Beyond Left and Right, at Long Last

It has become increasingly commonplace in our days to speak of the classical Left-Right scale as outdated, but somehow few people seem to be able to clearly articulate what that means. Sometimes you will hear about an econ­omic scale (high or low redistribution) and a social one (trad­itional vs. liberal values), a space with four quadrants. Sometimes people will pitch progress­iveness against conservativeness – but then in reality the nationalist conserv­atives often team up with welfare defending left-wingers. Jona­than Haidt shows us how liberal and conservative values seem to match each other and create a sum greater than its parts. Anthony Giddens tried to synthesize Left and Right in order to create a dynamic economy that was able to support progressive welfare and solid­arity (Tony Blair’s New Labour showed us the results of that – hardly a satisfying radicalization of politics, from a Left per­spective). Although there are some merits to each of these developments – per­haps Haidt especially, who looks at how conservative and liberal senti­ments create a whole greater than the sum of its parts – none of them sufficiently expl­icate the philosophical underpinnings and political consequ­ences of an ideo­logy that genuinely lies beyond Left and Right.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on political philosophy; a chapter that also includes an inquiry into complexity, transpersonal perspectives and its political consequences, and the developmental-hierarchical aspects that seem to be the lacking piece of the puzzle for progressive change.

”In the future, people will look at these beliefs, being Left or Right, much as we today look at medieval beliefs such as being Christian or Muslim.”

Going “beyond Left and Right” means that we make questions of the rela­tions between public sector, private sector and civil sphere into open discuss­ions where the best empirical arguments for each mechanism, in each case, must be taken into consider­ation. For instance, do “free mark­ets” work more or less efficiently than state bureau­cracies? The answer depends on what area of society we are studying, what values need to be taken into account in our common goals within this area, and what kind of state bureau­cracy and how functional a market we have available.

People on the Left tend to believe, irrationally and a priori, that demo­cratic control through the public sector is better in and of itself. The Right tends to believe that “the market” (whatever that is taken to mean) is in and of itself a more intelligent mechanism than bureaucracy, that it serves a naturally given order, sometimes compared to Darwinian evolution. People of Green (and often anarchist) persuasion often believe that civic, informal and pers­onal relation­­ships are in and of themselves kinder, fairer and less oppress­ive than both markets and bureaucracies.

But once we say these assumptions out loud, they somehow fall flat on the ground. They are revealed for what they really are: prejudices. To a priori assume that democratic control through public bureaucracy is more efficient, fair and morally superior to a “free market” solution is simply nonsensical. It is a religious belief in the negative sense of the word. In the future, people will look at these beliefs, being Left or Right, much as we today look at medieval beliefs such as being Christian or Muslim.

These are case sensitive questions. The answers vary. There is no one an­swer. It all depends on what institutions, levels of psychological dev­elop­ment, techn­ologies and information processes we have available – and which area of social life we are discussing. There is nothing irrational or inefficient in the public sphere itself, just as there is nothing inherently rational and right in a “market equilibrium”. And there is nothing inher­ently humane, kind and cozy about the civil sphere.

”All of the three systems – democratic bureau­cracy, the market and civil sphere – are simply forms of governance that pro­cess information about the behavior of humans, coordinating our actions in order to create desir­able common and individual results.”

Don’t be an Allergic Fool, Acknowledge the Reciprocity of All Spheres of Society

A large part of this issue is to transcend one’s own political allergies. Let’s try out a few words, allergies of the Left: market, power, capitalism, auth­ority, profit – and of the Right: radical, social, feminism, revolution, public.

If you get a sense of spontaneous disgust or aggression upon reading any of these words, if the word itself comes out on the paper sheet as repul­sive, you have a political allergy, hijacking your political mind. One needs to recognize that these are not inherent essences or givens. They can all be good or bad, depe­nd­ing on the context – and more pertinently, they are all good and bad. It just makes relatively little sense to “hate” or “be against” such vague and open categories as “the market”. It limits your thinking. It makes you dumb.

All of the three systems – democratic bureau­cracy, the market and civil sphere – are simply forms of governance that pro­cess information about the behavior of humans, coordinating our actions in order to create desir­able common and individual results. Each of them has its patho­logies, its own sick­nesses, its own limitations as well as its own mag­ni­fic­ent qualities. There are intelligent and unintelligent markets, intelli­gent and unintelligent bureau­cracies and democratic institutions, and the civil sphere can be equally inclu­sive as it can be oppressive.

The three systems depend upon one another for their functioning, for their very existence. There are no countries without markets – and no larger mark­ets without regulating states and bureaucracies (as “the father of sociology” Max Weber pointed out). And the civil sphere, in the sense that the great master of German social theory Jürgen Habermas first des­cri­bed it, grows and gains its force as the modern state comes alive. When the mod­ern state is intro­duced, people have this penetrating, overarching entity that determines much of their lives, which gives us something in common to talk about – in the nat­ional news, papers or cafés. And the modern nation state makes it possible for us to have a “personal sph­ere”, where we are expected to keep our own “individual” dreams, close rela­tions and sexual­ities at some distance from the public and professional realms.

