together because we identify it within ourselves—we are a whole that carries it around within us—and us as parts of it—it is a whole that carries us safely within it. It also has to be resonant, meaning that we have a meaningful, nourishing and identity-reinforcing relational exchange with it (vertically) and with its other members, institutions, etc. (horizontally); in short, the America we love is the one where we feel fed and reinforced by it in ways spiritual, psychological, tribal and values-specific. A legitimation crisis occurs in part when a nation’s members have such widely varying nourishment surfaces—perhaps similar at a deep level, but radically variant in their expressions and surface features—that it simply hasn’t yet transformed into a new shape that can adequately integrate everyone’s needs “under one roof”—it hasn’t yet transformed. Importantly, we can see from history that shared geography is hardly adequate to do so. Far more relevant are shared myths and stories, shared values, shared commitments, and common ethnicities.

As I outlined in The Great Divide, what is happening in the US since the gradual but accelerating death of an economically-prospering middle class—a prosperity which ameliorated our other differences (a process that started in early 1970s)—our nation has become more diverse in all those relevant ways at precisely the same time as we’ve felt more scarcity and competition internally for a shrinking pool of resources (made available to the bottom 90% at least).

The diversity is real: growing immigration and changing demographics, growing diversity of sexual, gender and family orientations, growing and diversifying structures of consciousness and values (+Green, + Teal), an expanding Overton Window of what is acceptable political or cultural speech…all these things create the reality that the national container is trying to house a greater diversity of people, social structures, values and beliefs than ever before, and at the same time that the stable, more conventional middle class has been under attack. (This is, by the way, exactly what we’ve predicted would happen with the peaking of Green evolutionary structures, and it points out the problems and contradictions that will have to be resolved as we transform into a Teal America at the leading edge.)

Lens 4 Solutions

The net effect is we end up with a growing gap between what the national container is and was designed to hold, and the actual diversity it’s being asked to hold. This gap is real, causally-efficacious and at the very core of our contemporary national dilemma. There may be several ways to solve this gap, but to close this article I briefly outline a few of them here. To be clear, I’m not advocating for these, I’m simply trying to better understand the scope of the holonic problem I outline in this Lens 4, and the landscape of possible solutions. (In this regard, I’m not addressing the current racial crisis at all, the solution to which is probably an integrated set of criminal justice, policing, economic and social reforms combined with a national-cultural process of shadow work, truth-telling and long-term healing and reconciliation. Rather, here I look strictly through Lens 4 at a broader meta-systematic dynamic of a diversifying social holon over the course of decades and thinking through its implications.)

Solution one would seem to be to grow the national container so it is “big enough” to hold all its diversity. This seems to be the general desire of progressives, as they’d like to see the ideas, values, peoples and structures that constitute the “stretched nation” included fully within it, and without any real dimming or submission of who each of those values or groups feel themselves to be. This celebration of diversity approach believes the nation can handle its full diversity if it can just be allowed to grow large enough to do so. What would this large enough entail? Policies, values, laws, built infrastructure and other items that embrace diversity even while allowing that they must occur within our Constitutional framework (though probably through a Constructivist interpretive scheme). The center of gravity of the values of this solution would seem to be mostly Orange and Green (though often enough enacted through Amber), and polarity-biasing the Changing/Growing pole against that of a Static/Preserving one.

Solution two is to harden the national container so the national concept, qua identifiable nation, is absolutely unyielding and resolute in the face of its inner diversity. This seems to be the general desire of conservatives, who’d like to see the “static nation” be not only of a relatively fixed dimension—don’t get bigger to accommodate diversity, rather force any diversity to adapt to fit within known, past constraints—but also to strengthen the state itself so that the nation can monitor, regulate and control diversity as such. (Important to not hear diversity here as race, though that is certainly an element, but more broadly as anything that can be viewed as novel, emergent and progressive to the way we’ve traditionally understood the concept of “America.”) This enforce unity approach believes the nation cannot handle the diversity it faces (or loses its identity if so), and can be saved only if allowed to grow strong enough to do so—a strategy that entails policies, values, laws, built infrastructure and other items that enforce homogeneity even while allowing that it must occur within our Constitutional framework (though probably through an Originalist interpretive scheme). The center of gravity of the values of this solution would seem to be mostly Red, Amber and Orange, and polarity-biasing the Static/Preserving pole against that of a Changing/Growing one.

