For those of us who believe in the power of books and ideas to engender real and long-lasting change, here's a breath of fresh air in times of darkness. This post is an attempt to translate into words my enthusiasm for two of the most original, ambitious, and thought-provoking books I've ever read: The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology, both by Hanzi Freinacht. These two books, taken together, aim to offer nothing less than the most updated blueprints to create a healthier, happier, more sustainable future on planet earth.
The Ongoing Global Crisis
At the time of writing, the world seems to be a hyper-complex clusterfuck of historical proportions. The first truly global, transnational civilization is cracking under the weight of its inherent unsustainability and precariousness. You know the drill: senseless and brutal warfare; climate change and ecological crisis; extreme socio-economic inequalities; the rise of new populist and nationalist regimes; outdated institutions unable to manage the rotting corpse of late stage capitalism; widespread mental illness, misery and despair. The complexity of these problems is overwhelming, currently outstripping humanity's ability to think straight and generate viable, long-term solutions. The process to expand our collective sense-making capacities requires the forging of new words, new concepts, new modes of thought, new maps, new political narratives, new economic models.
Here comes a new keyword worth knowing, which is getting more and more traction, that will unlock grand vistas and richer perspectives. The word is Metamodernism.
Crash Course in Metamodernism
Metamodernism in an umbrella term referring to a broad range of developments in culture and society that aptly capture our twenty-first century Zeitgeist, thus providing useful lenses to describe contemporary issues, as well as prescribe possible remedies and guidelines to move into the future.
The term is used by multiple camps, each focusing on different aspects, but with underlying elements of coherence and resonance. To get an overview of the players and topics discussed, here's a map of the emerging Metamodern ecosystem.
Metamodernism can be thought of as the latest stage in an ideal historical trajectory of Western cultural production and ways of living, following and building onto the Traditional, the Modern, the Postmodern perspectives. Here's a brilliant 8-minute video about how Metamodernism came into being. Although the labels Traditional, Modern and Postmodern are arbitrary and very rough, they can still be useful to make sense of larger trends, broad patterns of change, the dominant logic and values that respond to circumstances of each period. As history unfolds, we can think of each period as a "developmental stage" of society advancing its understanding of reality, which transcends and includes the insights of previous stages. At each stage we can find some key patterns about how people think, what they value, how they relate to society, the world and life at large. This developmental model is at play fractally: at the scale of entire cultures and societies as well as for individuals as they evolve through higher levels of complexity. Metamodernism can be seen as both our historical period and the latest stage of human cognitive evolution and complexity.
In the domain of the arts the term has been used to characterize newly created cultural artifacts—ranging from movies and TV shows to paintings, texts and architectures—showing a common "structure of feeling", a new aesthetic sensibility oscillating
between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.
This "oscillation" translates into typical trademarks concepts of Metamodernism aesthetic, such as: "sincere irony", "informed naivety", "pragmatic romanticism", "magical realism." Rabbit hole: What is Metamodern?
Metamodernism is a whole philosophical engine, offering a new worldview: a coherent and open-ended stance towards life, reality, science, spirituality, art, society, politics, and the human being. A common intent of metamodern philosophers is to reweave the very fabric of what is considered real and create a society informed by such a philosophy. Of the many contemporary authors that could be branded as metamodern, my new intellectual hero is Hanzi Freinacht.
The Great Hanzi Freinacht
Hanzi Freinacht is a social scientist, political philosopher, and a larger-than-life Übermensch. He has reached for higher truths while living a hermit lifestyle in the Swiss Alps and, as a contemporary Zarathustra, he has come down from the mountains to share his visions for a better future for humankind. His style is certainly quirky and unconventional: he can easily sound arrogant and obnoxious. His confrontational attitude can be off-putting to some, endlessly amusing and engaging to others. Here's what Hanzi wants, in his own words:
Now, I want to reveal you your ignorance. I understand that this may be a harsh slap to your pretty little face—not at all a nice thing to do. But Hanzi Freinacht is not nice. He is right. And that is something else entirely.
Hanzi is very conscious that his ideas are powerful and will boldly challenge one's worldview:
I acknowledge that my theories deeply insult the prevailing moral intuitions that people have. I spit straight in the face of the political identities, both on the Left and Right, from anarchists to conservatives. It is the solemn duty of the philosopher to piss on all that you hold dear and sacred, to show you that your gods are false. And how could it be any different? To genuinely develop society you must put forward challenging ideas, ideas that reveal today's society—even our most idealist progressives—as unethical, unkind, primitive, hypocritical and judgemental. I am attacking your time, your society and your way of living.
