Spiral Dynamics? or Hippy Shit? Two Book Reviews



After 36 years of trying, there are still things I love about community development – most of all, I still get a huge buzz out of learning together from shared experiences, creating our own understanding from what happens. Call it Reflective practice, or call it Praxis - as Karl Marx declared: "Practice without Theory is blind, Theory without practice is sterile."

It’s like learning how music works – you can learn to play by copying someone else’s notes but when you take a step for yourself and try playing it your own way, you begin to see for yourself what works and start to ask yourself why it works. That’s how we create something new and alive, and transcend the ruts of other people’s theories and patterns. Ask Jimi Hendrix. But don't copy him note-for-note - blow it out your own way. 

So when I approached two allegedly difficult books on Spiral Dynamics and A Theory of Everything, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted more theory. I’ve banged my head into more heavy books than my memory can recall and cumulatively they have had the mind-sapping impact predicted in the Bible:

“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”. Ecclesiastes 1:18

“All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless”. Ecclesiastes 2:23

Maybe I’m getting to the age where the Buddha’s injunction is starting to make sense:

“Speculation about the cosmos is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about. Whoever speculates about these things would go mad & experience vexation”.

For cosmos read Politics, Economics, Human Beings, etc..

But as Spiral Dynamics and A Theory of Everything were recommended to me by a good friend who I respect, part of me wanted to give it a go so that we could share ideas about it.  And the same impulse (vanity?) which makes me wrestle with cryptic crosswords got me to open page one. Here’s what I discovered...

Spiral Dynamics first.  Have you ever wondered about how human beings evolve through stages in their lifetime and how this could be paralleled by the ways that the whole of humanity grows up over our history? Me neither. But it occurred to Shakespeare:

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

(As You Like It, 1599)

So if one person’s lifespan can be metaphorically a play in seven acts, what about our whole history as a species?

in 'Spiral Dynamics', Beck and co attempt to create a comprehensive and inclusive vision to map the stages of development of society and the successive waves of human understanding which underpin each society.  They describe 6 initial stages of our social and psychological development, using colour codes to help us remember them and to break away from our usual concepts (capitalist, communist, anarchist etc). Here’s how:







Level of basic survival – food, water, warmth, sex, safety

Individual Survival

New born babies, Alzheimers, shell shock

0.1% of adult population, 0% of the power


Magical thinking (spirits rule, curses, spells, blessings)

Ethnic tribes bonded by ancestral spirits / gangs/ athletic teams / corporate tribes

Voodoo, blood oaths, charms, family rituals, gangs

10% of adult population, 1% power


Self emerges from the tribe to seek power over others. Egocentric, hedonistic , conquering

Feudal empires, ruled over by powerful figures

 who must be placated 

Dominating powerful people, Gang leaders, James Bond villains, Terrible Two Year Olds

20% of adult population, 5% power


The Rule of Fixed Order, giving life meaning  through obeying a code of conduct

Puritan America, Dickensian England, totalitarian regimes

Scouts, religious fundamentalism, moral majority, patriotism

40% of adult population, 30% power


Individualism, seeking truth beyond the herd – seeking high achievement and material goods personally – winner takes all

Scientific world/ Corporate States

Wall Street, colonialism, Cold war, liberal self-interest

30% of adult population, 50% power


Communitarian, human bonding, ecological sensitivity, feelings, anti-hierarchy, dialogue and relationships, consensus 

Deep ecology, co-operative inquiry, animal rights, human rights, eco feminism

Greenpeace, Canadian health care

10% of adult population, 15% power


So, like Shakespeare’s Seven Acts, each individual starts out at Beige (the mewling baby seeking instinctively to survive) and progresses to other stages once we have fulfilled (or transcended or grown weary of) the stage we are in. Each stage creates a firm foundation to go on to the next stage. So the Spiral is a symbol for ascending stages of personal AND social development. All of us psychologically contain blends from many of these levels, though we may be currently centred in one particular stage. For example, I might fancy myself as a Green co-operative sort , but to hell with everyone when I’m playing football and drawing on my Red attributes to compete and win. That drive is occasionally held in check by my Blue respect for the rules of the game. And so on. These stages of social and psychological development exist as ideas and behaviours within people (so we’re not talking about types of people, but types of ideas and behaviours operating inside us).

When they apply Spiral Thinking to how societies develop, it gets really interesting. Spiral Dynamics attempts to understand why it is so hard for any society to leap into a new world, because each society has to go through each stage on the spiral before it is ready for the next one. They argue that any attempts to push a society into becoming Green when it doesn’t even have a stable foundation of Blue order and Orange economic strength will not just fail to achieve Green heaven but may lead to a regression into an earlier stage. For example, the attempts to graft Orange Capitalism onto the collapsing Soviet Union had no solid foundation in a new Blue ordered society, and therefore foundered into a free-for all whereby Red gangsterism prevails instead (and the power-grabbing few mop-up the state’s assets and develop strange hobbies, such as owning  football clubs). Beck’s facilitation was welcomed by the ANC in post-apartheid South Africa as they struggled to understand how to build a united country out of so many conflicting sub-societies (Red tribal , Blue apartheid oppressive order, Orange capitalism, Green revolutionary). Spiral Dynamics asserts the need to achieve a healthy variant of every stage – a healthy version of Red stage of competition is necessary to pave the way for the majority of people seeing the need for Blue democratic order and begin to move on from authoritarian winner-takes-all. And then in turn a healthy Blue order starts to feel like a stuck orthodoxy and a limit to creativity, and so a wave of individual risk-taking seeks to develop an Orange culture. Once Orange has done its work, everything’s in place for evolving towards a Green sharing world where there’s plenty to go round and we’ve grown out of our earlier bullshit.  

