Imagining a world beyond consumerism(3)

In part one we examined the extraordinary tenacity of consumerism despite the evidence against it, and in part two we alighted on the idea that in order to go ‘beyond consumerism’ it might be necessary to improve what German Philosopher Metzinger calls “the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”.

What does that mean, and how do we do it? The first question is our focus here, and the second is for the final post in this series.

But before plunging in, let’s keep the promise in mind —we are looking for a much more penetrating understanding and engagement with the major challenges of our time, not least climate change — this applies both in terms of greater capacity of those working on the problem, and richer diagnosis of the human dimensions of the problem.

We also need to begin by understanding that this idea of pro-active human development feels uncomfortable or subversive to many, and simply obtuse to others. For starters it sounds like a truism: if people were better, the world would be better! And yet the thing about truisms is that they tend to be…true. What is more interesting is when something is clearly true but politically neglected because it doesn’t seem like normal practice.

Again, we need to think at the level of the imaginary to make sense of perplexing attitudes and actions, in this case why we don’t think developing human beings in a systematic way is a legitimate political issue beyond childhood.

As Charles Taylor puts it in Modern Social Imaginaries(Public Culture 14(1): 91–124, 2002): The social imaginary is “a wider grasp of our whole predicament”. Also, it is “not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables through making sense of, the practices of society.” Taylor goes on to write about ‘the moral order’ or ‘moral background’ of a society which has changed through secularisation:

“Humans have lived for most of their history in modes of complementarity, mixed with a greater and lesser degree of hierarchy. There have been islands of equality, like that of the citizens of the polis, but they are set in a sea of hierarchy once you replace them with the bigger picture…What is rather surprising is that it was possible to achieve modern individualism — not just on the level of theory, but also transforming and penetrating the social imaginary…”

Taylor traces the source of default individualism in the west to reformed Christianity, particularly the rejection of ‘higher vocations’ (eg the monastic life) and the notion that if everybody is 100% Christian regardless of vocation the normal lives of the vast majority are as hallowed as any other. He adds, tellingly: “Indeed, it is more sanctified than monastic celibacy, which is based on the vain and prideful claim to have found a higher way.”

Taylor argues that this is the basis for subsequent democratisation and the sanctification of ordinary life, and also the anti-elitist thrust of modern civilisation:

“The mighty are cast down from their seats, and the humble and meek are exalted. Both these facets have been formative of modern civilization. The first is indicated by the central place given to the economic in our lives and the tremendous importance we put on family life or “relationships”. The second underlies the fundamental importance of equality in our social and political lives.”

Taylor also pinpoints how ‘society’ became ‘economy’ which began its life being contrasted with “the wild destructiveness of the aristocratic search for military glory”.

“Instead of being merely the management, by those in authority, of the resources we collectively need, in household or state, the economic now defines a way in which we are all linked together, a sphere of coexistence that could in principle suffice to itself, if only disorder and conflict didn’t threaten. Conceiving of the economy as a system is an achievement of eighteenth century theorists but coming to see the most important purpose and agenda of society as economic collaboration and exchange is a drift in our social imaginary, which begins in that period and continues to this day. From that point on, organised society is no longer equivalent to the polity; other dimensions of social existence are seen as having their own forms and integrity. The very shift in this period of the meaning of the term civil society reflects this.”

Taylor’s thinking about imaginaries is vital context to show why the development of our inner worlds as a political project feels obtuse for those who are used to thinking in terms of systems and structures of society like economy and democracy, rather than the unfolding of the psyche over time, which has religious undertones.

For the academically minded the idea of ‘making people better’ sounds like a questionable value judgment but also a little too close to ‘personal development’ and ‘coaching’. Neither are harmful in themselves, but they evoke wariness because products and services can be sold through theories of ‘better selves’ mis-sold as science. For sociologists and critical theorists the idea evokes incredulity because it sounds like it’s about the individual detached from social structure, while also being paternalistic and therefore a prospective abuse of power. And for politicians it is a slightly toxic and elitist idea because emphasising different levels of human development means the relatively ‘well developed’ have to be considered in some questionable sense superior to others.

I share these reservations now because there is a certain cliquishness among theorists of human development, many of whom are trained as philosophers, psychologists or psychotherapists or work in leadership or management studies. I have noticed that when I introduce some of the ideas below to socially, economically and politically minded audiences it is really hard work to make sense of what I am saying at all, never mind why it should matter to them.

This lack of receptivity to human development is a huge challenge. And it’s not just a conceptual challenge, but part of the constraints of our current imaginary. It’s also a central part of the challenge of seeing beyond consumerism because it offers a viable way out — if only we could see it! Properly understood, human growth is much more sustainable than economic growth, and far more deeply rewarding. It is part of the normative vision of the good life that we need to redirect our systems and structures.