In some important ways, the systems have become more independent from one another under modernity, during the last 200 years or so. As Weber’s classical sociology established, the genius of modernity, the spirit of modern society, is its ability to tease out different dimensions of social reality from one another: 1. the rational/scientific objective truth, 2. the subjective/personal aesthe­tic, and 3. the interpersonal/moral realm.

You can’t burn someone at the stake for making a scientific claim anymore. You can have sexual relations without it necessarily having eco­nomic implications. You can elect officials based on merits rather than who they are related to or how rich they are (in theory, sigh). You can start a business without it threatening your family relations – and so forth.

The spheres gain a certain form of independence or autonomy. And this is a wondrous thing, really: fair markets are ideally free from cozy friend­ships that make for crony capitalism, bureaucracy sees all citizens as equals and should ideally work independently of market interests, and love should ideally be free from power relations and gold-digging.

However, such a teasing out (with a fancier word: differentiation) of the different dimensions of social life is never complete. The systems inter­pene­trate. They continue to affect one another. When a modern society fails to differentiate these three spheres, this brings all kinds of social dis­eases: corruption, favoritism, inequality before the law, misuses of public office, formations of cartels and unfair monopolies, breaches of the personal privacy of people – the list of horrors is endless. Consider what happens if your boss is sleeping with your wife, or the bureaucracy works to help certain ethnicities or clans over others. In modern society we want to be rid of such things. Good riddance.

But the glory of modernity has a dark side: in the meantime we become split up; the same person is a family member, a citizen and a professional. These spheres of life are kept at a certain distance from one another. This is one of the major sources of alienation in modern society. In sociology, this nasty baby goes by many names (all of which catch slightly different mean­ings): fragmentation, the postmodern condition, the corrosion of character, and so forth.

”In our days, democracy, mark­ets and the civil sphere are finding new ways of saturating one another. They are being integrated again”


But society is now shifting past this stage. In our days, democracy, mark­ets and the civil sphere are finding new ways of saturating one another. They are being integrated again – not like in traditional society, but in a distinctly post­industrial manner that pertains to the internet age. These new forms of re-inte­gration are not the same as failed differen­tiations (which causes corrupt­ion and the like). The new re-integration is, to some extent, a good thing. If carr­ied out intelligently, it can make us much less split-up, much less alien­ated. And it can make politics, markets and personal relationships work much more intelligently.

So you need to keep three stages in mind. One: markets, politics and personal relations are not clearly differentiated; two: in modern society these three spheres gain a great measure of independence from one ano­ther; three: in metamodern society (which you can read more about in my books), these three spheres are being re-integ­ra­ted, ideally without any one of them dominating or contaminating the other two.

Examples of this re-integration abound. Let’s mention just a few: Mar­ket mechanisms applied to public sector organization; planning of “triple helix models” for regional economic development (triple helix means coll­a­b­or­ations between public, private and univer­sity agents in a region); an incr­eas­ing pressure from civil sphere influence to break the ali­enating man­agement and bureaucracy of both private corporations and the public sector; and personal relations within professional firms being increas­ingly honed and invested in. Again, this is a major process of our time. The­se examples are just a few superficial such changes visible in today’s society.

The growing re-integration of these three different spheres of social life – the civic (politics, democracy, bureaucracy, public), the professional (market exch­ange) and the personal (the civil sphere, family life, comm­unities) – requires of us a kind of politi­cal thought that does not take one of the dimen­sions as fundamental or inher­ently superior to the other two. We must see the totality of social and political life.

This is what it means to go beyond Left and Right. An example of such re-integration is the growing impor­tance of “the fourth sector”, consisting of hybrid organizations, public-private ini­tia­­­­tives and, above all, of social entrepreneurs – as mentioned, the social entrepreneur being the ideal type person of the new global economy.

At a very trivial level it is of course easy to see how no one political move­ment or direction can be the eternally “correct” one. Almost nobody would in all seriousness believe that all the Left has done, wanted and thought of dur­ing the last century has been good and that all the Right has ever done has been inherently wrong and mistaken. It is simply an unten­able position, rev­ealing itself as nonsense the moment it is recognized.

”Once you accept the metamodern fractal perspective, you don’t seek to colonize and destroy fundamental and necessary dimensions of social life anymore.”

The Fractal Nature of Social Life

There is an underpinning to all of this, a central insight. The phil­osophical principle of metamodern politics is as simple as it is elegant. This principle holds that social life is of fractal nature, and that society consists of three interdependent dimensions that always repeat themselves but ultimately depend on one another: solidarity, trade and competition.

