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Ecstasy

Is ayahuasca tourism ‘cultural appropriation’?

This essay is a personal opinion and may contain misunderstandings of my own. I’d be interested to hear from others with more knowledge and experience of ayahuasca, including indigenous healers or those who work closely with them. 

In the last 50 years, Western culture has imported many ecstatic practices. We lost our homegrown spirit as a consequence of a long process of disenchantment that began around the Reformation and continued through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. There were of course ecstatic revivals, like Romanticism, but they were counter-currents to the main tide. 

Then, in the 1960s, there was a mass explosion of ecstatic practices. Part of that was fuelled by the rapid popularisation of non-western practices, such as yoga, Zen, TM, Tai Chi, Hari Krishna, Native American medicine like peyote and magic mushrooms, and also the popularisation of African-American culture like jazz, rock & roll and Pentecostalism.

But this ‘spiritual tourism’ raises some questions. What’s the right way to engage with another culture’s spiritual treasures? Do Westerners have the right to pick and mix, or to appropriate a culture (creating mindfulness, for example)? Can this sort of spiritual tourism actually be a form of cultural appropriation?

‘Cultural appropriation’ has become one of the rallying cries of left-wing identity politics in the US.  It’s been defined as follows:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

Campus activists have, in the last few years, criticized things like white students dressing up as stereotypical Mexicans for parties, or the use of ethnic stereotypes for sports mascots, such as the Washington Redskins or the San Diego State Incas.

And the charge of cultural appropriation has also been levelled against whities adopting non-Western spiritual practices like yoga. In 2015, for example, the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class when students protested against it as an instance of cultural theft. This month, a professor at Michigan State University delighted the right-wing press by describing Westerners doing yoga as an instance of white supremacy and systemic racism.

The question of cultural sensitivity (or lack of) was levelled at my last book in an excellent review by Oxford PhD Maya Krishnan. She took issue with my exploration of tantra, saying I had failed to explore its intellectual history and merely presented the ‘neo-tantra’ of Osho, which is a valid criticism. She writes:

The importation and adaptation of experiences of ego loss does not have to be a problem if it is done in the right way. But is troubling to treat other cultures as experiential storehouses which can be raided for ‘good feels’, yet whose conceptual frameworks and intellectual contributions are not worthy of consideration. Engaging with non-Western traditions requires dismantling the hierarchy which allows non-Westerners to be adept at having feelings but which reserves the authority of interpretation for Western scientists and intellectuals.

Which brings me to ayahuasca tourism. Is this, also, an example of cultural appropriation? I read two books this week, both by anthropologists of ayahuasca, which presented starkly different views.

The first is a 2008 book called A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced With Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States, by medical anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrill. De Rios has been researching ayahuasca use in the Amazon since the 1960s, and she is appalled by the rise of ‘drug tourism’, ie plane-loads of Western seekers descending on Peru to swig ayahuasca in an attempt to get high and fill their spiritual emptiness.

The authors are against ayahuasca tourism for two reasons. Firstly, they condemn the rise of ‘charlatan’ neo-shamans, both Amazonian and gringo, who cater to the influx of drug tourists. They charge extortionate amounts to run ceremonies, they often haven’t the proper shamanic training and don’t know what they’re doing, they mix brews with all kinds of potentially dangerous plants in the mix (such as datura or deadly nightshade), and they sometimes seduce or assault their female western clients. They are a commodified corruption of the authentic, pure, traditional village shaman that de Rios encountered in the 1960s, whose practices existed unchanged for several thousand years before the gringo tourists turned up and ruined everything.

Secondly, the authors blame the other side of the market – the Western tourists. They exhibit a deep contempt for these tourists, in passages which are so intemperate, bilious and frankly weird as to be unacademic:

A number of upscale, well to do, prominent Americans and Europeans are touring Amazonian cities. Interested neither in parrots nor piranhas [?] , they revel in special all-night religious ceremonies presided over by a powerful shaman…Unlike the jungle denizens who for the last several thousand years have drunk the potion to see the vine’s mother spirit in order to protect themselves from enemies, to divine the future, or to heal their emotional and physical disorders, the urban tourist is a on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth…Who are these spiritual seekers? They’re ‘narcissistic, selfish, permissive men and women who put their own selves first and foremost…There is the issue of out-and-out theft of the long-standing spiritual teachings and practices of others. Men and women select what they want and ignore anything that does not fit their model…They either have no respect, and treat ayahuasca as a party drug, or they exoticize the shaman into some sort of ‘happy savage’.