The quick answer is to say to such people: ‘please invest some time trying to understand human development, and then we’ll talk’. But why should they? There are so many things to read and think. I have no simple or immediate answers here, but we need to make the ideas more vivid and compelling. This lack of cultural and political receptivity to human development is a real and live issue for my organisation, Perspectiva, and we will soon be starting a project on making human development clearer, more accessible and more relevant.


What, then, does it mean for human beings to grow?

The first challenge is that ‘grow’ alludes to, inter-alia, improve, transform, deepen, learn, unlearn, evolve, develop, expand, attach, detach, mature, cultivate, integrate. Physical growth is easy enough to measure, but as this plethora of growth-related terms suggest, it’s not so clear what exactly the relevant variable and/or active ingredient is when it comes to human beings getting ‘better’. Worse still, many theories lack a broader vision of the good life against which to test their model with analytical rigour.

Variables include the type of development; emotional, cognitive, volitional, moral, virtue, and possibly even spiritual development. And in each case there are competing theories, with different kinds of ontological and epistemological assumptions, and only partially commensurate evidence bases. Then there is the unit of analysis question; is it the ego, the person, the self, the mind, the soul? Finally there is the scope. Some theories are domain specific, applying for instance to leadership or teaching or relationships, and some are domain general. Borrowing from Marx and Engels, you might say the problem with human development praxis is that it doesn’t have class consciousness. It is a field ‘in itself’ but not yet ‘for itself’.

My own favourite theory is Robert Kegan’s, which is outlined as follows in an excellent Summary document by JG Berger:

“Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development (1982 — The Evolving Self; 1994 — In Over our Heads) examines and describes the way humans grow and change over the course of their lives. This is a constructive-developmental theory because it is concerned both with the construction of an individual’s understanding of reality and with the development of that construction to more complex levels over time. Kegan proposes five distinct stages — or “orders of mind” — through which people may develop. His theory is based on his ideas of “transformation” to qualitatively different stages of meaning making. Kegan explains that transformation is different than learning new information or skills. New information may add to the things a person knows, but transformation changes the way he or she knows those things. Transformation, according to Kegan, is about changing the very form of the meaning-making system — making it more complex, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty. Transformation occurs when someone is newly able to step back and reflect on something and make decisions about it. For Kegan (1994), transformative learning happens when someone changes, “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows — not just what he knows but the way he knows” (p. 17).

I admire Kegan’s model because it is distinctive and capacious enough to relate to the myriad of variables that make the field so messy; in this sense it is a theory that walks its own talk. I got to know Kegan’s theory well when I took his celebrated Adult Development class as a masters student at Harvard in 2003. I kept up with his work and was honoured to chair an RSA event with him just over a decade later.

So I am clearly biased, but here is the pitch anyway: Kegan’s theory is philosophically and psycho-dynamically rich. It is informed by related theories (Erikson, Rogers, Kohlberg, Loevinger, Gilligan, Torbert) and by Kegan’s training in humanities and as a therapist, and it is vividly illustrated through literature and popular culture. However, at heart it is fundamentally a deepening, refining and extending of Piaget’s groundbreaking work in genetic epistemology. That theory has naturalistic roots in open systems biology and ultimately amounts to a theory of the nature and evolution of consciousness. Kegan’s theory also has a clear active ingredient, which is meaning-making — the domain general ‘thing’ that evolves. It has a profound explanatory mechanism for development in the form of ‘the subject-object relationship’. It offers a considered account of social and cultural influences on the psyche (hidden curriculums). It has an established empirical methodology (the subject-object interview) and some clear practical applications (eg immunity to change exercises). It is no accident that the American integral philosopher Ken Wilber who has expertise in psychological modelling says, approvingly: “With Kegan, you become a ditto-head” (The Eye of Spirit 2001, p216). Further details for my appreciation for this model are detailed in the Perspectiva post: The Unrecognised genius of Jean Piaget.

However, while Kegan’s model coheres beautifully at a theoretical level it does have some limitations. His preferred methodological approach — The Subject-Object Interview — is well suited to the complexity of meaning-making — it involves probing for structure in people’s interpretations of lived experience, figuring out what they are ‘subject to’ and what they can ‘take as object’. It takes about 90 minutes and leads to a transcript that has to be carefully coded and then checked for inter-rater reliability with trained coders. So not only is it an interview and therefore a particular kind of contrived situation and performative context, but it is also impractical to scale and expensive to administer. Perhaps for this reason, there is limited empirical evidence for the model’s validity, which amounts to two smallish samples (342 in 1994; 497 in 1987) of a particular cohort (middle-class college educated professionals). Those studies give some idea of how the population breaks down in terms of their meaning-making capacity, but we can’t really infer anything from it in political or policy terms. I believe we need a well designed meta-study that connected the interview to a simpler device from a less comprehensive but commensurate theory (for instance the Washington Sentence Completion Task) with a high degree of confidence, and then you can speak with greater confidence about whole populations. Anybody willing to fund such an endeavour would be doing the world a huge favour!

