Why the success of a stateless voluntarist society is dependent on healing our individual and collective trauma of separation


Recently I have been drawn into an inquiry into the possibilities of a stateless society based on voluntaryism as a solution to many of the challenges we are facing in the world today. It is clear to me that the state is not only highly inadequate at responding with the speed and radical innovation needed to solve the scale of crisis that lies before us. I am increasingly coming to believe that the state as a form of social organisation is beyond its sell-by date and is an embodiment of many of the ills that both progressives and conservatives protest so loudly about. 

At this point it is important to frame the perspective through which I look at these issues. I see our collective evolution as the evolution of life expressed through human beings attempting to find ways to balance the freedom of the individual with the needs of the collective. In this context I do not believe that there are lots of individuals in the state who are consciously planning the negative impact of the apparatus they work for. It is simply a system that has evolved over time and which most people accept unquestioningly as an essential part of our society. I find claims that “we are being lied to” as not particularly useful, as I believe most people are just doing what they understand to be the right thing. Playing a blame game triggers emotions that take away from a focus on the content of any criticism and proposals.

A Stateless Voluntarist Society

The arguments against the state as a form of governance and for a stateless voluntarist society focus primarily on the moral principle that no-one should be allowed to initiate violence. Clearly that is permitted for the state – through the military, police and laws that impinge on the individual’s self-expression and creativity. Taxation is often used as an example – the state forces individuals to pay a percentage of their income to be spent on things that the individual has usually not given their consent for. If the individual refuses to pay their taxes, then they could ultimately be imprisoned, and if they resisted, they could be forced at gunpoint. In a stateless society, people would organise through voluntary contracts facilitated by a truly free market. This does of course raise many questions which I have dived into over the last months and found very well thought out responses to. 

It does however assume a high level of maturity in individuals to take responsibility and collaborate constructively. As I listened to one proponent of voluntaryism discuss why he felt it so important to focus on safety and wellbeing in the early years of childhood, a big piece of the picture fell into place. His point was that much antisocial and criminal behaviour can be linked to childhood abuse and trauma, and that if we created more loving conditions for our toddlers to grow up in, it would make it much easier to move to a voluntarist stateless society.

Understanding the Human Journey

This illuminated for me a core issue that I was feeling uneasy about in the voluntarist argument. To go into it requires a short trip into the land of developmental psychology. Here is a map of human individual and collective development, using the Spiral Dynamics model:

Moving from left to right, it proposes that as individuals we start at survival (like Maszlow’s hierarchy of needs) and depending on our life conditions we develop more complex value systems as we grow. You can also trace this journey through our collective evolutionary story. We started in (Beige) survival clans, moved into (Purple) tribal order, then into (Red) feudal empires, from which emerged (Blue) nation states, which then engaged in (Orange) market-driven networks, following which (Green) harmony-driven values communities emerged, leading to the start of what we are now seeing in (Yellow) Integral initiatives to connect up the splintered dots to save humanity and the planet, and (Turquoise) experiences and expressions of the unity of the life process.

This collective journey we can see reflected in our development as individuals within whom these value systems will unfold as far as is useful for the life conditions that we find ourselves  in. If you are in a war zone for example, the complexity involved in trying to take decisions that everyone can agree with (Green) would not serve you as well as the ability to organise effectively (Blue) and act with instinct and decisiveness (Red). From an individual perspective, these are coping mechanisms that evolve in us to help us deal with the world we experience around us.

In healthy development, each new stage would transcend the previous one, yet include the best of the past in an understanding that it has been our ability to solve certain problems in the past that has enabled us to get where we are now. The thing is, our individual and collective development doesn’t generally follow this neat and tidy path. The transitions from one level of development to the next are often fraught with struggle, pain and trauma. From a psychological perspective, this is where, instead of transcending and including our past, we often end up transcending but repressing it, due to how we may have had to struggle to move beyond it. This creates bits of our personality that are split off into our shadow, and that we bury deeply to avoid having to deal with. These bits however remain part of us and our journey, and will keep tugging at our sleeves and calling for attention until we bring them into the light to heal and integrate them. Any unintegrated history distorts the potentially healthy expression of future phases of development.

Why State has become Oppressor

So how does all this relate to the debate around nation states, stateless societies and voluntaryism? The main critique of the state is that its authority backed up by force suppresses the freedom of the individual. If we look at that from the developmental perspective as described in Spiral Dynamics, we could see it as being an expression of the Blue order-driven value system that is smothering the previous Red self-expression creative value system. In a healthy development, the Blue order system would have emerged to create just enough collective order so that the Red express-self for self-gain systems would be channeled in such a way as to make it possible for large numbers of people to live together in a safe and respectful way – but without giving people the feeling that their freedom was being removed and that they had to surrender control over their lives to a third party (as in a national government). Yet that does seem to be what has happened. The state has become over-controlling, impinging on our freedoms around what we do with any money we earn, how we educate our children and how we look after our bodies, to name a few fundamental examples. How could this have happened?

