“Total Liberation” The Union of Spirituality and Critical Social Theory

Glen T. Martin

October 2022 http://www.oneworldrenaissance.com

There is an overwhelming consensus today that human beings are creatures who can develop toward ever greater levels of maturity. They can actualize their potential along multiple developmental lines such as cognitive, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, aesthetic, or moral. Scholars have identified multiple developmental stages along each of these lines, the simplest of which may be the four-stage model from egoistic to ethnocentric to worldcentric to cosmocentric and integral (cf. Wilber 2007).

Spiritual development can be seen as one line of developmental capacity that human beings need to actualize (as it is, for example, in the work of James Fowler, 1981). The term “spiritual” can also be used to characterize the higher levels in all these developmental lines. In other words, people who are more emotionally mature, morally mature, or aesthetically mature are often said to be more “spiritual.”  Those at egocentric and ethnocentric levels are often intensely religious, but in mythic, fundamentalist, and anthropomorphic ways that have been transcended at higher levels of spiritual realization.

In this paper I want to broadly associate spiritual maturity with those who have progressed to worldcentric and cosmocentric levels of awareness as well as recognize a developmental line for spirituality itself. If there is such a separate developmental line, it is clear nevertheless that the multiple lines (such as aesthetic, moral, interpersonal, etc.) mingle and “bleed” into one another. With the possible exception of the “cognitive” line of development (in which there are some very smart people who are barbarians morally and spiritually), its development would naturally affect the whole of a person’s growth.

Spiritual maturity, therefore, means those who have substantially grown away from immature egoism and ethnocentrism and begun to enter transpersonal stages of development in which their awareness begins to embrace all human beings (with compassion and understanding—karuna in Buddhism, agape in Christianity).  For such people our common humanity (that Karl Marx called our species-being) becomes more important than egoistic or ethnocentric self-gratification and self-indulgence. Along with cognitive intelligence, and moral intelligence, human beings have a spiritual intelligence that needs to be embraced and developed.

Whether or not a person practices a certain religion or spiritual path (like Zen meditation), if that person is mature enough to compassionately embrace all of humanity, then I call that person spiritually advanced, having grown into a deeper awareness of what is truly more real and more universal than the egoism and bourgeois self-indulgence that characterizes most people today. In my recent book The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet, I characterize these four levels of development in the following way:

Egocentric—I live to satisfy myself with pleasure, money, security, or power (love of self). Ethnocentric—I live as a member of my country, my church, or my community (love of community). Worldcentric—I live as a self-aware expression of humanity (love of humanity). Cosmocentric—I live as a self-aware expression of the cosmic intelligence (transpersonal and unconditional love) (2021, 16). At the higher levels we become aware of the whole, the ground of Being that embraces us, and through which we encounter intimations signaling who and what we are as human beings.

Beginning primarily at the worldcentric level, we become concerned about human liberation. How do we create a world of justice, freedom, dignity, and prosperity for everyone on Earth, not just for “my own” family, or nation, or social class?  The imperative that many people feel to pursue their own growth toward ever-greater maturity is also an imperative to create optimum conditions for human liberation for all humanity.

The concept of “human liberation” itself is highly contested and embodies an overlapping family of meanings. Many religious and spiritual traditions connect human liberation with a demand for metanoia, for a transformation of our human being-in-the-world through awakening to and identification with the sacred ground of Being. From this awakening, they say, comes the compassion and love necessary to establish world-systems that fully support human freedom and dignity.

I believe there is substantial truth in this. However, one meets (or reads) many people who appear awakened to the sacred ground who, at the same time, espouse economic and political ideas that are plainly regressive or oppressive. To follow a spiritual path through meditation and mindfulness may lead to a certain transpersonal life-wisdom. But it will not necessarily lead to political, economic, and social wisdom about the systems by which life on Earth is organized.

Indeed, one of the great discoveries of the 20th century comes through the work of Sigmund Freud and modern psychology, as well as the work of such “masters of suspicion” as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Both healthy human development and social-civilizational development are much more complicated and difficult than earlier thinkers or spiritual teachers had imagined.  There is a “dark side” or “shadow side” to ourselves in which we repress thoughts and feelings that disturb us and tend to project them externally onto the world outside us.

Our hate and fear of “the other,” the enemy, the alien, the stranger, often reflects our own inner contradictions and repressions and not some external reality. All of us have known people who claim to be following spiritual paths toward human liberation yet project their self-repressions onto what they take to be “outrageous” in the external world. Philosopher and psychologist, Erich Fromm, for example, raised these issues in Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. Fromm states that our “alienation has reached the point where it borders on insanity in the whole industrialized world.” Marx understood, he says, that our “contemporary idolatry…can be changed only by a complete change of the economic-social constellation together with the spiritual liberation of man” (1962, 59)

Traditional spiritual paths such as Zen meditation are not equipped to deal with these psycho-dynamics. People with nuclear weapons in Washington, DC, hate and fear “Russians,” projecting their own inner repressions onto some imagined implacable enemy. Or, as the new President of Columbia, Gustavo Petro, insisted in his September 20th UN speech, the US authorities conducting the “war on drugs” in his country by killing people and poisoning the jungle are projecting their own unhappiness and internal failures of their society onto some imagined enemy. Similarly, people with nuclear weapons in New Delhi hate and fear “Pakistanis,” rather than dealing with their own immense internal problems (like millions of Indian children enslaved within bonded labor). Psycho-social repression applies to nation-states as well as persons.

