Positive Disintegration and the Pandemic

Laura Stavinoha / July 18, 2020

We’re used to talking about theory of positive disintegration at an individual level, but what about at the level of a country? Laura Stavinoha looks at the pandemic as an instance of disintegration and explores what it will take to reintegrate an entire society at a higher level.

Crises spur positive disintegration. Kazimierz Dabrowski, who created the theory of positive disintegration (TPD), made this clear by studying the behavior of exemplars during the Holocaust. A horrible upheaval in society moves an individual to disintegration and reintegration. When this process unfolds in enough of us, then we can say it is happening to the world itself. Dabrowski, Kawczak, and Piechowski noted the possibility of applying Dabrowski’s theory on a larger scale, writing in 1970 that “[s]ocieties, nations and cultures seem to exhibit the qualities of integration and disintegration comparable to mental disintegration and stages of development in individuals.” (p. 125)

Societies, nations and cultures seem to exhibit the qualities of integration and disintegration comparable to mental disintegration and stages of development in individuals

Kazimierz Dabrowski

So we have every reason to hope that the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, will have a similar effect.

Here in the Netherlands, we’ve already seen an example: a group of 170 Dutch scientists has written a manifesto that urges politicians and citizens to take this opportunity to radically change their vision, values, and politics. They say that the ever-increasing circulation of goods and people is why the pandemic caused so much damage; moreover, we had built this globalized system despite the myriad ecological problems and the growing inequality that it has caused. Now that this economic framework has disintegrated, we have a unique opportunity to execute radical reforms. The scientists call for redistribution of wealth, universal basic income, circular agriculture and industry (i.e., recycled resources and zero waste), and cancelling the debt of poorer countries. They also advocate less consumption and less travel.

Over the past five months, SARS-CoV-2, a tiny string of RNA, has painfully revealed the vulnerabilities of globalized capitalism—and the ways that human culture and the natural world are interconnected. In this respect, it was not a matter of if, but when a pandemic would hit. In his book Big Farms Make Big Flu, biologist Rob Wallace illustrated connections between industrial farming practices and viral epidemiology. He found that the increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Wallace warns that it is too simplistic to explain SARS-CoV-2 as an accidental zoonosis that derived from the wet market in Wuhan. “As industrial production—hog, poultry, and the like—expand into primary forest,” he explained at the website Uneven Earth, “it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including COVID-19.”

In other words, the pandemic is not a chance occurrence. It is an expected outcome of the interaction between society and the ecosystem; the result of the way we consume, travel, exhaust natural resources, and treat animals. This means the pandemic is an internal conflict for our society—and therefore a place where positive disintegration can unfold.

We all know that with personal inner conflict, it is possible to exercise agency over our lives. With global inner conflict, it is not any different: We can exercise agency by changing our interactions with the ecosystem for the better.

Positive Disintegration on a National Scale

Most countries operate in primary integration (level I) where the majority of people are living normal, structured lives, adapted to society. Within these societies, there are also a considerable number of people disintegrating on higher levels, but they are a minority.

Since COVID-19 struck, this overall level I structure has suddenly been disrupted, moving many countries and their people into unilevel dinsintegration (level II). People feel that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place: Public health is threatened by a virus, but in order to fight it, public life is put on hold, leading to major economic crises and threaten overall well-being. On the personal level, this triggers fear, anxiety, anger, and depression in individuals. Most people are longing to go back to level I, when life without COVID-19 was simple, structured, and without conflict.

However, before the novel coronavirus, a growing number of people were already dealing with the challenges that come with level II. You can see this, for instance, in the increasing demand for prescribed drugs and mental health care. On the collective level, it manifests especially in the rising popularity of conservative, authoritarian, and nationalistic political leaders: “Unilevel disintegration is a loose ahierarchic structure. [….] This condition of lack of structure and of no direction is, often, so distressing to the individual that he develops a nostalgia for the cohesiveness of primary integration—hence worship psychopathic heroes and psychopathic life-styles.” (Dabrowski and Piechowski, 1977, p. 40)