It’s not easy and I’m cracking jokes to cover it up, but it explicitly riles those of us who fancy ourselves to be Green. As Green isn’t the top of the Spiral in this analysis. Green is just the final stage of the First Tier. And it’s part of the First Tier because the authors argue that it lacks the perspective to see itself as part of the problem – the problem of competing stages. The first six stages are called First Tier as they tend to be blinkered against all the other levels and struggle with each other. Green is good to be (we know, we know), in the sense that it’s the stage that’s poised to make the transformational leap into Second Tier thinking which focuses on the health of the whole Spiral, but it has limits: it can’t solve the problems of society by trying to enforce Green on others. That will only antagonise Blue and Orange (see the backlash of Neo-liberalism, attacks on political correctness, etc) Beck contends that the Spiral needs healthy versions of every stage, so that each society can ascend to the stage above it. If Orange or Blue are undermined in a society, there is nowhere for Red to go except Redneck. So if Green can’t solve the problems of society by trying to enforce Green on others, what's our role? According to Beck, we need to transcend First Tier thinking and begin to cherish and nurture each wave within the Spiral because they are all essential levels in the health of the overall Spiral. Here's the idea/delusion: when they are ready, each society will make their own upward transition to the next level of the Spiral.

Marx said something which chimes in with this analysis: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”

So what do you reckon? Is it just clever shit? Is it another example of what Captain Beefheart sang: “Somebody’s had too much to think!”

I’m left gasping at the ambition of the Spiral Dynamic stuff, while feeling it’s too static as a description of how change happens (though a handy reminder about how Great Leaps Forward can become Terrible Falls Backward on landing) . And it helps to give us food for thought about how to be effectively Green by doing things differently:  Santayana defined fanaticism as "redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your original aim and Einstein often quoted an old Chinese proverb:  "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".  

Right, here’s the second tome. Ken Wilber has specialised in baiting the Greens in recent years, using Spiral Dynamics to argue that the focus on Green neglects to develop the health of every other stage on the planet. Wilber’s book outlines one version of a Theory of Everything which widens our consideration about what needs to be tackled. He describes four inter-locking dimensions which impact on us: our individual psychology and physical development, and our shared world view and social systems. Each of these four dimensions are equally important – according to Wilber, we need to develop life-enhancing Art, positive ethics in our cultures, open spirituality (not fundamentalisms), questioning and reflective sciences (not facts and dogmas and rationalism-as-ruler-of-all). So it’s an integral approach which tackles progressively our interior worlds (behaviours, ideas, values) and our exterior worlds (structures, institutions) – he argues that we can’t just focus on one dimension and deny the others. Indeed, we are all more complex than any one of these factors, and there is no fixed Self - we are all a ‘society of selves’, containing forces which mutually inter-act as we seek balance between them.

Pulled out your hair yet? It is challenging stuff to read, especially when the Greens are being put in their place by these self-appointed Spiral Wizards who stand above the rest of us and pour scorn. But I think it’s worth wrestling with, because it suggests a more integral, holistic practice. A personal and social transformation, anyone?

Wilber spells out the magic ingredients of Integral Practice:some of them may sting.

  1. Seeing the limits of our current Stage, viewing our own ideology as a stance which is at war with other stages and cannot therefore lead to the good of all by forcing itself onto others. Wilber contends that we need to dis-identify with Green (it’s just a higher set of blinkers, scrapping with the other Stances),  and become Spiral Wizards who can see the need for all of the levels to become healthier for the good of all.
  2. Dis-identification with our current Ego state can be eased eg through meditation
  3. We can create a personal Integral Practice to help us keep flowing, by embracing all aspects which influence us eg physical (exercise, diet); psychological openness (counselling, talking to friends openly, humour), social living (caring relationships, community involvement), cultural creativity (new experiences, creative outlets), scientific  creativity (find a balance which allows for testing-out reality without dogma), environmental nurture (nature protection of all species and nature, food-growing) , non-sectarian spirituality (meditation), and political holism (taking a non-partisan overview of the situation and facilitating the transitions within each stage)
  4. Foster others towards taking their own steps at their own pace so that they evolve psychological readiness to change; build on the best of their current practice, values, beliefs and behaviours.  


I’m back where I started: community development, at its best (IMHO), has focused on helping people collectively share their experience and take the next step along their own path towards a shared vision of a higher aim. Spiral Dynamics helps me ponder on my experiences of struggling to challenge bigoted people (in neighbourhoods and professions): communities don’t jump easily across stages of psychological and social and economic development. Social change, according to Spiral Dynamics and A Theory of Everything, requires that human beings are culturally ready and psychologically prepared to let go of their existing stage, and thereby ripe to move on. Usually this involves each of us having fulfilled ourselves in our current stage and beginning to feel its limitations, so we dis-identify with it and are open to new insights about new needs and are open to the next wave of consciousness.

Is it "either/or", promoting ideologies or facilitating personal development? Do we work with people from their own starting point, and help them move to the next level by fostering the conditions which allow them to develop in their own way at their own pace? Whatever you think of Spiral Dynamics, this interior subjective change in individuals is a vital part of sustainable (lasting) transformation. And this interior growth informs healthy political action (whatever that is – from armchair activism to the hottest parts of the front-est line).  

Either way, it can’t harm us to think about it. As the research team at Bristol University Hospital discovered after a long study of well-being: “talking bollocks could save your life”


‘Spiral Dynamics’, Don Edward Beck, Christopher C. Cowan, Blackwell 1996

‘A Theory Of Everything’, Ken Wilber, Shambhala 2000

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Comment by Bren Cook on November 4, 2014 at 19:04

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