To think about the optimum conditions for growth and sell-realization for all humanity means that one must delve into the psychodynamics of growth, and the multiple “hidden conditions,” the “shadow side” of societies and world systems not found in the news, conditions that remain “unthought” by most people. What is hidden from most people includes the “framework conditions,” behind the scenes, that most ignore because they are unseen, not only psychologically, but because, like the air we breathe, the most general structural frameworks remain invisible.

We need to bring into consciousness not only our psycho-social repressions, but also the structures of world-systems, global institutions, and the multitude of world-order problems being addressed today by numerous thinkers, scholars, and reformers. Do hidden assumptions behind these systems enhance or block human liberation? How can we create a world order that truly encourages human growth, fulfillment, and flourishing? There is an “enlightenment” connected with this dimension of our humanity just as there is an “enlightenment” connected with following a spiritual path.

Immanuel Kant’s famous 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” contributed to a tradition of critical social-economic-political thought that blossomed with the 19th century work of Karl Marx and continued through 20th century thinkers like Max Weber, Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, Mahatma Gandhi, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, and Jürgen Habermas.  Kant’s essay observed that enlightenment meant the capacity of a person to think and act autonomously. And subsequent thinkers in this tradition tend to associate human liberation with social-economic-political arrangements that help produce self-directed, thoughtful, autonomous individuals capable of universal moral judgements who are strongly capable of living from their own conceptual frameworks and principles rather than being pawns of external movements, pervasive propaganda systems, or hidden internal repressions.

These centuries have also produced an awareness that social-economic-political structures condition human life and serve a major function in repressing human growth and potential. Marx concluded that economic relations under capitalism generated a “false consciousness” in people and that the dominant classes espoused an ideology that justified and covered up the real economic relations that obtained. Sigmund Freud studied the “false consciousness” of the human ego, projecting its unconscious repressions onto the external world. What, then, is enlightenment?  20th century philosopher John Hick links these spiritual- economic-psychological insights together, proclaiming “the powerful and explosive idea of total liberation—political and economic as well as spiritual” (2004, 306).

“Total liberation” means the union of spirituality and critical social theory. We must learn to penetrate the veil generated by those who dominate the present world-system, just as we must learn to penetrate the veil of an independent physical world, composed of substantial realities, that tends to be generated by the “naïve realism” of our minds in conjunction with everyday sense experience.  We must discover the social-economic-political-psychological transformations necessary to create a world of fully mature, flourishing, independently thinking, and compassionate human beings. And we must grow spiritually beyond egoism to transpersonal levels that also tend to generate independent, compassionate, and loving human beings.

Critical social theorists have been concerned not only with the framework of global capitalism and its implications for massive human poverty and systemic destruction of the environment. They have also speculated on the impact of the modern technological framework that pervades global society and the implications of these frameworks for imperialism, colonialism, and war. As Marcuse (1964) points out, these frameworks tend to demand instrumental forms of thinking and to stifle deeper theoretical forms of human reasoning and communication. Sheldon Wolin points out that the synthesis of the “war on terror” in the USA with the capitalist search for everything “exploitable” is leading toward “inverted totalitarianism” and the ultimate death of democracy (2008, xi and xix).

In Eros and Civilization (1962) Marcuse attempts to show that our civilizational dysfunction arises through “repressive de-sublimation,” in which a shallow consumer society indulges its permissive fantasies without ever getting to the root of our systemic unhappiness deriving from a deeply repressed psyche and social system. Habermas (1987) speaks of the “colonization of the lifeworld by system imperatives” resulting in persons who operate unconsciously from system imperatives rather than from mature democratic and communicative principles.

The world-system, in other words, enslaves human beings psychologically and spiritually, inhibiting growth toward the full maturity of enlightenment while simultaneously fostering war, imperialism, and environmental destruction. Human beings operate from unquestioned and unconscious technological, economic, political and psychological assumptions endemic in the repressive world system. They grow up within the system without ever clearly becoming aware of its nature and influences on their thought and well-being.

My own critical-social philosophical work since Millennium Dawn (2005) has emphasized the role of nation-state sovereignty within the repressive world system of wars, human immiseration, and environmental destruction. Many “progressive” thinkers at the planetary level mount a critique of capitalism and argue for a world system of equal, sovereign states that respect one another’s autonomy. They are deeply mistaken. As world-systems thinker Christopher Chase-Dunn expresses this: “The system of unequally powerful and competing nation-states is part of the competitive struggle of capitalism, and thus wars and geopolitics are a systematic part of capitalist dynamics, not exogenous forces” (1998, 61).