No shit. Hanzi will open your doors of perception, sometimes shredding them to pieces with a sledgehammer, sometimes with the subtlety and finesse of a lock-picker. You'll forgive his cocky tactics and mindfuckery when you realize his arguments are solid. His penetrating insights are intoxicating. Hanzi is a pied piper, whistling shapes of significance into a chaotic world. He is aware of the potential dangers and misuse of his ideas and warns you to not trust him uncritically. The secret here is to understand he is being "sincerely ironic":
I'm looking for resourceful and imaginative co-creators. They are the children who love to play. They don't care about the academic titles, or bourgeois "success", or whether you stick to the writing rules of their favorite literary genre. They recognize the tune I'm playing, join in the dance, and playfully re-create society and reality.
But before we see what his books have in store, something needs to be revealed: Hanzi Freinacht is not an individual, he's a fictional character, a figment of the imagination of Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friis. Though Hanzi is not "real" in the literal sense, his words are a stream of glowing, psycho-active, living intelligence.
The Listening Society
The Listening Society discusses individual and societal psychological development and its political implications, envisioning a kind of future welfare which addresses emotional needs and supports the psychological growth of all citizens. As the title implies, this is a society in which everyone is seen and heard (rather than manipulated and subjected to surveillance, which are the degenerate siblings of being seen and heard).
Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king's road to a good future society is personal development and psychological growth. And humans develop much better if you fulfill their innermost psychological needs. So we're looking for a "deeper" society; a civilization more socially apt, emotionally intelligent and existentially mature.
There is an intimate connection between understanding how humans grow and evolve – intellectually, cognitively and emotionally – and how good or bad society is going to be. Hence, it should – or must – become a top political priority to support the psychological development of all citizens.
Political metamodernism is to take us from "modern" stage of societal development (liberal democracy, party politics, capitalism, welfare state) to the next "metamodern" stage of development. It is aiming to outcompete liberal democracy as a political system, outcompete all of the political parties and their ideologies, outcompete capitalism as an economic system, and outcompete and replace our current welfare state. There. Did I get your attention?
If Hanzi has gotten your attention, the task is now to read The Listening Society in full and allow him to persuasively flesh out his arguments.
What else must we achieve with this book? You are to be equipped with a multidimensional political-psychological-developmental map of our time. You will see some of the fundamental dynamics of how society and its citizens are evolving, in which directions, and how different kind of people fit into the map. And, yes, that includes yourself. For most readers, unavoidably, this is a disappointing read. After all, you are less likely to inhabit a super-flattering part of the map. Few people do. But that is okay. However, you are probably still better off being aware of the map, so that you can successfully navigate the world. Especially if you are someone with considerable power in society.
Essentially the first book (The Listening Society) was only the introduction to this one, which contains about three times more in terms of theoretical content and innovation. It presents you with an actual to-do plan to save the world. Without the plan, we're just playing around. This is where it gets real. Welcome.
The Nordic Ideology maps the political structures that would support the long-term creation of the listening society. These new patterns of political thought are emerging in many parts of the world, but are especially manifest and concentrated around the culturally progressive Scandinavian countries. These countries are exemplary in the sense that they have prerequisites for beginning to create the next layer of welfare, one that includes people's psychological interests. Only when we address the psychological and emotional conditions of life, not purely materialistic needs, can we hope to resolve much of the suffering that permeates people's lives in modern societies.
There you have it.
Find The Others
The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology are brilliantly conceived, deeply felt, and heavily steeped in the real work of imagining and defining what a better world looks like. These books offer a mind-expanding ride whose effects will ripple long after the reading is over. Although daring, ambitious in scale and scope, what's presented here sound persuasive and, most of all, plausible. Hanzi has built an intellectual edifice both tall and grandiose, and some effort is required to climb to its top. But from the top the view is breathtaking and beautiful. And there is hope.
Metamodernism is still in its embryonic form; its cultural code being written as we speak. Personally, I'm still trying to wrap my head around these ideas and their implications, wrestling with what to do with all of this. I believe there is transformative potential in these ideas, but to engender real change more people will need to access these ideas, process them, join the conversation, and take some sort of action. The invitation is: Find The Others.
Will Hanzi's grand vision of creating a "Relative Utopia" be accomplished? I don't know. But his books made me dream. While oscillating from hope to despair, from optimism to pessimism, I'm reminded of the words of Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci:
Every collapse brings with it intellectual and moral disorder. We need to nurture people who are sober, patient, who will not despair in the face of the worst horrors, and who do not become exuberant with every silliness. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
Photo courtesy of Hanzi Freinacht.
Shout out to Jonathan Steigman for his guidance and metamodern knowledge.