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Stratified Democracy
Modernisation Theory

Updated: 30 June 2011

It’s rather astounding that, 50 years after Walt Rostow (1960) published ‘The Stages of Economic Growth: a Non-Communist Manifesto’, how much Rostow’s ideas - Modernisation Theory - still shape Western foreign policy - and the United States’ attitudes in particular. In 50 years that have seen, first, the end of the European empires and, then, the demise of Communism as a political and economic alternative to Capitalism, Rostow’s ideas have almost universally failed to deliver the wealth and prosperity to the developing nations that they promised. Large parts of the world in which Rostow’s ideas have been applied - ‘Black Africa’, in particular - are mired in poverty and debt. Not only that but Rostow’s ideas underpin the Americans’ lack of understanding and application of inappropriate strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the bloody consequences that have entailed during the first decade of the 21st Century.


Rostow’s ideas have been heavily criticised from a Marxist perspective, most notably Andre Gunder Frank’s Dependency Theory (1971) and Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory (1979) - though these criticisms are largely political and/or economic in nature. (Interestingly, the 2 emerging economic giants of the early 21st Century, India and China, are conspicuous by at least a partial avoidance of Rostow’s ideas!) The aim of this feature is to critique Rostow from a sociopsychological perspective and to present an alternative pattern for social and political development in Don Beck’s concept of Stratified Democracy, first presented in a lecture to Mikhail Gorbachev’s State of the World Forum in 2000.

For a full discussion of Rostow’s ideas and a partial evaluation of them, see Modernisation Theory.

Why hasn’t Modernisation Theory worked?

Of course, Rostow stated clearly that this was not an overnight process and that modernisation could take up to 100 years to reach maturity. Nonetheless, it is clear that the process has been corrupted and is off track in just about every country in which Modernisation Theory has been applied rigorously.


Talcott Parsons (1964) correctly identified that ‘traditional values’ were the greatest obstacle to development as envisaged by Rostow. Bert Hoselitz (1964) argued for the introduction of meritocratic education as a way of inculcating the upcoming generations with the Western values. Alex Ingeles (1969) championed the mass media as a critical agent in disseminating ideas about the need for geographical mobility, nuclear-family units, family planning, secular beliefs and practices, and the adoption of the democratic process.


All of this, paid for with aid and loans, has made little difference in Black Africa. The elites in much of the Middle East are indeed wealthy on the proceeds of their oil money but they are myopically dependent on Western know-how and cheap foreign workers to get the oil out of the ground while much of their indigenous populations experience real poverty - though the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 may bring some change to such blatant inequality in some of the Middle East countries. (See the Blog: ‘Well, are the Arabs ready for Democracy?’). A number of south-east Asian countries are run by at least semi-dictatorships - the most notorious being Burma - and, while some may now be exporting on an industrial level, large numbers of their populations are truly hard up.


While Parsons  correctly identified values as the problem, what he probably couldn’t have known at the time - because Clare W Graves (1970, 1971/2002) was only just starting to publish on his remarkable work - was how value systems (vMEMES) function and how change takes place on the Spiral. (However, the initial version of Abraham Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs preceded both Rostow and perhaps there is no excuse?)


Those ‘traditional values’ that Parsons saw as obstacles to modernisation are, in fact, natural to the PURPLE vMEME’s tribal way of thinking. Since PURPLE’s key motivation is to find safety-in-belonging, attempts to destabilise it and impose a different way of thinking will either result in closedown and outright refusal to even contemplate change or the emergence of a very unhealthy form of RED. (The emergence of healthy RED requires the foundation of a healthy PURPLE.) Thus, ignoring PURPLE’s needs or, even worse, making it unsafe through destabilisation will actually work against the development process Rostow outlined.


It is generally recognised that, where accepted into the community, education can open up horizons and lead to the challenging of traditional ways of doing things. However, the values transmitted via education systems should build on a safety foundation in a non-threatening manner - not attempt to replace those safety values. It’s interesting that Daniel Lerner (1958), many of whose concepts Rostow borrowed in building Modernisation Theory, had the idea of taking the children of the tribal elites away and educating them in Western schools and colleges. In theory, it must have seemed a good idea to get the youngsters away from environments reinforcing traditional tribal values. However, Péter Tamás Bauer (1982) notes that many of those Western-educated young elite returned home only to monopolise top positions, restrict upward mobility and enforce the most brutal RED tyranny - eg: the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Liberia’s Charles Taylor and, of course, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Bauer calls this undermining of development ‘kleptocracy’ as the these elites are often only interested in lining their own pockets.


