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The World According to Slater

March-April 2013

Philip Slater’s book The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture was published in 2008 by the smallish Sussex Academic Press. It appeared without any noticeable publicity in the United States and so far has flown under the radar. Yet it may stand as his magnum opus; it’s a thought-provoking study that turns a long lens on human history, culture, economy, and social structures. Always adept at spotting patterns before others notice them, Slater here describes cultural styles that play out on a macroscopic, Toynbee-like level, while stitching these massive systems closely to the facts of daily life.

Many of today’s jarring dislocations, he asserts, stem from the clash between the ancient system of control culture and a newer pattern: integrative culture. “Incivility and chaos arise when an old system is breaking down and a new one hasn’t yet fully taken hold,” he writes. The “chrysalis” of the title refers to the transitional state between one life form and the successor that grows out of it.

The ethos of control culture has dominated human societies for millennia, Slater writes, ever since the advent of agriculture: it embraces “a static vision of the universe, a deep dependence on authoritarian rule, a conviction that order was something that had to be imposed, and a preoccupation with combat.” Integrative culture, in contrast, breaks down mental walls and boundaries and celebrates interdependence. “It has a dynamic vision of the universe, a democratic ethos, and sees order as something that evolves, as it does in Nature, from spontaneous interaction.”

This conflict illuminates, for example, the endless wrangling of creationists and scientists. Creationists view the extraordinary complexity of life as something that “could only have come about as the conscious creation of a humanoid intelligence—some sort of über-authority—since it would be impossible for this sort of thing to evolve on its own.” But scientists feel the creationists have it backwards: “[I]ntelligence springs from organizational complexity. Mind inheres in any cybernetic system capable of learning from trial and error and becoming self-correcting.”

Control culture—identified with “authoritarianism, militarism, misogyny, proliferating walls, mental constriction, and rigid dualism”—clearly embraces male dominance as well. The controllers’ world is crumbling, Slater argues, with the ascent of women, a development linked to integrative culture. Consequently, “Even though they still run the world, many men today express feelings of powerlessness. They’re angry that women are invading previously all-male domains, and upset that women aren’t as dependent on them as they used to be…modern men have been trained in macho skills over many years and at severe cost, only to discover that those skills are no longer of any use to anyone. Strutting, boasting, fighting, destroying, and killing just don’t seem as important to the world as they used to.”

Some men respond to their loss of prerogatives by “clinging to ever-shrinking definitions of masculinity,” and Slater links this to the surge in male bodybuilding and steroid use. Other men, more identified with integrative culture, welcome the chance to spend more time taking care of their children, although “Mr. Moms” are often as unwelcome at park playgrounds as women firefighters can be in firehouses. “I’ve seen women intrude with astonishing arrogance and officiousness into the parenting styles of men who have been a child’s primary caretaker since it was born,” Slater writes. “Women, too, have trouble giving up old patterns.”

War might be the institution that most fully epitomizes control culture, and Slater argues that the rise of integrative culture is making war obsolete. The burgeoning of global trade over the last 30 years means, for example, that “Almost anywhere we attack today we’re attacking our own companies, our own products, our own creations, our own citizens.”

Furthermore, in contrast to past centuries, war is no longer good for business. Except for a few war-related industries, prosecuting a war, or even winning one, is no longer an advantageous activity, he says: warfare is simply more costly now, and its rewards smaller and less certain. “War today is a symptom of backwardness,” Slater writes. “While nations mired in poverty and fanaticism are busy making macho gestures and killing one another, Western Europe—once a luxuriant breeding ground of mutual slaughter—has a common market and currency.” He notes that the sole exception to this trend is the United States, “primarily because for decades it’s been able to wage wars on small, weak Third-World nations with little fear of retaliation. But the attacks of 9/11 made it clear that retaliation can come in nonmilitary forms.”

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Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

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Photograph courtesy of Paul Apfelbeck

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