  • Solidarity – in all societies that have ever existed, there has been coop­eration and what the anarchist classic Peter Kropotkin term­ed “mutual aid”. And in all of our lives, there are always at least some aspects of such things as caring, brotherhood, friend­ship, cooperation, help, char­ity, allia­nces, affiliation, liking, love and so forth. The principle is: you, rather than me.
  • Trade – in all societies that have ever existed, and in everyone’s life, in every relationship, there is an element of exch­ange: tit for tat, some­thing for something. The principle is: me and you, but only condi­ti­onally. “Only conditionally” serves to underscore that we only make trade transactions if there is something for us to gain.
  • Competition – in all societies that have ever existed, and in every­one’s life, in every goddamn relationship, there is an elem­ent of competition: con­­flicting interests, power relations, struggle, manipulations, violence, ani­­m­osity, enmity and so on. The prin­ciple is: me, not you.

The unstated, irrational belief that people have, is that one of these three dim­en­­sions somehow makes up a higher truth than the other two. The Left some­how believes, in a subtle but pervasive manner, that solid­arity is the highest truth. The libertarian Right believes that trade is the first principle. The con­servative and the fascist believe in their hearts that fierce competition lies beyond the other two, that it ultimately defines social reality.

The metamodern political activist makes no such mistake, has no such prejudices, and recognizes that each of these three beliefs is equally dis­honest and violent against the nature of reality. Each of these pre­judices comes at a terrible cost in terms of human and animal suffering.

A fractal, as you probably know, means that if you zoom in on one part of its (mathe­matical) structure, you see that the same function repeats itself, creat­ing self-similar patterns on a new level, even if you zoom in or out a thou­sand times or more. The fractal applies the same ingredients or principles (a function applied to itself), but it produces ever new results at each level you study. The patterns of each level of zoom are still some­how self-similar, however; you can recognize what kind of fractal you are studying. Instead of having “three dimensions”, you can have fractions of dimensions (one-and-a-half dimensions, and so forth); that’s where the word “fractal” comes from. You can break up any dimension into smaller parts and see how it repeats itself. You can break up friendship and see how it consists of trade and conflict.

Now look at any relationship, let’s stay with a friendship. Does it not contain at least an ounce of competition? Does it not contain trade, an ex­change where both par­ties gain something valuable? In fact, if there is no gain at all for one party, it is difficult to imagine how the friendship could be sust­ainable. Would a one-sided friendship not amount to exploitation? And does the definition of a friendship not subtly exclude the non-friend – which again means that it relies upon competition?

Or look at the Second World War; did this major conflict not include incr­edible sacrifice, love and solidarity – indeed, did it not rely upon these for its existence? Or the very fact that you were born into this world – is it not a violent act, that you have eaten your way through other organic matter, as much as the result of a mating competition and the authentic bond between your parents? Your very body is organic matter under violent control; killed, chew­ed, digested and brought into new cooperative relations. Recent research has revealed an evolutionary struggle even bet­ween the pregnant mother and her fetus – the growing child’s evolu­tion­ary interests are somewhat different from those of the mother (who may increase the chances of spreading her genes by having more children, and hence not be too drained by this particular fetus). No matter how pro­foundly symbiotic and loving a relationship, there is an element of stru­ggle.

At its heart, metamodern political thought fully accepts and acknow­ledges these three dimensions of social life: solidarity, trade and com­petition (and their intertwined, fractal nature). As such, it avoids the self-imposed blind spots of the Left and Right, going beyond them as anal­ytical categories. Being Left or Right becomes merely a matter of taste or prefer­ence – just as you can choose to call your god Allah, Brahman, Jeho­vah, the Pastafari monster or nothing at all.

Once you accept the metamodern fractal perspective, you don’t seek to colonize and destroy fundamental and necessary dimensions of social life anymore. You are not, for instance, against enmity and competition. If you try to be “against enmity”, you are creating enmity between yourself and others who don’t share your view, views that you then by definition seek to conquer and defeat. You see, you cannot escape any of the three dimensions.

So instead, we begin to look for how solidarity, trade and conflict can dev­elop together, into new forms of social life – and indeed, how they have dev­eloped throughout history. This means that we no longer hate (or roman­ticize) the state, the market or pers­onal life (with its often irrational and unfair compli­cations). We can no longer believe that one of the cate­gories holds the solu­tions to the “evil” or “problems” of the other two. We simply begin to grasp social life itself as a dialectical, develop­mental process, which is at least partly in our hands – and that its categories (state, market, civil sphere) are always slipping, always shifting. They don’t have eternal, inherent qualities of good or evil. They don’t have essences.

You can play the same game with another, related triad: equality, free­dom and order. They sometimes work against one another, some­times create syn­ergies – but they cannot even exist without one another. If you love free­dom, you must also see that, at its very core, freedom is born through order and equality, both of which in turn need freedom to exist. Higher degrees of order is often what allows for greater freedom – but only if the order is of a general and abstract form. Simply making people “organized” by having them march together, as in North Korea, hardly makes for a free society. Having funct­ional policing, orderly statistics and revision of public finances, might.

This fractal philosophy makes you capable of going beyond Left, Right and feeble “center” com­promises between the two. You look at how the new economy and its political and psych­ological landscape can take us to a higher equilibrium balance, where society is farther Left, farther Right and much more sust­ain­­able than today – how such synergies can become possible.

For that we have to allow our minds to think paradoxical thoughts, make experimental leaps, and dream dangerous dreams.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.