Healthy RED is a vital component in the selfplexes of the entrepreneurs so vital to Rostow’s Stage 2. But the ruthless dictators who have so often used Western money for their own ends while oppressing and starving their own people could not surely have been what Rostow envisaged....?


While the Marxists tend to see the intent of economic servitude in the application of Modernisation Theory, from a sociopsychological perspective it appears as much the case of blind ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of how human motivational systems develop - both individually and culturally. Much of the Third World - particularly in Black Africa, is trapped in the PURPLE and RED zones culturally. Deep tribal divisions and insecurities - as in Rwanda - created originally by the cross-tribal boundaries the European colonists imposed have been exacerbated by the pressures to modernise and compete in a globalised world. On top of which Western myopic blunders have facilitated a seemingly endless run of tyrannical despots pursuing their own whims and filling their own pockets. No wonder one country or other in Black Africa seems always to be caught up in civil war. No wonder the awful spectre of genocide seems always ready to strike when PURPLE, the cognitive base of the Spiral, has been so completely trashed.


Since Rostow’s Stage 3 requires a sizeable amount of BLUE thinking, Stage 4 requires both BLUE and the emergence of ORANGE and Stage 5 the widespread domination of ORANGE while much of the Third World has yet to get beyond RED in its culture, it’s no surprise that Modernisation Theory isn’t working and few Third World states have got beyond Stage 3.


It should be noted that the new economic giants, India and China, not only didn’t take that much notice of Rostow but had long-established BLUE forms of culture. They were both highly advanced civilisations before falling under the control of the Europeans. Thus, their traditions were BLUE in nature as well as PURPLE. India’s highly-defined religious structures go back many centuries, providing much of the country with a bedrock of organisation and discipline. For China Maoist Communism, for all the suppression of its people, provided a monolithic state structure and control that organised much of the country on a grand scale. Chris Edwards (1992) suggests that the success of the Asian tiger economies and China is due to a successful combination of the Chinese Confucian religion (BLUE/GREEN) and Western rational thinking and practices (BLUE/ORANGE). Religion in these societies has encouraged the emergence of a moral and authoritarian political leadership (BLUE) that demands sacrifice, obedience and hard work in return for prosperity. This has fostered the acceptance of Western economic and cultural practices.


If the pinnacle of Rostow’s vision was that every country should end up a democratic, consumerist society, then the implication is that this is the ultimate form a country should take. Every country should aspire to Western-style one person/one (secret) vote Democracy. Every country should aspire to have a consumerist economy. The further implication is that any other form of government of any other form of economy is automatically inferior...and the greater the sociopsychological distance of that government/economy from Rostow’s ideal, the more inferior it is.


Given those implications, it’s not hard to see how prejudice and bias so distorted the views of Rostow, Parsons and Inkeles that they perceived traditional tribal values to be not only worthless but positively harmful.

What does Stratified Democracy offer?

Essentially Stratified Democracy, as defined by Don Beck, proposes that a core element of Democracy - representative government - be implemented in such as way as to fit with the values and norms - the culture - of the people to be governed. In 4Q/8L terms, this means constructing the Bottom Right (the form of government) to match the Bottom Left (culture of the people to be governed). In reality, this is an interactionist process, with culture influencing structure and vice versa.

Graphic copyright © 2000 Don Edward Beck






















Stage/ Wave











survival clans

- eg: Haiti

tribal orders

- eg: Somalia

feudal empires

- eg: Taliban

authoritarian democracy

- eg: Singapore

multiparty democracy

- eg: UK, US

social democracy

- eg: Netherlands

stratified democracy

holonic democracy

Confederal unitary

Federal unitary



eat when hungry

mutual reciprocity & kinship

to victors belong the spoils

the just earn the rewards

each acts on own behalf to prosper

all should benefit equally

all formulas contribute to Spiral health

resources focus on all life

For his 2000 State of the World Forum presentation, Beck provided some basic examples of the kind of structure of government to be matched to the vMEME dominating the culture - see left. He also provided some ‘real world’ examples of matches.

Of course, in many countries, the culture is dominated by multiple vMEMES or vMEME harmonics - requiring multifaceted government structures to be developed or risk sections of the population feeling unrepresented. One of the reasons thought to be behind the rise of the far right in Western Europe during the first decade of the 21st Century is that the thinking of those in government (BLUE/ ORANGE/ GREEN) has become

out of touch with traditional white working class voters (PURPLE/RED/BLUE) on issues like immigration.

