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by Karen Eilene SAENZ


The following definitional statement represents a first attempt at synthesizing certain electronic discussions between postconpol list members during the spring of 2001. These discussions centered on defining "politics" and "integral politics" for purposes of drawing boundaries for focused discussion and collective creativity between and among group members, initially, with the expectation that these more intimate discussions will move into the mainstream at some point in the future.

Though I was not a member of the list at that time, in compiling this synthesis I found myself participating in the discussions after-the-fact. I have therefore added some of my own thoughts as well as some of the insights born out of recent list discussions. These, of course, are open to further discussion, and it is my expectation that the dialogue, the debates and the definitional project will continue to evolve. This is a work-in-progress.

I have kept jargon to a minimum, so that this statement is intelligible to those not familiar with the works of Ken Wilber or Beck and Cowan. I have also intentionally kept this statement short, envisioning future functional uses and dialogues. Additionally, I have chosen to structure this statement as a mini-grammar, focusing first on the adjective "integral;" then on the noun "politics;" and finally on verb constructs (e.g., what does integral politics "do"), in keeping with list members' wishes to emphasize the practical and action-oriented (not just theoretical) dimensions of this particular domain of social life.


I start with a short discussion of what "integral" means to list members, since there was clearly greater consensus on this definition than on any of the other terms discussed last spring.

Drawing upon and extending the works of Ken Wilber and on the Spiral Dynamics of Beck and Cowan, list members define "integral" in relationship to "holons," where a holon refers to a group of parts (or structures) that interact according to some kind of process and that behave as a whole in response to stimuli on any of the parts. In particular, "integral" is a a recognition that all holons have multiple aspects, including (but not limited to) interior, exterior, individual and collective ones. (There are other ways of demarcating these different aspects, including labeling them as material, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, etc.) Further, "integral" implies concomitant attention to these multiple aspects, for the fullest possible perspective on a given subject. This fullest possible perspective has come to be called by list members a "metaparadigmatical perspective," implying that an integral perspective is one that stands outside of any one particular part; rather, such a perspective overarches many parts and can therefore see their interrelationships. At the same time, it is recognized that there is not ONE singular metaparadigmatical perspective that stands outside of all holons, though this is not necessarily ruled out, either. An integral perspective, then, is not a singular perspective but a plurality of perspectives; not a single tool, but rather a whole toolkit; not a one-size-fits-all prescription ("content") but rather a recognition that context is variable and consequently necessitates attention to "processes." In other words, an "integral X" is not a type of X, it is an approach to X.

Another key aspect to the postconpol list's definition of "integral" is the notion of "health" and "development." This relates to a fundamental assumption that all holons are subject to "growth," and that there are more and less healthy ways to develop. Hence, there is a strong evolutionary bias built into notions of "integral" that essentially implies a motive to seek improvement.[1]

Finally, since the "health" of any holon, particularly social holons, is recognized to always be in relation to other holons, "integral" implies an understanding of the intersubjective nature of things. In other words, since no X exists in isolation, it is fruitless to talk about the health of X as a property outside of relationship. It is perhaps more precise to speak of "sets of Xs" and the "health" that obtains between members of the set, or the "health" of the relationship between Xs. All of this, of course, implies that there is some communication at foundation.

In summary, "integral" currently encapsulates the following adjectives: inclusive; multi-dimensional; metaparadigmatical; developmental; evolutionary; improvement-seeking; pluralistic; processual; inter-relational; communicational-dialogical.


In defining "politics," list members were extremely sensitive to issues of scale and applicability. Discussants recognized, for example, that popular Western usages of "politics" include narrow delimitations on a particular institutional form of public governance of the state as well as power relationships in the interpersonal dimension (e.g., "the personal is political," "office politics," etc.). Ultimately, list members decided in favor of a broadly defined statement that would include all levels from interpersonal to international.

Discussants made explicit two components of "politics," broadly defined: "power" and "relationship". Politics is a domain of social life that implies relationship between two or more parties. Following from the preceding discussion, an integral understanding of this relationship is predicated on an understanding that parties do not objectify one another. On this point there was unanimity.

An integral understanding of power, however, required more discussion. In European Enlightenment philosophical discourse, "power" was historically defined as the ability to compel others to do one's bidding, especially through the use of physical coercion. Power of the state, in particular, legitimates the use of physical coercion. Over the centuries, then, Western notions of power have built into them a vertical and coercive dimension that is also associated with state governmental institutions. Not surprisingly, there was some sensitivity among list members regarding the use of the term "power" in a broad definition of "politics." Objections were three-fold: that Western definitions of "power" have strong negative (and specific) connotations; that Eastern notions of power are not represented; and that Western and Eastern notions of "power" concern the sociopolitical unit of the state and therefore are not inclusive of smaller-scale sociopolitical systems, including families, bands, tribes, etc.

List members decided to retain an explicit focus on "power" as central to definitions of "politics," in part due to the long-standing centrality of the concept in the Western social sciences and humanities. In particular, Western philosophy, sociology, political science and anthropology all theorize power.

However, to counter-act the negative/coercive assumptions of historical Western power concepts, Eastern power typologies were introduced into the discussion. In particular, the work of Indian political philosopher P.R. Sarkar was introduced to expand the narrow focus of Western historical power concepts from merely political (coercive) power. Sarkar has a global perspective that recognizes four types of power, based very loosely on the four principal varnas in the Hindu caste system: warrior power (national militaries and police); intellectual power (universities and their religious counterparts of mosques, temples, churches); merchant power (marketplaces, corporations); and the power of the underclass (women, nature, children, the aged, the disabled). Further, according to Sarkar, these four powers are situated at the level of the state, but also obtain within states and also between states.