When we zoom out and look at the life process as a dynamic self-organising system, following a developmental pathway like the one described in Spiral Dynamics, then we would have to ask the question: why would the Blue order-driven system over-react to the extent it seems to have and create a suffocating system of control and regulation, rather than an empowering set of agreements that would enable everyone to express their unique gifts while living in relative peace with each other? Well, the answer is actually very simple. The only reason that the Blue order-driven system would develop in such an exaggerated way would be if the Red express-self system was so wild and unruly that the pendulum had to swing to a similar extreme on the other side to be able to control its energy. If we look at the period in our collective history post hunter-gatherer in the world of warlords and feudal empires, it is hardly a pretty picture of creative self-expression that is respectful of the instinctive knowing of interconnectedness and the focus on safety and life that came in the earlier Beige and Purple phases of our development. So we need to look deeper – what happened in that transition from hunter-gatherer to feudal empires? Or in our individual development – what happens in that transition from the baby’s experience of bonding with the parents and its safe family environment to the emergence of its sense of separate self, the ego?

The Pain

To summarise – what we have  is an over-controlling repressive Blue state that emerged to tame a life-destroying unruly Red mob, neither of which life would naturally have created if our development had followed a relatively harmonious pathway. Let’s start with our collective development first, as that creates the conditions for the developmental challenges we still have at the individual level. In what we call the West, a strange thing happened as we evolved from tribal based, instinctive hunter-gatherer societies who experienced time as cyclical, right-brain imagery as sacred and embodied experience as primary, into expansive feudal empires where time started to be seen as linear and more abstract thinking along with left-brain alphabetic literacy came to dominate (see The Alphabet vs the Goddess book for an excellent overview of this). For some reason, we were not able to contain the explosion of the Red express-self system in such a way as to be able to reintegrate our previous pre-rational journey of the senses. Instead of transcending yet including the previous phases – which would have given us a sense of separate self and the creative energy of our self-expression in the context of our sacred relationship with each other and the rest of life – we transcended and repressed that past, cutting ourselves off from the Earth, from our emotional intelligence, from our body and essentially from the feminine. Thus began the unbridled pillaging of the Earth on which we depend and the inhuman exploitation and irrational killing of our fellow men and women.

Ken Wilber describes this powerfully in his book Up from Eden:

The ego, in the necessary course of its emergence, had to break free of the Great Mother, a feat represented in the Hero Myths. But in its zeal to assert its independence, it not only transcended the Great Mother, which was desirable; it repressed the Great Mother, which was disastrous.

It is one thing to gain freedom from nature, emotions, instincts, and environment – it is quite another to alienate them. The Western ego did not just gain its freedom from the Great Mother; it severed its deep interconnectedness with her.

Up from Eden by Ken Wilber

We have therefore a civilisation that is unrooted from its embodied past, focused on separation and the “objective” world intelligible to the rational mind, and which has lost its ability to sense the relationships in the whole and feel the suffering that we inflict on other life forms. If this wasn’t the case, there is no way that we would have been able to do what we have done to each other and this planet that gave birth to us. Yet, deep in our beings, we know what we have done, we know it is wrong, and it hurts. It hurts so much, and facing it would have such massive consequences, that we bury it deeper inside and chase ever more distraction in the world outside of us. 

It is no wonder that this collective trauma is being reflected in the way we grow up as individuals. Essentially, we try to get our children through those Beige-Purple sensitive phases of development as quickly as we can, as they remind us too strongly of the pain of our own separation – and we want to keep that buried as far away as possible. That tender bonding phase in the first couple of years that we know is so essential to the healthy development of all human beings, is usually aborted, as parents are encouraged to get back into the productive workforce as soon as possible and outsource their own nurturing to a third party childcare provider. In this way the economy benefits, as the parents get back to working and then use the income they make to pay the childcare provider. GDP grows as more money exchanges hands – and more tax is generated to feed the state. Tragically, this also usually feels like a relief to many parents – as generations of our families have passed on this deep collective trauma that has cut us off from our fundamental sense of safety, of belonging and of love.

The Promise

The question then arises for me – would you entrust a stateless society to a fundamentally wounded and traumatised collection of individuals who have lost their sense of innate interconnectedness with each other and their environment? It is of course not as black and white as that, and we soon get into a chicken-egg discussion. My main conclusion is that if we are to move towards a diminution of the state, an empowerment of the individual and a stimulation of voluntary collaboration (which I do believe is the ideal direction to go), it has to go hand in hand with a healing at both the individual and collective levels of the split that we all carry in us, that deep trauma of separation from all of our collective pasts and many of our individual childhoods, so that the expression of the self can happen in all its radiance held in the deep knowing of our interconnectedness, allowing the order mechanism to relax its grip from repressive state hierarchies into consensual agreements that enable us to live together as mature human beings while fully expressing our own uniqueness.

This I believe is the next phase of the journey that life is calling the human family to. The extent of our suffering in this great transition will largely depend on our ability to sink our roots deep into our past, reach for the inspiration of the heavens, open our hearts in all our vulnerability and compassion, and do what needs to be done. It’s time.

See also my book Why Work, and this article on how to build parallel local economies.


These are some of the sources I have used to inform myself about this topic:

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