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Politics of Well-Being

The lazy mysticism of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, cartoon guru

The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to prophet-of-rage Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube, and are often edited to the accompaniment of orchestral or ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and jazzy collages of modern life. He’s the favourite guru of Jarvis Cocker, Spike Jonze and Jonny Depp, and – pinnacle of pinnacles – even made the intro to Cheryl Cole’s last album. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age – indeed, in Jonze’s film Her, Watts has been resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.

It’s poignant that a restless nomad who never found a home in traditional institutions should find digital immortality on the Net. Watts was the only child of a suburban English couple. He won a scholarship to the oldest boarding school in the country – Kings Canterbury – and there announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. At 16, Watts became secretary of the Buddhist Lodge, then the leading (or only) Buddhist organization in the UK. At 20 he published his first book on Zen. He struck adults, back then, as an angelic prodigy, like the child Jesus lecturing in the temple.

He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’ (Huxley, Heard and Isherwood), he was really a perennialist, a prophet of contemporary pick n’ mix spirituality. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.’

He foresaw, in the 1930s, that Western Christianity could do with a contemplative and mystical revival,  but split from the church when facing ejection for his unconventional views and lifestyle – he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).

He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. It was a new type of higher education institution –participatory, open to the mystical, seeking consciousness-transformation rather than abstract knowledge. In this, it was a forerunner of alternative colleges like Schumacher, the Garrison Institute and Esalen. Watts later wrote: ‘The Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs.’ How wonderful to think of university in terms of ‘spiritual needs’.

But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk for hours, without notes, weaving in arcane references with hip terms like ‘grooving on the Eternal Now’, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. I personally find his lectures a bit pompous and repetitive – as I do the YouTube sermons of Jordan Peterson – but the kids love it. Like Peterson, he speaks with such authority and drama that one can switch off the critical mind and let it all wash over you, and still feel a hell of a lot wiser by the end. It’s not analysis so much as rhapsody. That’s why his talks goes so well with ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and collages of images. Light a joint and drop the Watts!

 

 

But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?

Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’, Watts was a prophet of the perennial philosophy, and the idea we can – and even should – seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He said of himself: ‘since the age of forty-two I have been a freelance, a rolling stone, and a shaman, as distinct from an apostolically-successed priest’. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – not clinging to any particular religion. Like the other expats, he was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age.  Like them, he preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.

But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.

He expressed this radical Zen view when he met Huxley, Heard and Isherwood in the company of their guru, Swami Prabhavananda:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ the Swami objected. ‘That amounts to saying that an ordinary ignorant and deluded person is just as good, or just as realized, as an advanced yogi.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘And what advanced yogi would deny it? Doesn’t he see the Brahman everywhere, and in all people, all beings?’ ‘You are saying,’ said the Swami, ‘that you yourself, or just any other person, can realize that you are the Brahman just as you are, without any spiritual effort or discipline at all!’ ‘Just so. After all, one’s very not realizing is, in its turn, also the Brahman. According to your own doctrine, what else is there, what else is real other than the Brahman?’

The Swami retorted that if Watts was really enlightened, he would feel no suffering, not even a pinch. Watts, resisting the urge to pinch the Swami, fell silent. But this remained his central idea, and it had a big influence on the ‘beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac and others, and then on the antinomian flower children of the 1960s. Go with it, follow the law of your nature, be true to who you are, you’re beautiful.

What is the value of this idea?

It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions – in Plato, in Thomas Traherne, in Rumi. One often finds it expressed through the metaphor of a prince or heir who forgets their natural inheritance and goes begging for pennies outside his palace, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds…

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.

The intuition that we have an indestructible and priceless jewel of loving wisdom within us, which is also the nature of the universe, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxious low self-esteem. It is precisely what I felt during and after my near-death experience – I woke up from a nightmare of my ego’s brokenness and rottenness, and realized how blessed we all naturally are. I felt an incredible lightness and pleasure at existence. I would repeat to myself a mantra: ‘nothing to change, nothing to improve, no-one to impress, nothing to win, nothing to lose, nowhere to go’, and so on. Just resting in the garden within.

However, it is difficult to stay in that realization, without practice. In my own case, the spiritual high lasted a few weeks, then the old neurotic habits came back with a vengeance. I realized I needed to practice, systematically, to weed out the old habits and let my heart open. That’s why I got into CBT, ancient Greek philosophy, and Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun

Last night I saw the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo speak. A remarkable lady, who moved from Bethnal Green to spend 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She said:  ‘The good news is your true nature is sane. And it’s quite easy to get a glimpse of that true nature. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. You still need to practice, otherwise it’s like taking a cake out of the oven after it’s started to rise – it will just collapse, and taste disgusting.’

The risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’ He wrote: ‘every willful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile’:

self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed…To avoid being a serious disappointment to others you must accept and respect your own limitations…As a Zen master has said, ‘Act as you will. Go on as you feel. This is the incomparable way’…I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…

The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’

He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering – he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, a weaver of magic, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’ – although, like Ram Dass, he wasn’t a hypocrite, and did try to constantly warn his young audience he wasn’t a saint – not that they listened.

By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:

he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’

Ultimately, it is not fair to say that Watts was lazy – he seems to have worked incredibly hard. But he worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. And he worked very little on himself – psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. That more than balances out his personal failings, and no doubt he will be all the wiser in his next incarnation. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter Joan: ‘After I’m dead, I’m coming back as your child. Next time round I’m going to be a beautiful red-haired woman.’ Sure enough, after he died, his daughter gave birth to a red-headed girl, called Laura. We await your teachings Laura. No pressure.

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