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Issue No. 70 (June 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics Confab:
Political evolution now!

For many years, political activists didn’t talk much about political or cultural “development” or “evolution.” It may be obvious to everyone else on the planet that certain people and cultures have evolved further than others; however, political correctness and postmodern non-judgmentalism have kept many activists from recognizing evolutionary differences.

That’s begun to change, though, for at least two reasons. 9/11 has made it imperative for us to understand why so many cultures (not least of all, our own) seem to be stuck in self-defeating old patterns. And certain radical middle evolutionary thinkers -- among them, Lawrence Harrison, Robert Kaplan, Jenny Wade, and Robert Wright -- have begun to impress scholars and activists alike with their well-reasoned arguments (see “Re:sources” section below).

Some social change groups are even beginning to spring up, now, around the idea of understanding and then hastening psychological, cultural, and political evolution.

When the most prominent of  them -- Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics Group -- invited me to speak at its annual “Confab and Global Gathering” last week at the Embassy Suites Outdoor World, a huge luxury hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, I jumped at the chance.

I’d get to meet Beck and nearly 50 other people from around the world who were doing politically relevant work from an evolutionary perspective.

And I’d get to return -- in style -- to the state where I’d been kicked out of a small state university 39 years before, for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. I hadn’t been back since, and my own personal evolution required that I return and make peace with the place.

Ballad of a Spiral king

On the plane to Dallas, I looked over some of the dozens of papers Beck had plied me with over the years (they literally weighed more than the rest of my baggage put together). What struck me most was how simply and clearly he manages to explain his complex insights, a skill he’d undoubtedly learned during three of his earlier careers: college teacher at North Texas State, prominent sports psychologist (used to be tight with the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys football teams), and sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

I don’t know about you, but it gives me confidence in an evolutionary thinker to know that -- at an earlier stage in life -- he was writing columns that began, “In case you haven't noticed, Billy Tubbs is now working his magic with the TCU Froggies, having transformed the ugly little toads into near-giants in the WAC basketball kingdom.”

Now in his late 60s, Beck ambled about the conference like a comfortable old lion, with a mane of white hair and an affinity for black attire. Not surprisingly, his musical hero is Johnny Cash (we were subjected to a couple of Johnny Cash songs at the conference), and there’s a certain quality of mystery and even subdued danger that follows Beck around just as it followed Cash around.

Partly that’s because Beck earned his political spurs in volatile South Africa. As he tells it, he quit North Texas State (where he’d won multiple teaching awards) to spend the next two decades flying to Johannesburg 63 times, consulting with businesses, government agencies, and political groups of every description and urging them to heed each other’s needs and fears. (Beck tells the tale in his book The Crucible: Forging South Africa’s Future, 1991, and the Texas legislature once commended him for his courage and service there.)

But partly that’s because -- well, this is a Texas operation, and Texas is full of mysterious backroom boys, and the real eminence grise at the conference was Beck’s buddy Clayton Smith, once President and now CEO of Smith Protective Services (formerly Smith Detective Agency and Nightwatch Service), oldest and largest privately owned security company in Texas.

Smith told me he’s now mostly interested in theology and cosmology. But don’t color him pastel.  If Beck was Johnny Cash at the conference, Smith was Jerry Lee Lewis -- the Jerry Lee of the 1950s -- almost insolently comfortable in his lean, angular body and black leather jacket which he wore even during some of the sessions.

These people are at home with power and they’re fixing to go somewhere: if you didn’t get that message from the conference then you don’t understand how politics works, or how life works. Never mind that the understanding sends a chill up your spine sometimes.

Walking the Spiral line

Some evolutionary schemes are virtually impossible to follow. Beck allows us to get a grip on his by color-coding them. According to Beck, individuals, movements, and cultures can go through as many as eight “stages of development” (or: will be dominated by one of eight “value-memes”), as follows:

First Tier

1. BEIGE -- automatic, instinctive, “I survive” (type of thinking); survival (individual goal); eat when hungry (economic system); survival clans -- e.g., Haiti (political form)

2. PURPLE -- animistic, tribalistic, “We are safe” (type of thinking); safety (individual goal); reciprocity & kinship (economic system); tribal orders -- e.g., Somalia (political form)

3. RED -- egocentric, exploitative, “I control” (type of thinking); power (personal goal); to the victors belong the spoils (economic system); feudal empires -- e.g., Taliban (political form)

4. BLUE -- moralistic, rule- and discipline-oriented, “We are saved” (type of thinking); meaning (personal goal); the just earn the rewards (economic system); authoritarian democracy -- e.g., Singapore (political form)

5. ORANGE -- materialistic, competence- and achievement-oriented, “I improve” (type of thinking); success (personal goal); each acts on own behalf to prosper (economic system); multiparty democracy -- e.g., U.S. & U.K. (political form)

6. GREEN -- egalitarian, humanitarian- and authenticity-oriented, “We become” (type of thinking); belonging (personal goal); all should benefit relatively equally (economic system); contemporary value-communities (meta-political form); social democracy -- e.g., Netherlands (political form)

Second Tier

7. YELLOW -- systemic, integrative, “I learn” (type of thinking); knowing (personal goal); global “governance" that's sensitive to all levels of the Spiral (political form -- M.S.'s extrapolation from Beck)

8. TURQUOISE -- globalistic, synergistic, “We experience” (type of thinking); expansion (personal goal); democratic global government that's sensitive to all levels of the Spiral (political form -- M.S.'s extrapolation from Beck)

Spiral confidential

I had a lot of questions about these stages, to put it mildly. So I followed Beck around the conference trying to get him to explain.