The phenomenon, write the authors, ‘has become so flagrant since the mid-1980s that the culture of native peoples is in danger of extinction’. And the worst of it is, it’s partly the fault of anthropologists like de Rios. They came back to the West with tales of marvellous psychedelic ceremonies, and did their best not to sensationalize their accounts, but this opened the floodgate to the goddam tourists: ‘such ‘mass’ or pseudo-intellectual people demand access to the drugs as if it were their natural right to do so.’ They’re not just risking their sanity, their arrival also ‘effectively destroys’ the purity of indigenous culture ‘that has roots in the prehistoric past’.

The authors raise two concerns. Firstly, vulnerable Western tourists are being exploited by fake shamans. Secondly, rapacious Western tourists are ruining indigenous culture with their ravenous, disruptive and ignorant spiritual consumerism. You could say, well, both sides are exploiting the other in a free exchange, is that such a problem? Yes, says de Rios, because it’s destroying the authentic indigenous shamanism which she – the expert anthropologist – uniquely appreciates.

The second book I read is called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, and is a collection of essays by anthropologists, published in 2014. I think it’s a much better book than the first, because it maintains a critical distance all too often lacking from academic explorations of ayahuasca. Academics have tended to get lost in their own trip: ayahuasca is an encounter with the secret of DNA (Jeremy Narby), or with ‘Grandmother Ayahuasca’ (Rachel Harris). Such personal accounts make for compelling reading, but they lack critical distance. 

The book begins by suggesting the contemporary phenomenon of ayahuasca use by Amazonians and Westerners has been ‘poorly served’ by anthropologists in the past, because they’ve constructed naive and ideologically-loaded theories of a pure and authentic traditional culture which existed unchanged for millennia until it was suddenly destroyed by Western tourists.  Instead, the editors write:

Local shamanism, cosmopolitan biomedicine and psychology, alternative therapies, New Age spirituality, and the tourism service industry have blended in intricate and fascinating ways that challenge traditional ethnographic notions of authenticity, ethnicity, tradition and place.

Firstly, is ayahuasca use among Amazon Indians definitely pre-historic? Recent work by Peter Gow, Bernd Brabec de Mori and other anthropologists challenges this view, pointing out that there’s no evidence for ayahuasca use among Amazon tribes before the 19th century. There’s evidence for the ingestion of DMT going back to prehistoric times, but not for the use of the ayahuasca brew, which mixes the ayahuasca vine with the chacruna plant. We don’t know how or when this mixture was discovered, but these authors suggest knowledge of the mixture spread among Amazon tribes in the mid-19th century as a consequence of the disruption of the rubber boom and the rise of Jesuit missionary camps, or reducciones, established by Jesuit missionaries from the 17th century onwards.

Stephan Beyer writes:

Indigenous people sought the protection of these camps from epidemic disease, depopulation, slave raiders, and the military threats of their neighbours. Here they were forced to live in common compounds regardless of their tribal distinctions. The intention was that in this way the indios infieles could be more easily controlled and converted to indios cristianos; but the unintended consequence was to form a pressure cooker of cultural interchange.

Irineu Serra with the Costa brothers

Some tribes have only started using ayahuasca in the last few decades, and have embraced it with enthusiasm. A handful of white settlers seem to have drunk ayahuasca since at least the 1920s – the founder of the Santo Daime ayahuasca church, an Afro-Brazilian called Raimundo Irineu Serra, was introduced to ayahuasca by two Spanish-Brazilian brothers, Antonio and Andre Costa. I read on the Santo Daime website that: ‘At this time the sacrament was used to guide the Indians in hunting and fishing, and also to entertain the white man in the moonlight.’  Ah the white man, always seeking entertainment.

In other words, the history of ayahuasca may be quite recent, and from the start seems to be deeply intertwined with the history of globalization, empire, disruption, trade, research and tourism. There may not be an indigenous ayahuasca culture which existed pure and unchanged for millennia before it was ruined by foreigners. On the contrary, it may have arisen quite recently, out of the shock of change and the encounter with different tribes and western civilization, and then spread through new technologies and new exchanges of knowledge and trade, including the internet. I think ecstatic practices often arise in this way, out of the shock of economic and political change and the violent / creative encounter between tribes and cultures.

