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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

Everybody’s mental

It’s been a tough week for the UK –  mental illness went up 164%. Previously, mental health charities assured us that one in four people have been diagnosed with a mental illness in their life.  But this week, abruptly, one mental health charity suggested as many as two in three adults will suffer from some mental health problem at some point in their life, whether that’s a panic attack or a period of depression.

I never liked the ‘one in four’ statistic. It may have been a useful strategy to draw public attention and get funding, but it also seemed to emphasize that the mentally unwell were a minority, a separate unlucky group from the 75% who are fine and dandy.

It seems to me that everyone has mental illness. And everyone has mental health. Everyone is on a continuum from well to unwell, and moves up and down that continuum all the time. A person could move from very unwell to very well in a day.

The most popular therapeutic interventions today – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness  therapy – are deeply influenced by the ancient spiritual traditions of Stoicism and Buddhism. And both Stoicism and Buddhism insist that pretty much the entirety of humanity is mentally ill. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, agreed: ‘We’re all out of our fucking minds!’

I don’t know if this could be the basis for a new public health campaign, but I’ve knocked up this advert just in case:

In both Stoicism and Buddhism, 99.9999% of humans are ignorant of our true nature and lost in ego-delusions which make us suffer. Only the sage is truly sane and well. And the sage – the fully enlightened being – is a very rare creature.

How rare? The Buddha supposedly told a story – imagine the entire world was one ocean, and on that ocean was thrown a floating ring. And in that ocean is a blind turtle, who once every hundred years swims to the surface and pokes his head out at some random spot. The probability of an enlightened being coming into existence is the same as that blind turtle happening to poke his head through the ring.

The rest of us are unenlightened. We don’t know who we are, we’re lost in ego-delusions, swung from happiness to misery and back again by each passing occurrence.

We’re convinced that the aim of life is to have a secure, successful and admired ego which has amassed a pile of money and plaudits by the time we die. We spend each day trying to add to our pile of money and approval. We feel happy when the pile goes up, and sad when it goes down. That’s what we call mental health.

We are all of us dreaming. We call those who are presently having happy dreams ‘the well’, and those who are presently having scary dreams ‘the unwell’. The Buddha or Plato would say:  you’re all lost in delusions.

You really think that 75% of humans in our society are sane and well? Or even 30%? Look around you. We’re all a bit mad. We’re all blindly following ego-delusions – ambition, pride, vanity, the need for the approval of strangers, addiction, restlessness, constant dissatisfaction. Our therapists, philosophers, psychiatrists, life-coaches and mindfulness gurus are just as sick, just as self-obsessed, just as ego-deluded. Believe me, I’ve met them. They’re just as fucked up as you and me, possibly more so.

A wife sits at home with depression and alcoholism, while her husband spends all day chasing money and status in a bank. She is clinically unwell, but is he well? Is he not just as sick, just as caught in ego-delusions? He may fit in better with society, but that doesn’t mean he’s well.

Our definition of sanity is fitting in with social norms. How sane is our civilization? We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, every reputable climate scientist tells us we’re heading for significant global warming which is likely to cause massive suffering, social disruption and death and possibly threaten our survival within the next few decades. And we’re in complete denial. If our civilization was a person, it would be sectioned.

Even our obsession with well-being is a bit mad. It’s become the rational secular replacement for religion. We become restless well-being evangelists – there’s an epidemic! Let’s fix this! Let’s talk about it! Let’s introduce a national plan to eradicate suffering! Every week is another ‘mental health week’. The more we talk about it, the bigger the ‘epidemic’ grows.

We endlessly confess to feeling unwell, and congratulate each other for our courage in speaking out. Certainly, stigma around mental illness can worsen our suffering. But what if one of our deepest sicknesses is our bottomless need for attention and approval? When Prince William and Lady Gaga get millions of hits for their online chat, are they freeing us, or deepening that addiction to attention?

I’ve campaigned for a decade for better access to therapy and better well-being education. I know that therapy and education can help free people from acute suffering, and even an article, a conversation or a book can be tremendously healing.

But the root of our suffering is the ego, and it’s a tricky bastard to shake off. If we’re serious about moving our society towards flourishing and sanity, we need to realize how unwell we all are, and how unhealthy our normal reality is.