These two strategies derive from a focus on the problem at the national level, or the nation as a whole. The next two look at strategies from the point of view of the parts that constitute the nation, its citizens.

Solution three is that the citizens themselves get bigger. That is, even though a nation has geography, infrastructure, and many other physical realities, what really constitutes a nation occurs through the consciousness of its people. If citizens’ values, beliefs, skills, and worldviews change, by definition, so too do those of the nation. If the citizens of the US get “big enough” with respect to their own values and beliefs in order to accommodate the growing diversity within the nation, then the nation itself grows alongside them. This is a developmental strategy seeking, by any other name, to transform consciousness. It can viewed as transformatively developmental—promoting vertical growth in citizens—to the extent that through education, social support for basic survival and health needs, growing capacity for discernment and reflective judgment, etc., we can achieve a vertical transformation of citizens over time. It can also be viewed as horizontally developmental, to the extent that policies can promote and sustain the sense of safety, prosperity, and belonging amongst citizens but without necessarily requiring any transformative change on their part.

This is, of course, also tautologically somewhat trivial: if the people within the nation were themselves not getting more diverse, then we wouldn’t have this as an evolutionary dilemma to begin with. It is because we have a growing diversity of people and viewpoints, and many who do not want to grow or change their own views to accommodate new diversity, that we’re in this spot to begin with. But this solution highlights the fact that either of the two national solutions also requires, naturally, transformation of individual mindsets: people either have to come to accept an expanding of the national container, or a hardening of it. Indeed, this is the heart of the matter. This strategy, when applied in a sophisticated way, leans heavily on values and mindsets of Orange, Green and Teal.

Solution four is that citizens themselves get harder and stronger. This fortify individualism strategy recognizes that amidst fragmentation of a social holon and the growing legitimacy problem, not to mention economic and social discord, that every person has to be capable of defending themselves against the breakdown. This strategy sees that the ultimate source of survival is an individual one, and largely explains why the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms feels like an existential cause: it is the very foundation of this strategy, protection against both the anomie-threat of national diversification and the alienating-threat of individual diversification. This strategy leans heavily on values and mindsets of Red, Amber and Orange.

Lens 4 Solutions: Quadrants

It is easy to see how the four strategies generally fit within and can be viewed through the four quadrivia. Each of these strategies also have an exemplifying set of value movements or policy preferences that their political loyalists tend to rally behind, which I mention in each quadrant: just click on the quadrant to expand it. (This doesn’t imply, obviously, quadrant reductionism, simply another Lens that can help us map and understand the tensions involved.)

Lens 4 Solutions: Polarity

We can also view the above strategies as spectra, with two different poles holding the ends of a natural, never-ending polarity in human life with respect to how progressives and conservatives tend to enact their political preferences. In light of our legitimation problem, immediately we can see there’s a holonic GROW (transcend) vs HARDEN (include/preserve) polarity involved:

I could go on, and as I said at the outset these kinds of analyses can go down a rabbit hole pretty fast. I don’t find that limiting, but rather liberating to the kinds of questions and strategies we might be interested in exploring more. This article employs some lenses applied in new ways so that we can fine tune our minds as we consider what better, more integral solutions we should be pursuing. In short, if you ask me my political preferences, I’d say all of them, united in common cause to move from pluribus unum through pluribus diversitas to unitas multiplex, which I believe is the mandate of Teal and will produce its own, new power to integrate as we enter the Transformation Age. Indeed, that is the very set of developmental muscles we as a society are building, and none too soon.

In closing, I hope this brief tour of several new lenses helps you better envision and understand the complex set of forces and dynamics we currently navigate. As I love to say, reality is never wrong, and we’re here for a reason. If we can better understand why, we have a much better chance of understanding what’s required to move us through the generative, transformative processes required to meet the Transformation Age in its full potential.

Robb Smith

About Robb Smith

Robb Smith is a leading thinker on the Transformation Age and the global Integral movement. He is the creator of the augmented leadership platform Context, co-founder and CEO of Integral Life and founder of the Institute of Applied Metatheory.