Now take a look at the political leaders from countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. These characters are perfect stereotypes of the psychopathic variety of level I structure: Egocentric, aggressive, self-satisfying, and craving power and financial gain. They appear to lack any ability for introspection; conflicts are always someone else’s fault. These politicians respond effectively to people’s feelings of nostalgia and deep longing for normal, structured lives. In order to win the vote, they promise to make the country “great again” and point at “enemies” from outside the nation (e.g., Muslims, Mexicans, refugees) as the cause for ongoing problems. I think Dabrowski was spot on: Countries in which many citizens are experiencing the chaos of unilevel disintegration (level II) tend to elect primary integrated (level I) leaders, who promise strength and stability.

The National Leader at Levels I and II

Now that the coronavirus is spreading all over the world, it is interesting to see how primary integrated leaders struggle to deal with the situation, now that there is no human enemy to scapegoat. Their strategy is to call the virus an abnormality—something that will disrupt our lives dramatically, but only temporarily. After this intruder has been defeated, we will be able to go back to business as usual. This typical level I way of dealing with conflict, however, sees the conflict as external, as another invasion—not as an internal issue that presents an opportunity for positive disintegration on a societal level.

Interestingly, as individuals, these leaders do seem to experience some level II dynamisms themselves. Take the dynamism called ambitendency: first, the leader denies there is a pandemic, then asserts that the virus is under control. A couple of weeks later, they become indecisive and fickle; finally, they overwhelm their people with authoritarian bluster, telling us it is wartime. It doesn’t get more level II than this, if you ask me!

A clear example of this is Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK. He was convinced that COVID-19 was nothing more than the average flu. Johnson had to suffer from the disease himself before he recognized the seriousness of the pandemic. In an interview with The Sun he revealed that he nearly died and that doctors had prepared to announce his death as he battled the virus. Johnson admitted that he had underestimated the virus: “It was hard to believe that in just a few days my health had deteriorated to this extent. I remember feeling frustrated. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting better [….] It was thanks to some wonderful, wonderful nursing that I made it. They really did it and they made a huge difference.” Johnson even named his newborn son Nicholas, in recognition of the two doctors that saved him.

While Boris Johnson experienced some signs of unilevel disintegration, other psychopathic leaders who are currently in charge seem to be primarily interested in personal short-term rewards and staying in power. To some extent, the coronavirus will probably benefit leaders whose agenda it is to balance society on the border between level I and II—the sweet spot for their power. By declaring the state of emergency, they can use the current situation to strengthen their own personal agenda and move from democracy toward autocracy. This will lead to repression, abuse of power, more surveillance, and less individual freedom.

Multilevel Disintegration at a Societal Level

But can this crisis also be an opportunity for liberal and democratic societies? I am convinced that there is an alternative path for these countries, and that this will arise from spontaneous multilevel disintegration (level III). Unfortunately, we shouldn’t expect too much on behalf of governments here yet. Can you think of any country where politics are predominantly based on level III dynamisms? The country where I live, the Netherlands, is considered liberal and progressive, but even here, I expect that the government wants to go back to business as usual (level I) as soon as possible.

Simultaneously, however, a growing number of people are personally experiencing level III dynamisms, and mainstream media is increasingly amplifying their voices. Writers, thinkers, scientists, and activists from all around the world are contemplating the same questions the Dutch scientists did in their manifesto: How can we live in harmony with planet Earth and avoid destroying its precious ecosystem? Can we use this crisis to make a transformation to a sustainable economy? Are there alternatives to economic growth and consumerism? Can we organize work and wealth differently?

These questions are not new, of course. They were welling up long before COVID-19 appeared. Now that our globalized structures are breaking down, however, we are all questioning where we are now and how we would like the world to be after the crisis. In lockdown, with the economy on hold, suddenly everyone has the opportunity to take a step back from the daily rat race. Allowing space for this type of contemplation in our lives facilitates multilevel disintegration. From moral conflict arises a spontaneous, hierarchic structure where we can critically evaluate what we value as “lower” and “higher.” The conflict is always between what is and what ought to be. And the movement toward what ought to be opens a channel for resolution and development: alternative ways of living towards higher values.