Secondly, what is the ‘authentic’ use of ayahuasca, who owns it, who is entitled to use it, and how?  Glenn Shepard notes that some tribes like the Yora have only started using ayahuasca since the 1980s, and asks:

Is there anything special, unique or particular about indigenous people’s relationship to ayahuasca when compared to adepts who use it in urban centres? Do the Matsigenka and Yora have an inherently superior moral right to consume ayahuasca within their spiritual tradition when compared with, say, a Belgian Santo Daime member risking incarceration to consume an illegal substance? Such questions raise troubling doubts about our sometimes facile resort to terms such as ‘tradition’, ‘modernity’ ‘indigeneity’, and ‘authenticity’.

There are genuine issues around the economics of ayahuasca tourism. On the one hand, why shouldn’t local ayahuasqueros make money from their work? Why shouldn’t tourism revenues go into the Uyacali, one of the most deprived regions of Peru? On the other hand, Bernd Brabec de Mori estimates that only a few dozen Shipibos ‘live well on ayahuasca tourism’ out of a population of 50,000. Centres owned by or employing Westerners have advantages of language and culture which enable them to attract more Western tourists than local healers. The inequality caused by tourist revenues leads to envy, social discord, and magical attacks against shamans who cater to gringos. And it can mean that locals are priced out of the market – why would shamans provide their services to locals for free when you can sell them to gringos for hundreds of dollars?

There are also serious issues with the ethics and competence of shamans – boom times always lead to a rise in shysters. But I’m sure there have always been shamans who caused harm and abused their power, as with priests, therapists, gurus, psychiatrists or any technicians of the soul. Western tourists should be aware of this and not romanticize or exoticize the shaman, which is forgivable and well-intentioned but still a subtle form of objectification. Daniela Peluso writes:

whereas Amazonian women tend to view shamans as humans who can potentially be abusive, uninfomred Western women do not…it is the coinciding of shamans who view women as easy prey with women who idealize shamans that exacerbates the trend of seduction within ritual contexts.

Has a ‘pure’ indigenous shamanism been corrupted by foreign influence? Yes, some ‘neo-shamans’ offer rituals which seem to throw everything into the mix – jaguars, condors, Mama Ayahuasca, Pachamama, Jesus, Mary, chakras, spiritualism, energy fields, past lives, UFOs. And you could see that as a corruption caused by the similarly ‘pick n’ mix’ Western tourists. But to me, Latin American folk religion has been that sort of syncretistic mash-up for several centuries.

It’s hard for a Western academic to decide which shamans are legitimate and which are bogus, because it depends on unquantifiable things like their dominion over the spirit world. It’s also arrogant and even imperialist – who is de Rios to decree who are genuine shamans and what is and isn’t the legitimate use of ayahuasca? Who made her the jungle pope?

Are Western tourists so very decadent in their motives? Evgenia Foutou met and interviewed many ayahuasca tourists in Peru, and discovered: ‘A majority of participants in ayahuasca ceremonies are motivated by a desire to be healed and have reported successful healing from both psychological and physical ailments.’ That’s not so different to Amazonian clients. Are they more disrespectful in their approach to rituals? No – if anything, they’re more pious. Shipibo ceremonies for tourists are, according to Brabec de Mori, far more formal than ceremonies for locals, in which the shaman will rarely dress up and people come and go as they please. Shipibo shamans joke among themselves, apparently, about the ridiculously elaborate shows their peers put on for the tourists.

Diverging models of illness and healing

There is, of course, a world of difference between Western and Amazonian theories of psychological illness and cure. As Anne-Marie Losonczy and Silvia Mesturini Cappo explore in their essay on ‘Ritualized Misunderstandings’, Amazonians see illnesses either as natural (and therefore treatable with biomedicine) or as caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca helps the shaman identify the instigators of the sorcery, battle the malevolent spirits they have sent, and sometimes get revenge. The cause and cure for illness are ‘out there’, in present social disputes.

Westerners by contrast see psychological problems as caused by emotions, often rooted in family relationships and childhood traumas, and think healing involves release, acceptance, love, forgiveness and sometimes an encounter with one’s higher self or a benevolent higher power, rather than some local and morally-ambiguous spirit ally. The cause and cure for illness are ‘in here’, often in the past.

