Is the World Suffering from a Case of “Arrested Development?

Dr. Bob Flax, President of the Democratic World Federalist in San Francisco

by Bob Flax, Ph.D.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals frequently use developmental models to help explain the causes of psychopathology; I find such models to offer a useful analogue to the developmental problems faced by humanity as a whole, which in many respects is also pathological. The idea goes something like this: From cradle to grave, we all go through stages as we grow and mature. If we get our basic needs met along the way, we move to the next stage and grow into healthy, thriving adults. But if we get “stuck” at a certain stage, as a result of issues such as trauma, we become symptomatic, and may develop any one of a host of “mental illnesses.”

Many theorists incorporated this notion into their work. Perhaps the most well known is Sigmund Freud, whose psychosexual model of development postulated that we move though a series of stages he called the oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Getting stuck at any stage would lead to pathological symptoms. Modifying Freud’s view, Erik Erickson created a psychosocial model that described eight psychosocial crises that we must navigate throughout the life span. Again, not advancing successfully through these crises leads to psychological difficulties.

Family therapists have come up with a developmental model as well, called The Family Life Cycle. According to that model, we begin as unattached, young adults. This leads to joining through marriage, a family with young children, a family with adolescents, launching the children and moving on, and finally, the family in later life. The idea here is parallel to the individual models; if the family gets stuck at a particular stage, as in the case of a parent being unable to let go and allow his/her child to move out of the house and begin his/her adult life, the entire family may become dysfunctional.

Organizational theorists have created developmental models as well. From new start-up through organizational maturity to bureaucracy and eventually organizational death, these stages have been articulated, along with the “systems pathology” that can erupt at each stage.

Might we be seeing the same phenomena on an international level? Might today’s wars, climate change, global economic calamities, and social injustice be asymptom of a global developmental arrest? Just like an individual, family or organization, humanity itself has gone through a number of “developmental stages.” Starting out as hunter-gatherers, we organized ourselves in clans and tribes. With the advent of agriculture, we moved into villages. This led to towns, cities, and eventually empires. Historians credit the Treaty of Westphalia, which in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, as the beginning of our modern nation-state system. Although globalization has slowly been eroding the notion of absolute sovereignty, we’ve been operating under an international political system that was conceived of 367 years ago. Perhaps we are clinging to something outdated . . . and paying the price. It seems clear that our greatest challenges cannot be solved by any nation or any group of nations. We all have to pull together as a planet. But the institutions and system of treaties we’ve created at this stage of global development come up inadequate. A global, democratic, federal union of nations might be just the step needed to resolve these issues and bring humanity into its next stage of development.

NOTE: The Democratic World Federalists are committed to expressing a wide range of views on the vision of creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable world through a democratic World Federation. The views expressed in this article represents that commitment and not necessarily our official position.

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