“Our focus shouldn’t be on types of people, but on types in people,” he said when finally corralled. The stages don’t imply higher and lower phases of development, he said -- they don’t imply greater and lesser people -- but greater and lesser degrees of “complexity.”

The values of “first tier” thinkers, he said, people at stages #1-6 above, are right for them . . . just as the values of so-called second tier thinkers, people at stages #7-8 above, people like the conference attendees at their best moments, people like the South African grassroots activist Loraine Laubscher and former Southwest Airlines President Howard Putnam (both of whom spoke to us by conference call) -- just as the values of those sorts of people are right for them.

“Imagine waves or spirals,” he told me. “Not ladders.”

I wasn’t fully satisfied, so later I approached Beck again. “Our real political issues are in the worldviews,” he growled, blue-green eyes flashing beneath his matted white hair.

“While it often appears that conflicts are tribal or involve ideologies or national interests, the real issues are in the deeper human dynamics that can dramatically differ from one culture to another. . . .

“The [key] issue [right here, in Dallas,] is to truly understand . . . the nature of the developmental gaps [among people and subcultures] and how these asymmetrics can best be addressed by all the resources within the city . . . with Win-Win as the goal. . . .

“[Meanwhile,] the Arab and Muslim world has reminded us that there are are very different thought structures and value structures in different parts of the planet. And if we don’t know how to deal with these, we’ll [fail at everything we try in the international arena].”

What could make the Spiral famous

I was excited.  I could imagine a new kind of political analysis flowing from the Spiral -- one that paid a lot less attention to surface phenomena (as per our newspapers and TV shows) and a lot more attention to what drives people in different cultures and sub-cultures.

And the conference did not disappoint. A new kind of political analysis, Spiral-generated and deeply psycho-culturally informed, kept charging to the fore.

Loraine Laubscher, a grassroots political activist, made use of that analysis in a conference call from Johannesburg. “In South Africa, Blue has been taken out and Orange is making money,” she said, with a certain bone-weariness in her voice. “We’re nearly all Purple or Red now. [Hence our stuckness.]”

She sees her goal as getting Red-oriented South Africans to Blue (i.e., teaching rules and morality to the impulsive and increasingly aggressive masses) and, at the same time, getting Orange to Green (i.e., teaching social responsibility to the materially successful). It won’t be easy, and it lacks the blood-curdling romance of left-right or black-white conflict, but nothing else will do.

Activist Peter Merry offered us a masterful Spiral analysis of the Netherlands (again by conference call). The Netherlands has -- he reminded us -- been deeply shaken by several political assassinations by Muslims and by the coming of over a million immigrant Muslims, drawn in large part by the Dutch culture’s famous openness and lack of judgmentalism.

As a result of several generations of that openness and lack of judgmentalism, he said (with no little irony in his voice), there no longer appears to be anything holding Dutch culture together and the place is in real danger of coming apart.

The Netherlands is the “canary in the coal mine of Europe,” he said, and even the U.S. should not feel immune to the Dutch disease. Virtually the whole audience gasped when he said that -- we all recognized the truth of it.

“There seems to be an abdication of responsibility [on the part of the Dutch people],” he said, “with a growing victim-consciousness. There is not enough acceptance of the true nature of the danger [of the Muslim immigration and increasing unemployment and lack of safety on the streets]. . . .

“Strengthening Blue could include clarifying the Dutch society’s rules, norms, and values. Promote the Dutch story -- where did we come from? . . .

“Make people centered in Orange and Green aware of Purple and Red dynamics. We know [those dynamics well -- after all,] we’ve been there before! We need to . . . re-member ourselves. . . .

“[Many of us] are stuck in Green thinking. . . . The Government is centered in Green. The Government needs to consciously re-embrace Blue . . . and restructure the civil service to make it more responsive and resilient. We also need to rebuild healthy Blue in our communities. . . . We’ve got to preserve Blue to hold Purple and Red at bay. . . .

“Focusing on healthy Green -- [the kind of Green that doesn’t try to] undermine Blue -- will provide for a stronger appreciation of Dutch society by those in the Red-Blue transition.”

There were many other “Spiral accounts” of world affairs at the conference, but by now you should get the flavor -- and the larger point. In well-trained hands, the Spiral provides a way of addressing the differences among people without making race or religion or ethnicity or social class the issue. The only real “issue” is your level on the Spiral -- and we can all benefit from moving up the Spiral.

We all have more to do, more to learn.