In other words, the Amazon shaman and the Western tourist meet in the incredible intensity of the ayahuasca ceremony, and have completely different models of what takes place. There is a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’. But they both come away satisfied. They’re able to do this partly because the ceremony takes place in music and gesture, while verbal interaction is kept to a minimum. Western or local mediators help to translate what’s taking place into terms the Western clients can accept, like ‘facing your shadow’ or ‘discovering the real you’.

Do they really get each other?

I chose to do ayahuasca at the Temple of the Way of Light, a well-known centre near Iquitos set up by a British man, which employs Shipibo shamans, because it combined indigenous practitioners with Western facilitators. I wanted to be able to seek support from Western therapists if necessary. My understanding of what was taking place was guided by them, more than the shamans, who didn’t speak English. I did find the shamans’ singing extraordinary and important to my healing experience, but who is to say how much of that was cultural projection on my part? I simply don’t know, because I don’t know whether ayahuasca connects to a genuine spirit world, and what the nature of that world is. I don’t know the precise distribution of revenues within the Temple, but it does fund an institute to support local indigenous communities and culture, and also to support the sustainable growth of the ayahuasca vine.

To conclude, ayahuasca tourism involves all kinds of risks, myths, misunderstandings and unintended consequences. As tourists we should seek to protect ourselves from the risks, and be careful who we trust. It might also be respectful to research about indigenous ayahuasca culture, which is what I’ve done since coming back from Peru. But the more I do, the more I see the distance between Western understandings of ayahuasca healing, and Amazonian understanding of it. Most Western tourists are ignorant of the sorcery-model of illness and healing, and I think would be quite surprised and put off if they knew more about it. To me, it is not a good model for Westerners, not one I want to adopt or disseminate.

What we see in ayahuasca tourism, instead, is a Westernized, Christianized version of ayahuasca culture. Instead of the Amazonian idea of dominating spirits in order to expose your secret enemies and get revenge, Westerners use ayahuasca to identify the traumas or emotional blocks in their psyche, and to find healing through acceptance, love, perseverance, and surrender to a totally benevolent higher power. It’s close to the therapeutic Deism one finds in most contemporary churches, in which Jesus is basically your life coach, but with a nature Goddess rather than a cosmic God. Perhaps it’s rather boring and bland compared to Amazonian sorcery battles. But I think it’s much healthier for Western psyches.

If ayahuasca use continues to grow among Westerners, we’re likely to see more and more Westernized centres, owned and run by Westerners, probably increasingly based in Europe and the US (in Oregon, a new church which uses ayahuasca is currently defending its right to use the brew in the courts). Where will they source their ayahuasca? Do we have the right to grow our own ayahuasca and use it for our own rituals (as Santo Daime has done)? Will that leave indigenous healers out entirely? Is that a bad thing, or should each culture stick to its own culture?

One thing I’m certain of is that no one is really in charge, no one is in control, and a variety of different forms of ayahuasca culture will emerge, from religious cults to DIY secular libertarianism. Who knows which will flourish and spread. Maybe the medicine knows!

On Metamodernism and The Listening Society

The Listening Society is a new book by a writer called Hanzi Freinacht. He outlines a philosophy called metamodernism, which he says can be defined as an aesthetic movement, a developmental stage, and a political ideology. The political ideology – which has inspired alternative political parties in Sweden and Denmark – espouses a new politics focused on promoting not just happiness but the highest possible states of consciousness.

The book is refreshingly bold, and interesting in the way it brings together politics with transpersonal psychology and spirituality. Some of its ideas may seem outlandish, but they’re already gaining traction in Nordic politics, so who knows?

Firstly, who is Hanzi Freinacht? This question – also the title of an early chapter – reminds me of Ayn Rand’s constant query, who is John Galt? Like John Galt, Freinacht is a fearless outsider in a society yet to recognize his genius. He sits in a jacuzzi overlooking the Alps (in a chalet lent to him, we’re told, by a millionaire friend) and foresees the future of the world. The photos of him on the internet suggest a Nordic hipster, Friedrich Nietzsche meets Tyler Brulé.

In fact, Hanzi Freinacht is a made-up character invented by two people – Emil Ejner Friis, a Danish philosopher and activist in the Danish Alternative Party; and Daniel Gortz, a PhD student in sociology at Lund University in Sweden.