In what Chase-Dunn calls “the myth of the nation as a transcendent solidarity,” there are assumptions and consequences that block global democracy and a rationally informed world system. It is an illusion, he says, to think that nations are represented to one another by their respective peoples. Rather, it is the ruling classes that interact geopolitically with other ruling classes within a context of economic and power struggles. In addition, since citizens are citizens of just one country (rather than our planet), all are denied the collective rationality that might exist if we recognized all other persons as citizens of planet Earth equal to ourselves (1998, 36).

I argue that an adequate critical social theory must include awareness of the technological imperative as well as the social-political-economic imperatives embodied in the sovereign nation-state system interfaced with global capitalism. The “sovereign nation-state” is another “idolatry” that must be transcended through both system-change and spiritual growth. Awareness of these imperatives leads to study of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth as a master document designed to embody a new holistic paradigm that transcends both absolute national sovereignty and global capitalist commodification. The Earth Constitution recognizes the sovereignty of humanity and embodies features that construct a new global economics on the foundation of human well-being rather than competition for private profit.

It engenders a new human solidarity based on our self-identification as world citizens democratically participating with one another in governing our globe. It places the essential global resources (the global commons) under the authority of the Earth Federation, including the planetary atmosphere, the oceans, and the major rain forests of Earth. It creates a financial administration that uses a universal currency valued the same everywhere and directed to protecting the environment as well as the well-being of everyone rather than the private profit of the few.

It thereby not only represents growth of a higher, worldcentric, level of spiritual realization. It also lays the groundwork for rapid human spiritual growth beyond egoism and ethnocentrism to transpersonal levels. As John Hick points out: “The transcending of self-centeredness is severely inhibited by the need to fend off starvation, disease and oppression” (2004, 306). In our present world of social-economic-political chaos, of wars and desperation everywhere, of millions of climate refuges worldwide, spiritual and moral growth always comes last on the agenda for both the oppressors and the oppressed.

The Earth Constitution turns this around by superseding the old paradigm of global capitalism interlinked with sovereign nation-states. It is now potentially able, as it says in Article 13.12, to “assure each child the right to the full realization of his or her potential.” It unites humanity in democratic solidarity. The path to “total liberation” will clearly not be as easy as this scenario may appear to imply. Human psychodynamics reveal the horrific repressions and projections (onto an evil “other”) in the hands of those in control of nuclear weapons and automated armies the world over.

The human and world system psychodynamics of denial reveal the willing blindness of capitalists, national leaders, and citizens the world over to the facts of climate collapse and the possibility of human extinction through nuclear holocaust or climate destruction. As James Gustave Speth (2008) observes, people just don’t want to hear it. In Chapter 6 of The Earth Constitution Solution, I show the ways that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not achievable because they are addressed through the same set of assumptions that have caused the climate crisis in the first place.

The Earth Constitution provides an available tool for making the kind of changes that lay the groundwork for collective human action on behalf of human flourishing and future generations. It transforms the current dysfunctional and repressive world system into a democratic unity-in-diversity system that provides real hope and possibilities for human liberation. It establishes democratic world law, enforceable over all individuals, within the framework of the universal common good, to replace the present ruling chaos of multinational corporate power, global private banking cartels, and endless struggle among militarized sovereign nation-states.

Those who hide from global political struggles within some spiritual path are doing little service for the future of humanity. Where is their mahakaruna, their “great compassion” for the suffering of all humanity?  Those who believe that political-economic transformation alone will solve our most fundamental problems are similarly deluded. Where is their self-transcendence to truly transpersonal modes of thought and action? Ken Wilber, in a somewhat similar fashion, has spoken of our urgent need to unite “the Enlightenment of the East” with the “Enlightenment of the West” (1998, 211).

 Our cosmic imperative and cosmic destiny includes a deep resonance with the ground and source of Being, with Brahman, God, Allah, Tao, or Dharmakaya. Just as with cognitive and moral intelligence, we need to grow in our spiritual intelligence as well. A truly transpersonal love, an agape, intelligently applied through planetary democracy and a world parliament, can only come from harmony with our cosmic ground of Being. This form of intelligence is necessary for a fully redeemed and liberated humanity. It is this “rational love” that will help end poverty and oppression, just as much as it will help protect our planetary environment from further collapse.

We need a union of spirituality and critical social theory pointing toward “total liberation.” That union is potentially actualized within the Constitution for the Federation of Earth—which is predicated on the unity-in-diversity, the holism, necessary to both dimensions of the struggle for human liberation. The most important thing we can do at this juncture of human history is work for ratification of this Earth Constitution. It provides our chance for a jail-break out of chaotic history toward human liberation and integrated enlightenment.

Works Cited

Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World Economy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  Found online at www.earthconstitution.world and in print with the Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 2010 and 2014.

Fowler, James (1981). Stages of Faith. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Fromm, Erich (1962). Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Habermas, Jürgen (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume Two: Lifeworld and System. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hick, John (2004). And Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1962). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. New York: Vintage Books.

Marcuse, Herbert (1964). One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2005). Millennium Dawn: The Philosophy of Planetary Crisis and Human Liberation. Appomattox, Virginia: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.

Speth, James Gustav (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilber, Ken (1998). The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York: Broadway Books.

Wilber, Ken (2006). Integral Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala Press.

Wolin, Sheldon (2008). Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.