Guess the Spiral happens that way

Actually, one of the most surprising aspects of the Spiral political perspective is that it doesn’t urge people and cultures to get to the so-called second tier (Yellow and Turquoise) as soon as possible.

Instead, it wants people and cultures to honor each stage of the Spiral; to develop a healthy Red, then a healthy Blue, then a healthy Orange, etc.

And you’re not supposed to leave the previous stage behind. You’re supposed to incorporate the best of its traits (e.g., Red assertiveness, Blue values-orientation, Orange competence) into your personal and political repertoire.

Benjamin Arriola, principal of a school in Leon, Mexico, made this point beautifully on the last day of the conference. He told us that, in the Mexican schools, what educators most need to establish is a healthy Blue (“clear and demanding rules”), a healthy Orange (“passion for goals and service”), and a healthy Green (“respect for every person and process”). Yellow and Turquoise can wait!

Prominent business consultant Bruce Gibb made the same point when he told us, “Just as individual people must be well grounded on an underpinning of healthy [Spiral levels], an organization must have similar strength holding it up. . . . In reading . . . case studies of UPS, Southwest Airlines, . . . Hewlett-Packard, and other admired companies, I was struck with the attention these companies pay to building all the first tier levels of the Spiral.”

It fell to dynamic Canadian educator and activist Marilyn Hamilton to draw out one of the most provocative political implications of the Spiral analysis. She talked about the “dumb Green meme” she’d encountered in Canada and Ann Arbor -- liberal activists who felt barely concealed contempt for people at the Red, Blue, and Orange levels of the Spiral (and who were themselves caught up as much in unhealthy Purple as they were in Green).

“Until they can get to a strong Yellow that appreciates Red, Blue, and Orange, they’re not going to be able to talk to them [or to anyone but themselves],” she said.


Touching home

Although the Confab occasionally veered off into bushy-tailed abstractions, the more you listened the more you realized these folks were as practical and down-home in their thinking as could be. They were especially cogent on the subject of strategy:

-- “You’ve gotta work with the guys on the ground,” said South African activist Loraine Laubscher. “[Until] the basic [Spiral stages] are . . . there, you can’t do much.”

-- “We’ve got to empower the natural grassroots leaders and stay the hell out of their way,” added Netherlands activist Peter Merry.

-- “We need [to develop a] second tier leadership [with its own models and processes of decision making],” said Smith Protective Services CEO Clayton Smith. “Second tier leadership won’t look like first tier!”

-- “We need to develop an integral practice,” said Merry, “working on self and working on the system.”

“It is crucial that we focus more on these diverse [Spiral] codes than surface-level manifestations,” said an exhausted-looking Beck, summing up. “Rather than being . . . mutually exclusive, these core belief systems reflect diverse levels of emergence along a developmental track.

“They must be integrated, aligned, and synergized. [That to me is] ‘Third Way’ politics. . . . There is a substantial amount of research that supports the [concept of] ‘radical middle.’ But the midrange without an understanding of Spiral Dynamics is clueless.”

Come in, stranger

Oh, yeah. I got a wonderful, warm response to my hour-long speech. That was enough all by itself to get rid of my heavy Purple stuckness about “Texas” and move on. Though I'll never model myself after Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis, I do aspire to Roy Orbison -- a Yellow or Turquoise figure if ever there was one. I’ll start working on it now.


For a good brief introduction to Spiral Dynamics, see two of Don Beck’s online articles, “The Search for Cohesion in the Age of Fragmentation” (1999) and “Stages of Social Development” (2000 -- includes two helpful & colorful charts on the stages).  For an advanced introduction, see Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change (Blackwell, 1996).

For a popularization of Beck’s ideas (and congruent evolutionary ideas), see Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (Shambhala, 2000). For an original, feminist version of the evolutionary spiral (arguing that after Blue, men tend toward Orange and women toward Green -- thus Orange and Green are at the same developmental level), see Jenny Wade, Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness (State University of New York Press, 1996).

For developmental / evolutionary approaches to politics by mainstream political thinkers, see Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (Basic / Perseus, 2000); Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (Random House, 2000), especially Chapter Two, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?”; and Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Vintage / Random House, 2000). (You may recall meeting Wright at the end of my article “Coherent Radical Middle Agenda Emerges at New America Foundation Conference.”)

Beck’s principal organization is The Spiral Dynamics Group. Other organizations taking developmental / evolutionary approaches to changing the world include John Petersen’s Arlington Institute, Don Beck and Peter Merry’s Center for Human Emergence,  Barbara Marx Hubbard’s EVOLVE: A Global Community Center for Conscious Evolution, and Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute.

Editor’s note (important!)

My younger readers may not realize that all the sub-titles in this article mimic Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis hit singles titles going back to the 1950s: “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (Cash, 1958), “I Walk the Line” (Cash, 1956), “High School Confidential” (Lewis, 1958), “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” (Lewis, 1968), “Guess Things Happen That Way” (Cash, 1958), “Touching Home” (Lewis, 1971), and “Come In, Stranger” (Cash, 1958), respectively.


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