There is something manic and immature about Freinacht’s pronouncements, such as: ‘I hereby challenge you to find one source in the world that says anything resembling the overall message of this book and its sequel. You, the contemporary reader, cannot.’  One can’t tell if the grandiosity is Freinacht’s or the authors’. But the creation of a bombastic alter-ego allows them, as it allowed Soren Kierkegaard, to both rhapsodize with desperate romanticism, and to preserve an ironic distance from that romanticism. That oscillation between irony and deep sincerity is at the heart of meta-modernism, apparently.

Metamodernism as aesthetic movement

What is metamodernism? As I said, it’s an aesthetic movement, a developmental stage, and a political ideology (or ‘political psychology’ in Freinacht’s phrase).

Shia LaBeouf at the Cannes premier for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

In aesthetics, various artistic theorists have, since the 1970s, suggested metamodernism is the next movement after post-modernism. Most visibly, the artists Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö have teamed up with actor Shia LaBouef to champion a metamodernist manifesto and stage metamodernist art happenings – Shia LaBouef with a paper bag over his head in an LA art gallery, Shia LaBouef in a lift in Oxford, Shia LaBouef in purple spandex running laps round the Stedelijk Museum. All these happenings try to generate moments of genuine intimacy between the artist and audience, while also remaining aware of the difficulties of that (the public mainly want an Instagramm snap with Shia).

Turner has spoken of metamodernism as the oscillation between post-modern irony and pastiche, and the Romantic desire for genuine engagement, authenticity and transcendence. Freinacht agrees that to be metamodernist is ‘to be exquisitely ironic and sincere, both at once’.

Artists defined as metamodern include Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Marina Abramovich and Wes Anderson. I guess Russell Brand is an example of a metamodern figure – beginning as a post-modern dandy presenting Big Brother, then going off on a spiritual odyssey to find genuine transcendence, while retaining the ability to mock himself and his Messiah complex. I suppose my own writing is metamodern, in a way – in the last book, I genuinely searched for ecstatic experiences while also making fun of myself and the bullshit one encounters along the spiritual path. So yeah, I was metamodern way before you, LeBeouf!

Metamodernism as political ideology

Freinacht correctly points out that western culture is in a political crisis marked by a lack of exciting or transcendent visions for the future.  Politics and economics as usual are obviously failing, and people are looking for alternative utopias. He thinks Nordic countries present humanity’s best hope – he writes, with customary humility, that they are ‘by far the most progressive societies that the world has ever seen’. Nordic politics already have a broad consensus around the welfare state, environmental policies and personal libertarianism.

Now, a new type of party is emerging, like The Alternative in Denmark, the Initiative in Sweden, and the Pirate’s Party in Iceland. These parties are non-hierarchical, co-created, net-savvy but also emotional and vulnerable (the Alternative party signs off all its missives with ‘love’). And they’re committed to a deeper welfare state, which promotes not just well-being but love and higher states of consciousness. They would transform all of society into a Nordic hippy commune. Check out this recent New Yorker article on these new parties, and Freinacht’s influence on them. 

Freinacht writes: ‘Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psychological growth…. What we are talking about is the deliberate, long-term management of deep, complex, social-psychological issues.’

Metamodernism has also inspired a cultural-political network in the UK called Alter Ego, whose first annual gathering I attended last year – it was an unusual combination of progressive politics, yoga, near-death rituals and fireside singing, and brought together various interesting people like Jonathan Rowson, who wrote the RSA’s spirituality report; Stephen Reid, who left the New Economics Foundation to set up The Psychedelic Society; and Ronan Harrington, who organized the Alter Ego gathering and wrote a piece in Open Democracy calling for a new politics of spirituality (check out this piece as well).

Alter Ego’s manifesto declares: ‘Political problems are never “just” political; they are always also emotional, psychological and (what some call) “spiritual” problems…Politics has neglected the most fundamental questions of human life—those related to meaning, purpose and transcendence…The personal development of individuals must be taken seriously if we want to transform society.’ 

Freinacht likewise thinks the ultimate goal of The Listening Society should be the encouragement of higher states of consciousness in the population. But what does that mean, practically? Freinacht doesn’t get into that much, but he does talk about everyone being entitled to therapy and everyone learning to meditate – by this reckoning the UK is already on its way to meta-modern utopia. Other initiatives might be the legalization of psychedelics (or all drugs), the introduction of universal basic income, the expansion of lifelong learning and community arts, the establishment of new institutions for spiritual development like neo-monasteries, the revival of existing cultural tools like pilgrimage and evensong, the reform of education to make it more focused on development, well-being and flow, the development of innovative communal homes for the elderly, greater protection for animal rights and a move to vegetarianism or veganism….and so on.

