Physiological Inequality in a Nutshell

According to a recent study published in Science, you can take a female rhesus monkey (or “macaque”), put her in a terrarium, then gradually add more monkeys over time, the one who was there first will then gener­ally have the highest social status while the newcomers will have lower status—much like in Norbert Elias’ and John L. Scotson’s 1965 clas­sical sociological study of an English small-town com­munity, The Establi­shed and the Out­siders. The estab­lished were oft­en, quite sim­ply, the peo­ple who had lived in the comm­unity the longest while the newly arrived were the outsiders.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

The monkey researchers could reverse the social order of the rhesus monkeys by letting them into the terrarium in another sequence. The eth­ical issue of treating monkeys like this aside, the resear­chers made an inte­resting finding that was unavailable to the sociologists: that the quality of the immune system of the monkeys depended on their position in the social hierarchy. If you came in last, and hence had the lowest status, your im­mune system was much weaker. And this could be reversed if the resear­chers intervened to chan­ge the social order again.

In other words, the social hierarchy of the monkeys determined some of their biological characteristics, even down to the biochemical level—social stress affects the expression of almost 1,000 genes. Probably, the mech­­an­ism at play here is that lower ranking mon­keys feel more stress and anxiety, which sets up their system for responses to more immediate threats (high cortisol levels and other stress respo­nses), which then takes its toll on more long-term biological processes such as the imm­une syst­em.[i] Oh, and it’s not just macaques by the way—the Stanford primato­logist Robert Sapolsky has found the same pattern in ethological studies of freely roaming ba­boons in Africa.

So if you’re low status, you also get sick. Hey, I told you it’s a cruel world out there.

Point being, of course, that there is an inescapably physiological side to inequality. It really goes both ways—other forms of inequality, such as economic and social, can have negative physiological consequences, and disadvantageous physiological states or traits can in themselves be sources of other inequ­alities. There is any number of studies to show dif­ferent aspects of this, not only within the animal realm but among hu­m­ans as well.

For instance, taller people make more money. People in rich countries tend to grow taller than people in poor countries. Fat people are kept at farther physical distance by slim people during everyday interactions, and distance is spontaneously kept between people of different social status. Good-looking people have happ­ier lives. Disabled people suffer from stig­ma, are discriminated against, and are thus limited beyond the inher­ent limi­tations caused by their disabilities. Poor people have worse health and worse medical care, in turn affecting economic success. People with higher status are touched more, which protects from stress, which boosts health and long-term performance. People in higher social classes eat better and do more effective workout and have less physically strenuous jobs. It even seems that women’s mens­truation cycles fall into sync, where the dominant woman of the group leads the others (there’s not quite con­sensus on that one). And more dominant men smell better to ovulating wo­men, espec­ially if the women are young, fertile and already in a stable relation­ship (likely because natural selection has favored moder­ate amo­unts of infidelity).

Okay, that last one gets a reference, just because.[ii] You can look all of this stuff up if you like. There’s lots of it.

Again, there is a phys­iological, deeply embodied, side to inequality—and it reaches all the way down to the biochemical level, aff­ecting long-term processes that steer our lives and shape society. As biological creat­ures, we are not equals. Inequality, your position in the social hierarchies, sticks in your body: victories, succ­esses and social validation are embed­ded in your spine, into your body post­ure, into your very DNA. And so are losses, failures and rejec­tions, real or imag­ined. Dominance hierar­chies go far back in evolutionary psychology; we can see that animals of all kinds have con­frontations, and hormones change depending on who wins, with changed ensuing behaviors as a result.

Your entire habitus scents of dominance or sub­mission, of confidence or insecurity, of power, pride and prestige or of tense frustration, shame and the accumulated disdain of others. Inequality lives in and through human and animal bodies. And society’s institutions can work to exa­cer­bate or combat this inequality.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has even proposed that there may be such a thing as “sexual” or “erotic” capital, which suggests a correspond­ing form of inequality in society.[iii] There is good reason to take Hakim’s idea seriously as it is well known and proven that richer men end up with women of greater fecundity, and that sex and sexuality certa­inly play a part in the stratifications of human rela­tions.

I do, however, feel that the categories of social, physiological and—as we shall see—emotional inequality together may give a fuller and more com­prehensive account of these dynamics. In other words, I view sexual capital as an emergent subcategory of these three. But certainly, it deserv­es atten­tion: How held back and beaten down are we by sexual and rom­an­tic reject­ions?

So both economic and social inequality leave deep physiological traces; and these in turn reproduce inequalities in any number of ways. The mech­anisms and causal feed­back loops of physiological inequality can be many different ones, epi­genetics (the ongoing activation and deactivation of genes) only being one frontier to explore.

The different forms interact. At the most basic level, malnourishment hinders opt­imal physical and cognitive growth, and thus perpetuates pow­er­­­less­ness, sub­mission and poverty. This has been common know­ledge for dec­ades and is part and parcel of studies of econ­omic develop­ment and foreign aid.

There are, however, also studies of aff­luent countries that reveal the deeply seated inherited physiological ineq­ual­ities that repro­duce themsel­ves over gene­rations. I would like to men­tion two such bodies of work: the so-called Whitehall studies and the Canadian stu­dies of (epi-)gen­etic de­generation due to childhood adversities.

The Whitehall studies (there are two of them) looked at over 18,000 Brit­ish male civil servants for a period of ten years. The first studies were conducted from the 1960s to the 1980s, but they have had follow-ups to this day, and they look espe­cially at factors that could explain cardio­vascular diseases and mortality rates. And lo and behold, these studies heralded an entry of social science into medicine and vice versa: Men of lower rank died off more quickly than those of higher rank. Lower rank­ing grade was asso­ciated with a number of risk factors, including obesity, smoking, reduced leisure time, lower levels of physical activity, higher blood pressure and higher prevalence of under­lying illness.