It is notable that, in his example, Beck gives no example of a 2nd Tier (Integral) country - the most advanced being The Netherlands in terms of a GREEN-dominated culture, thus requiring a social democratic form of government. (The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are arguably the most egalitarian on the face of the earth.) Thus, concepts of what form an Integral government might take are, at this stage, conjecture. There is, as yet, no identified bloc of 2nd Tier voters large enough in any country to exercise electoral influence.

The Rostovian Fallacy in Afghanistan and Iraq

From Beck’s example, it is immediately obvious that the attempt to introduce ORANGE-conceived multiparty democracy to the RED-dominated Taliban in Afghanistan and PURPLE-RED Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq was a ghastly mismatch. Especially when many more radical Islamists regard these things as the main cause of poverty and inequality. No wonder that Western-style Democracy has failed to take in either country - just as it hasn’t in much of the developing world. For multiparty democracy to work, a different, more-complex style of thinking is required than that prevalent amongst the ‘electorate’. In many, many instances, the ‘voters’ would rather ask the tribal elder what to do or take direction from their warlord than go into a secret ballot.

To be fair to Walt Rostow, who stated that modernisation could take 100 years to work through to Maturity, the Americans have tried to create Western-style structures in Afghanistan and Iraq in just a few years. Rostow can hardly be blamed for these efforts repeatedly blowing up in the faces of the Americans - sometimes all too literally! However, it is Rostow’s vision of the democratic consumerist society as the ideal which has led the Americans and their allies to disrespect the ‘inferior’ forms of government they find on the ground in these countries.

As Beck (2000, p4) writes: “’Democracy’, then, comes in many different variations, hues, and levels of complexity. Beware of imposing the form that fits a specific stage or zone on the Spiral onto other strata. This is an invitation to cultural disaster. There are good reasons why humans have created ’survival clans’, ‘ethnic tribes’, ‘feudal empires’, ancient nations’, ‘corporate states’ and ‘value communities’ in our long bio-psycho-social-spiritual ascent. Robert D Kaplan makes this point clearly in a lengthy essay ‘Was Democracy Just A Moment?’ (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1997). He notes that authoritarian China (BLUE) is doing more for its citizens than democratic (ORANGE) Russia, and that enlightened one-party-states and even dictatorial empires (RED), can build a middle class more quickly than multiparty models (ORANGE) in Africa.”  

Thankfully, there are signs that some in the American military in Afghanistan are beginning to get their heads around what tribalism is and how to deal with it (Michael T Flynn, Matt Pottinger & Paul D Batchelor, 2010). The pity is that  back in 2001 the Americans invaded that country - caricatured by some as ‘stone age’ - with modernisation on their agenda. Where they should have focused their post-war efforts was on repairing and strengthening tribal structures and supporting moderate Islam - rather than trying to rush to Western-style Democracy. Such strategies would have helped to minimise the chances of the Taliban coming back.

Applying Stratified Democracy

While it is clear Modernisation Theory has failed and still is failing - with devastating consequences right across the developing world - Stratified Democracy is in its early days. It’s most potent and widescale application so far was in the early-mid-1990s when Beck was involved in developing the South African transition from Apartheid to multi-cultural democracy - see Don Beck & South Africa. Beck has done some work with the Palestinians in the past few years and the Center for Human Emergence - Netherlands has begun to influence the Dutch Government with Spiral Dynamics-based ideas. There is, however, a growing body of empirical evidence supporting the Graves Model/Spiral Dynamics concepts, on which Stratified Democracy is based, as well as similar models such as the Ego Stages construct of Jane Loevinger (1976). As for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1956, 1970, 1971), in many ways the precursor of Spiral Dynamics, it continues to be the most used Psychology model outside of the rareified halls of academia - with both formal studies and numerous anecdotes to support its efficacy.

What is needed is for American diplomats and senior military personnel to be trained in Spiral Dynamics, 4Q/8L and the MeshWORKS concept so they can apply Stratified Democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq and wherever else the United States’ role as the world’s only true superpower takes it. As Americans demonstrate deep understanding and empathy for local and regional cultures, so the United States is likely to find itself making new friends out in the world instead of bearing the ‘ugly American’ caricature its people abroad have found themselves tarred with for so long.

Similarly for the Europeans so they can get beyond bleating apologies for the iniquities of empire and start helping their former colonies develop in a way that is natural for them.

Of course, part of the challenge is understanding how vMEMES affect economics and economic development!