Metamodernism as developmental stage

Finally, what about metamodernism as a developmental stage? Freinacht insists you can’t build an effective politics unless you understand that people – and sometimes whole cultures – are at different developmental stages, and try to work with those stages.

He gives the reader an overview of various different developmental theories – those of Ken Wilber, Robert Kegan, Michael Lamport Commons and others – before suggesting none of them are comprehensive, because they fail to see that development occurs at multiple variables, and one can be advanced in one variable but not very advanced in another. Freinacht’s own developmental theory looks at four different variables – cognitive complexity, symbolic code, psychological state, and depth. I’m going to describe them briefly – hang in there.

1) Cognitive complexity

He takes the variable of cognitive complexity from Daniel Gortz’ mentor Michael Lamport Commons, who classifies all life into different levels of ability to analyse and respond to information, from amoeba up to geniuses. For humans, the most important stages are Stages 10, 11, 12 and 13.

Stage 10 thinkers tend to focus on one abstract variable (justice, equality, Christian faith) and make it all-important, without seeing how multiple variables interact. As a result, they will often have a rather simplified, black-and-white view of the world. ‘Islam is evil’, for example. ‘Racism is bad.’ ‘The Patriachy is destroying the world’. ‘F*ck the Tories’. ‘Jesus saves’. And so on.

Stage 11 thinkers see how variables can interact and tries to use empirical evidence: ‘Racism results from economic and social inequalities’; ‘Some Arab-Islamic cultural norms may be irreconcilable with Western civilization’; ‘Feminism seeks gender equality’…and so on.

Stage 12 thinkers seek to combine multiple variables into a coherent system: ‘Racism is an emergent property of all societies. and interacts with things like inequality. Blaming and pointing the finger is generally unproductive and one should instead try to address the long-term issues.’

And Stage 13 thinkers – metamodernist thinkers – are very rare, and are able to combine multiple systems into meta-systems (like, say, combining Marxist economics with psychoanalysis?) A Stage 13 take on the clash of cultures might be: ‘Liberal values prevalent in Western counties may be more functional in late modern society than the more traditionalist values of many Arab Muslims but for the successful integration of these different cultures one must take the perspectives of all parties seriously.’

I must admit I haven’t encountered Commons’ theory of cognitive complexity before, and don’t readily see the difference between Stages 11, 12 and 13 (this probably means I’m Stage 11!) One can have an all-embracing theory or even meta-theory of the world – feminism, Marxism, Islam – and still be very black-and-white in your thinking (F*ck Men / the Rich / Infidels). Does having an all-embracing theory of the world definitely mean you’re more advanced than if you don’t?

But I get the basic idea. And I share Freinacht’s frustration with a contemporary politics that looks for simplistic narratives of heroes and villains, thereby failing to see how different systems interact and implicate all of us, how any political reform – however well motivated – has unintended consequences, and thus there is no such thing as ‘liberal innocence’, no place of purity from which one can look down on the world. I would love a more joined-up holistic politics that moves beyond Left and Right tribal narratives.

2) Symbolic code

The second of Freinacht’s developmental variables refers to the cultural code in which a person lives. A person might be a Stage 13 thinker in a society with rather basic cultural resources. The seven stages of cultural evolution are more familiar to me.

A) Archaic: the culture of Neanderthal man, before homo sapiens and animism

B) Animist: hunter-gatherer societies, characterized by belief in spirits

C) Faustian / Homeric: city-state societies, run by warrior-groups,  with a value-system celebrating honour and glory in battle (might is right).

D) Post-Faustian / Axial: societies extended over wide geographic area, which follow religions characterized by faith in an all-pervasive God / Logos / Dao / karma with which the individual should live in harmony. Might is not right – the true warrior conquers themselves.

E) Modern: industrial societies, characterized by faith in secular objective materialist reality which can be discovered through science. Faith in God is as ignorant as faith in the Tooth Fairy.