Sarkar's work clearly points the way to disembedding notions of political power from Western philosophical discourses. Though his Eastern-derived typology does recognize interrelationships between entities of different scale, his principal unit of analysis is still the state. To further disembed notions of "power" from Eastern and Western states, an anthropological definition of "power" was also suggested, where "power" is defined as a generalized capacity to transform a people's beliefs and behaviours. This definition implicitly recognizes a continuum -- with subtle influence on one end of the spectrum, overt physical coercion on the other, and various persuasive mechanisms in between. Power thus defined, then, is a commodity that can be used toward many social ends, including political ends. Further, this definition of power can be applied to all social units of analysis, including the ones mentioned previously and also by Sarkar (e.g., families, bands, tribes, corporations, universities, churches, etc.)

Having broadened the definition of "power" (which, one will note, also implicates "relationship"), it is now possible to broadly define "politics:"

"Politics" concerns the ways in which power relations (particularly unequal ones) affect human social life. Though this relational definition can be applied at all levels, from interpersonal to international, the political dimension of human social life can be delimited further from other dimensions (such as kinship and economics, to the extent that it is possible to separate these out) by specific reference to the regulation of public affairs, and particularly public decision-making, that is binding upon members of a particular collectivity to ensure the smooth social functioning of that collectivity as a whole. As such, political interests and issues include (but are not limited to): individual and corporate statuses and status frameworks that regulate public affairs; procedures of inclusion into and exclusion from these statuses and status frameworks; public decision-making; public acceptance (or rejection) of public decisions; social control and social cohesion; social norms (including laws); authority (including leadership); political socialization, enculturation and formal education; ethics and morals; conflict and dispute-resolution.

This definition recognizes that politics is a domain of human social life that is inherently conflictual, since it brings into relationship entities with differential access to power (as broadly defined above). This is an important point, for it underscores the need to explicitly recognize the inter-relational and communicative requirements of politics when one adds the adjective "integral" to this noun.

Which leads me to discuss...


To approach politics in an integral manner is to recognize that politics is about action and process. This was partly recognized in list member discussions concerning different aspects of politics, including a specific distinction between political theory, ideology, and philosophy on the one hand, and practical and applied politics on the other. List members also articulated an understanding of inter-relationships between theory and practice, as well.

In keeping with a definition of "integral" that is more about plural processes than it is about singular content, it is consistent that list members were less likely to articulate what AN integral politic (singular) is and more likely to articulate what integral political approaches (plural) might do.

Specifically, integral approaches to politics are seen to foster in individuals and in collectivities an appreciation for...

- the conflictual nature of politics itself, and the resulting challenges to communication and relationship;
- the need for a respectful dialogical process that does not objectify any party; 
- the multiple co-existing contexts in which a given political relationship is embedded;
- any perspectives that are outside of (arching over) these multiple co-existing contexts; and
- the health and well-being of parts in relation to other parts and also in relation to wholes.

Integral politics, like any other integral X, is ultimately about simultaneously holding in mind individuals, environments, societies, cultures, worlds, and the cosmos, while also being able to see interrelationships between these co-existing units. When public decisions are made from this metasystemic perspective, integral political theories will be manifest in political action.


[1] This notion of "health" as it relates to "integral" is currently under discussion on the postconpol list, so this aspect of the definition may be refined or even rewritten in the future. Here I add my own insights from anthropology:

I would like to say that this notion of an ever-improved-upon health as it currently stands seems very Western to me (where by Western I refer to the megacivilization that includes a religious basis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and a political basis in ancient Greece and Roman, in contrast to the Eastern megacivilization that incorporates the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism). Notions of "health" are intimately tied conceptually to cultural notions of "time," which are in turn very much informed (in part) by beliefs about the "cosmos." All of this informs "worldview," and in gross generalizations about the Eastern versus Western megacivilizations, there are some fundamental differences which are not accounted for in the current conceptualization of "health."

For example, Eastern civilizations have much greater (pre)historic time-depth than do Western civilizations. Not uncoincidentally, the notions of time in these two megacivilizations have corresponding differences of scale. Also, Western cosmologies see the life of a single individual as ending in a nonmaterial afterlife, not in a return to the material world, so development is seen to be tied to a single life-time. Eastern cosmologies, on the other hand, which have the concept of transmigration of the soul, see development occurring over many lifetimes, so development occurs, but over longer periods of time. Consequently, Western notions of time are seen to be much more linear in the shorter-term, while Eastern notions emphasize cycles of birth-death-rebirth in the short-term and simultaneously linear in the longer-term. (And some non-western-and-non-eastern religions have non-linear and non-cyclical notions of time, or even very weakly conceptualized notions of time, all of which further complicate the matter.) These have direct implications for how "health" is differentially conceived in these two megacivilizational complexes -- differences that are not sufficiently accounted for in the current integral notion of "health."

Another important distinction between these two megacivilizational complexes is fundamental differences in ontogenetic explanations, or explanations of the development of an individual organism (as contrasted with phylogeny, which seeks to explain the development of groups): The West uses recently-derived empirical scientistic explanations, while the East uses explanations of cause-and-effect that predate the rise of science in the West by thousands of years. This, too, factors into the mix.

Suffice to say that this notion of "integral health" is presently predicated more on Western notions than on Eastern ones, and not at all on non-Western non-Eastern notions. Further discussion seems warranted.

Text 11 Dec 2001 - Page posted 28 Sep 2002 - Emphasis by KR