Kegan also conflates age and experience in a way that I, as one of his biggest fans, find embarrassing. For instance he suggests that only those in late middle age and above even have the possibility of reaching his highest levels of development, which feels approximately right, but analytically wrong. Aldoux Huxley writes that experience is ‘not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you’ which sounds like the kind of experience that matters in this context, and is only loosely related to age. A related limitation of Kegan’s model is the lack of emphasis on how human development is experienced phenomenologically and what might motivate us to pro-actively complexify our consciousness.


Renowned social psychologist Mihaly (‘flow’) Csikszentmihalyi co-authored an extended book chapter with Kevin Rathunde in 2014 called The Development of the Person: An Experiential Perspective on the Ontogenesis of Psychological Complexity. This essay begins by reflecting on what it means to be a person, and argues that psychological complexity is ‘the central dimension’ to personhood, and that this complexity evolves over the life cycle. The argument is structured by asking what it means to live well and age well and what kind of person we would like to be in our latter years. It then works backwards towards the kinds of opportunities, challenges and experiences we might need to become that kind of person. What this paper adds to Kegan is a particular kind of intrinsic value that lies at the heart of human development, namely the experience of ‘flow’ — deeply rewarding absorption in a task where our skill level and challenge level are well matched.

The claim is quite striking in its simplicity. We are propelled towards the complexification of consciousness by the pursuit of flow experiences. If we have too much skill for the challenge we get bored; too little we get anxious. The ideal world, on this account, is one where we are spend a significant amount of time on the cutting edge of our own competence — that’s where we’ll find flow, intrinsic meaning and complexification of consciousness. The social and political challenge becomes how to create such a world.

The Listening Society, the first book by Hanzi Freinacht of the Nordic political and philosophical thinktank, Metamoderna rises to almost exactly that challenge. The book will become available within a few months and deserves a thorough review elsewhere. I mention it here because while Hanzi doesn’t emphasise flow as such, he does an excellent job of critiquing the tendency of existing models to mash together lots of distinct phenomena. He also develops Csikzsentmihaly and Rathunde’s critique of Kegan by emphasising the cultivation of positive subjective states as well as dispositional traits.

Metamoderna positions human development as the central theme in their political philosophy and in their positioning as leaders of ‘The Alt-Left’. Their political premise is that one ‘meta ideology’ has won the battle for how to structure societies for the time being, and they call this ‘Green Social Liberalism’ — basically the generic Nordic model where “the games of everyday life become milder, more sensitive, fair and forgiving.” They point to the pragmatic case for the resolute acceptance of the market economy and equally resolute acceptance of the welfare state, gradual adaptation to globalisation, roughly 50/50 breakdown of public and private sector, basic liberal values and ecological awareness.

Metamoderna then point out that even though this is currently the best we can do in terms of balancing political interests, it is still very far from ideal, and inadequate to the ecological, social and existential crises we face. They then propose ‘‘Green Social Liberalism 2.0’ which is ‘an extremely social, extremely libertarian and extremely green society’ — that means a welfare system that is expressly designed to meet the psychological, social and emotional aspects of human beings. Their model of human development is therefore constitutional in a manner of speaking and takes over 200 pages to delineate because it’s their premise for an enlightened social policy.

Hanzi helpfully distinguishes between four main features of human development, alighting on the confluence of cognitive stage (based on the theory of hierarchical complexity of Michael Commons), cultural code (eg modern, postmodern), subjective state (how happy/sad) and depth (range of experience of subjective states) and then suggests we could ‘score’ people on their ‘effective value meme’ which combines each of these.

This demarcation of stage, code, state and depth is very useful but it also begs a lot of questions. Although these four cover most of what matters, they feel a bit random, and don’t emerge from a background theory of human cognition or evolution or morality. I also have qualms about commensurability. Clearly each of these phenomena has a different ontology. That’s only a problem because it’s hard to imagine a methodology that would give a credible ‘score’ that would be empirically valid and socially acceptable. And that’s a problem because it would mean the psychological premise for social policy has not yet been established in sufficient detail.

I will say more about Metamoderna in due course, but it is encouraging and inspiring to see a systematic attempt to connect a detailed account of human flourishing with the outline of a policy platform. This is precisely kind of connection between inner world and outer world that I want Perspectiva to speak to, but we will have different philosophical premises and political conclusions. In the final post, I will try to outline what these theories of human development mean for the diagnosis of our current predicament, and the social and economic infrastructure of a post-consumerist society.

@Jonathan_Rowson is Director of Perspectiva.

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