F) Post-modern: post-industrial societies, characterized by suspicion of all grand narratives, including science. Truth is socially and culturally constructed. Ignorant modernists don’t realize how their ‘objective reality’ is the product of their white, male, cis, middle-class power structures. 

G) Metamodern:  You are able to see all the previous stages as necessary shifts in cultural evolution, and ‘give each perspective its due credit’. Post-modernism gets some things right but fails to go beyond its shaming critiques of mainstream power structures (systemic racism, systemic patriarchy), and fails to offer a vision of the future which tackles global inequality, ecological catastrophe, and mental illness. Freinacht writes: ‘you have to offer a path to Utopia…and it has to really include the traditional, modern and post-modern – even while knowing that this path will never be the only one or the ‘right one’.’

3) Subjective states

The third variable is subjective states. Freinacht insists that things like economics and politics ‘are only of value insofar as they translate into or otherwise affect subjective experiences…[These] are what must be of ultimate significance in life and society’. He’s a utilitarian, but of the JS Mill rather than Bentham variety – you can’t just call all positive subjective experiences ‘happiness’, and then rate them on a happiness scale. In fact, it’s a mistake to focus on emotions: ‘Organisms don’t really seek or avoid certain emotions, they seek to raise the level of their subjective state and avoid low states’.  Some subjective experiences are higher and better than others. He gives us this scale:

Lower states:

1. Hellish

2. Horrific

3. Tortured

4. Tormented

Medium states:

5. Very uneasy

6. Uneasy, uncomfortable

7. Somewhat uneasy, OK, full of small faults

8. Satisfied, well

9. Good, lively

10. Joyous, full of light, invigorated

 High states:

11. Vast, grand, open

12. Blissful

13. Enlightened, spiritual unity

Freinacht believes we’re not just stuck in one particular state – they ‘are extremely volatile [and] can shift very dramatically from one instant to another’ (something one discovers on psychedelics or meditation retreat). With the proper inputs into our personality – art, nature, psychedelics, spiritual training – we can develop our state – increase our median state, increase our average state, increase our minimum state, increase our maximum state, and so on.

4) Depth

Proper spiritual / psychological training and experience also develops Freinacht’s fourth variable – depth – which he defines as ‘a person’s intimate, embodied acquaintance with subjective states’. He writes: ‘Great-depth people are the ones who have experienced a wider range of subjective states, who are well acquainted with being in such states and who have learned to handle them.’

One can be advanced in one of these developmental variables, and basic in another. Eckhart Tolle, for example, ‘obviously has high states. But his answers on any social or societal issues, and the theories propounded in his books, are of average complexity. It should be made perfectly clear that this man, while being both kind and wise, is poorly educated and, truth be told, not very clever.’  One could have a high level of cognitive complexity, and be utterly miserable and spiritually bereft (see most PhD students). One could experience far-out altered states, but have no idea how to integrate them into stable altered traits.

Freinacht suggests that Nordic societies are now mainly modernist and post-modernist, but there are the stirrings of a new metamodernist aristocracy – the Triple H of Hipsters, Hackers and Hippies, who have reached meta-modern stages of development in one or more of his four variables. They live outside traditional work structures and reward incentives, tend to work for themselves while being highly networked and rich in creative and social capital, but can easily fall into the precariat (ie they can be broke).

They are aided by the ‘yoga-bourgeoisie’, members of the business class who have ‘found that money is not the answer to a happy life and therefore begin to cultivate self-awareness, authenticity and intimacy—often in and around yoga parlours, tantra group settings, contact improvisation dance, improvisation theatre, self-help courses and coaches, and to some extent Burning Man festival and its wider cultural sphere.’

This new aristocracy is the force driving the development of new political parties. And the future belongs to them, basically. To us! Woohoo! Sound the gong, light the sage, prepare the kambo frog.

Concluding thoughts

I enjoyed The Listening Society, and it helped me join the dots with regards to a new spirit I’ve seen emerging in people I know in London, mainly social entrepreneurs in their early 30s. who are trying to improve society through new forms of work and community, who are more willing than my own generation (40+) to go beyond post-modern irony and search for genuine intimacy and transcendence, and who are interested in spiritual practices that draw from the well of traditional religions without being restricted to any one dogma. It’s not yet the most political generation, but I wonder if it could be.