Now that our globalized structures are breaking down, however, we are all questioning where we are now and how we would like the world to be after the crisis. Allowing space for this type of contemplation in our lives facilitates multilevel disintegration.

It is my hope that, instead of a time when the world doubled down on “getting back to normal,” the coronavirus crisis will be looked at in retrospect as a paradigm shift in history—a point of no return where we made different choices for the future. This will only happen, however, if an increasing number of people go through multilevel disintegration and the process of hierarchization of values. This may seem counter-intuitive, given what I have just said about the pandemic pushing a lot of people into unilevel disintegration, and making them long for a return to primary integration. But people can also move from unilevel disintegration into multilevel disintegration, and the current state of the world is an inevitable condition for this sort of development to happen on a societal scale. This means we will probably have to pass first through a period with considerably more negative disintegration, conservatism, nostalgia, and autocratic leaders. Things have to become worse before they will improve.

If you are familiar with TPD, you might know that personal growth rarely happens in our comfort zone. It usually gets ignited by the dark episodes in our lives: conflict, crisis, loss. Maybe even hitting rock bottom. That’s when we face the most pressure to see our capacity for positive transformation. On a global scale, this is not any different. Think for instance about the major positive transformation Western Europe went through after the World Wars and the Spanish Flu. The horrible first half of the twentieth century eventually catalyzed movements for the emancipation of women, affordable health care and an increase of working-class wages in this part of the world. Most countries became welfare states and joined forces in international organizations like the United Nations and NATO.

Personal growth rarely happens in our comfort zone. It usually gets ignited by the dark episodes in our lives: conflict, crisis. That’s when we face the most pressure to see our capacity for positive transformation. On a global scale, this is not any different.

The Personal Becomes the Global

So, what does this mean for you, as an individual? What can you do as you ride this global chaotic roller coaster we’re all stuck on?

Being a Third Factor reader, chances are you are already familiar with your own multilevel development process. This brings me to some other level III dynamisms that can really serve you right now. Take positive maladjustment: do you reject the standard attitudes of society as incompatible with your own growing awareness of higher values? Does that make you feel angry, sad, anxious, or frustrated? It’s especially tempting now to obsessively devour news and helplessly witness the suffering of others.

You can, however, choose another path.

Dabrowski said that crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, leading to creativity and personality development. You can use this time in quarantine to do inner work: confront individual pains, anxieties, childhood wounds, increase self-awareness, and grow your resilience. Journaling and spending time in nature are excellent tools to accelerate this process of inner psychic transformation. And when you’ve taken a deep dive into your inner world, channel your emotions via creative instinct: sing, dance, paint, write, redecorate your house, bake a pie, sew your own face mask. For now, do whatever you are drawn to do at the moment, for no other purpose than your personal, emotional expression, and growth.

But don’t stay there forever: when the time comes to share your development process with others, then make yourself heard! The world needs to hear your dreams, ideas, values, and multilevel perspective on life. Join a local initiative to help people—or start your own. Share your thoughts about how things are, and how they ought to be. Ideally, help others who don’t yet experience multilevel disintegration figure out how to get there; use subject-object in oneself to bring them along with you. What could the future look like? What sort of world would you like to live in after the pandemic? Continuously expressing alternative visions and new perspectives can create a ripple effect. Eventually, our political representatives will no longer be able to ignore these possibilities.

A worldwide crisis is a pressure cooker for development, personally as well as collectively. Inner conflict and hardship are easily forgotten when life is back to normal, so make sure to reap the benefits of our current situation. If you want to accelerate your personal growth and contribute to a new global narrative, now is the time.


K. Dabrowski, A. Kawczak & M. Piechowski (1970). Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration

K. Dabrowski & M. Piechowski (1977). Theory of Levels of Emotional Development, Vol. 1

Manifest (2020). We kunnen Nederland radicaal duurzamer en eerlijker maken: vijf voorstellen voor Nederland na Corona

Uneven Earth (2020). Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us?

R. Wallace (2016). Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

The Sun (2020). Boris’ COVID Hell

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