The book also chimed with my own long-term interest in the ‘politics of well-being’. The book could have said a lot more on specifics – what specific policies would help to build the Listening Society? How can you master-mind the emotional and spiritual development of a whole population? OK, free therapy, free meditation, free magic mushrooms…then what? How will we find meaning in a post-work society, other than in opiate addiction or virtual reality gaming?

I think Freinacht is right: the answer lies in spiritual development. But there are all kinds of risks to a politics of spirituality. An ecstatic politics, where everyone is in an altered state and thinks they’re on a divine / historical mission, easily turns into a bloodbath. That’s what happened in the Crusades, the English Civil War and the French Revolution, three ecstatic political moments. The in-group feels ecstatically bonded, but sees outsiders as demonic enemies who must be purged for the new age of love to dawn. Ecstatic politics isn’t necessarily violent – I think of, say, the relatively benign influence of Methodism on British politics. But that’s usually because there’s a separation between the church and the state. What Freinacht and others suggest is a marriage of the spiritual and political. I don’t think they’ve fully considered the risks.  

One sees a tension between different values in Freinacht’s metamodernism. For example, what would the metamodern party position be on mass immigration? Does a metamodern society require a critical mass of metamodern people? Won’t the declining demographics among post-modernist and metamodernist populations mean they will be increasingly outnumbered by traditionalists? 

Another tension is between technology and the development of high subjective states. We are no longer 90s tech-utopians who think the internet naturally leads to what Timothy Leary called a ‘neo-ecstatic society’. Now, we are more likely to think that the internet, and particularly social media, are inimical to the development of a caring, empathetic society, and to the development of attention, compassion and equanimity in individuals. Hackers and hippies may not be such natural allies after all.

Likewise, Freinacht has a rather bland assumption that the metamodern political parties of the future will naturally be both libertarian and green – does he mean socially libertarian, rather than economic? Is the globe-trotting metamodern lifestyle bad for the planet?

What is lacking from his description of the metamodern cultural stage is a satisfying description of consciousness. We may be dissatisfied with the modernist-materialist description of consciousness (or lack of one). We may also be dissatisfied with the post-modernist idea that animist / monotheist / secular ontologies are also somehow ‘true’ – culturally true, true for the person experiencing them. We wonder if humanity is going to advance its understanding of consciousness further – into something like pan-psychism, or the extended mind, or Mind-at-Large, or plant consciousness / Gaia-soul, or some idea of an extended, immortal consciousness such as people seem to experience on psychedelics. Freinacht plays at the edges of such ideas, but is wary of going there, because he’s a secularist, and doesn’t want to fall into what he calls ‘the astrology precariat’. But surely, if metamodernism is really a bold new phase of cultural development on a par with the Axial Age, it will need a bold new theory of consciousness. We haven’t got there yet.

Finally, I have an ingrained wariness of developmental theories. I’m wary of the idea that science can accurately define and measure stages of spiritual development, and then classify the population into these levels. You can measure the extent to which a person feels ego-dissolution on a basic one to ten scale…but we can’t tell if they’re telling the truth, or if their 6 is comparable to someone else’s 6. Science can’t accurately measure a person’s depth or level of spiritual wisdom – how could it do that? I don’t deny there are different levels of spiritual wisdom, just that science can define and measure them.

A risk of developmental theories, as Freinacht well knows, is they lead to a sense of arrogance and entitlement in the people who hold such theories, who invariably see themselves as the highest level, and their opponents as retards. I remember going to Alter Ego, and one panellist asking us to raise our hands if we’d been to Burning Man. I went to a similar panel on contemporary spirituality at an event called ‘joy-tech’, and a panellist asked the same question. I think it’s unattractive and unwise, this preening of ourselves as highly advanced beings because we take regular gong baths and drink ayahuasca lattes.

Still, that’s a risk Freinacht himself warns of. I applaud the boldness of his vision and his integration of spirituality and politics. He has described something that I see arising in my society, in the generation after me. I don’t yet know to what extent it will become a powerful political force. The idea of co-created political parties like The Alternative sounds a bit like being trapped in a Swedish commune arguing about the washing-up. Still, the UK’s existing political parties seem utterly broken to me. Perhaps it’s time to roll up our sleeves and have a go ourselves.

P.S. The Listening Society is the first of a two-parter – the sequel, The Nordic Ideology, may have more practical policy recommendations when it comes out, I believe next year. Keep an eye on Freinacht’s website, Metamoderna.org