“Whitehall II” found that additional factors affect health across a life­span: the way work is organized, work climate, social influences from out­side of work, influences from early life, and health be­haviors.

There is no escape from the marriage between social and natural or clin­ical sci­ence, for one thing. And there is, moreover, no escape from the phys­iological dimension of inequality.

The second body of work is the Canadian studies of epigenetics and population epigenomics (how genes are affected by demographic and so­cial factors). The global leadership of this field consists of a rather wide research community of senior medical scientists, more than I can name here. This wide network has been doing truly groundbreaking and pro­foundly relevant work when it comes to understanding physio­log­ical inequality. The studies suggests, among other things, that “DNA meth­yl­ation” (bas­ic­ally, our genetic ag­ing) increases in kids whose parents were stressed out dur­ing preg­n­ancy and/or their children’s early childhoods.[iv] You can look at a fifteen-year-old and see their gene express­ions are dif­ferent from more privileged peers—and more like those of older people—if their parents went through some rough times when they were little. You get scarred at the molecular level for things that happ­­e­ned before you can remember.[v]

This is true not only at the individual level, but also at the level of whole schools and larger communities. And we have already seen that lower social status can stress people out, as can economic insecurity. What we may be looking at here is thus a very intricate and intimate form of inequ­ality reproducing itself. But more research is needed—and the Cana­dians are providing it.

All of this points us towards a discussion about which measures could reasonably be taken to reduce physiological inequality. Whereas this issue is not generally on the political agenda, there have been some interesting developments during the 20th century. One simple such is that dental care was offered to many more citizens, especially in social demo­cracies like Sweden. Social-democratic leaders took to heart the struggle to im­prove the teeth of poor children, and while their reforms perhaps did less to improve and equalize oral health than the simple proliferation of tooth­brushes and tooth paste, they did let all school kids flush their teeth with fluorine and largely managed to decouple shiny white teeth from dist­inc­tions of class. To this day, it is even a common measure for muni­cipalities in Sweden to pay for entire sets of synthetic teeth for the home­less so as to improve their overall health and decrease their physio­logical stigma. Such measures generally get thumbs up in social work scholarship, but they are of course expensive and thus have difficulties securing sust­ained public fund­ing.

The question is to which extent physiological inequalities are caused by other inequalities—of wealth and status—and to which extent the oppo­site is true, i.e. that physiological differences cause other inequalities. And the question is which physical inequalities can be chan­ged through politi­cal and social measures and which ones remain largely immutable. We cannot, of cour­se, make a person with Down syndrome score high on IQ tests or make a person who lost her legs in an accident sudd­enly grow her limbs back. But many measures are, indisputably, possible to take, many phy­siological factors and developments can be affected by con­scious des­ign, both on a day-to-day basis, and over the course of a lifespan—with profound implications for public health, physical and men­tal. And such physiological or bio-social factors hint at a wide can­opy of measures that can affect and reduce the complex reproduction of in­equal­ity through­out society.

Without delving deeper into the discussion, let us simply name a few possible such measures: widespread training in posture and physio­thera­peutic practices such as “basic body awareness” as proposed by Jacques Dropsy and Gertrud Roxendal; training in uses of body lan­guage (which has been shown to affect emotions and degrees of con­fidence and asser­tiveness); the facilitation of making healthy food choices that favor slow meta­bolism, stress tolerance and resilient bodies; the cultivation of a non-judg­mental and non-competitive “gym culture”; the trans­formation of public spaces with more available outdoor facilities for physical exercise; com­bating stress and ergonomic strains of office life and work life in ge­neral; the expansion of physical and bodily labor rights to protect from physical harm; the in­crease of leisure time to pursue physical and men­tal training—and so forth.

All of these things can and do interact with other forms of inequality and empower millions of perpetually disempowered human bod­ies. And as hum­an bodies are strengthened, so are human dignities salvaged and hum­an potentials released.

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.

[i]. Snyder-Mackler N. et al., 2016. Social status alters immune regulation and res­ponse to infection in macaques. Science. 354 (6315):1041-1045.

[ii]. Havlicek, J. S., Roberts, C., Flegr, J., 2005. Women’s preference for dominant male odour: effects of menstrual cycle and relationship status. Biology Letters. April 4, 2005.

[iii]. Hakim, C., 2011. Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. London: Penguin Press.

[iv]. O’Donnell, K. J., Chen, L., MacIsaac, J.L., McEwen, L. M., Nguyen, T., Beckmann, K. et al, 2018. DNA methylome variation in a perinatal nurse-visitation program that reduces child maltreatment: a 27-year follow-up. Transl Psychiatry, vol. 8(1).

[v]. Gonzalez, A., Catherine, N., Boyle, M., Jack, S. M., Atkinson, L., Kobor, M. et al. 2018. Healthy Foundations Study: a randomised controlled trial to evaluate boil­ogical embedding of early-life experiences. BMJ Open, vol. 8(1).

Social Inequality in a Nutshell

I have a younger relative who lives with schizophrenia (unfortunately not the first or only case in the family). If he doesn’t take heavy medications he can hear voices, hallucinate and easily get overwhelmed. His medica­tion makes him tired and leaves him with a short attention span, so it’s difficult for him to work within an ad­va­nced economy. Living in a welfare state, he gets all he needs in terms of food, shelter, medical attention; even a little money to go to punk con­certs twice a year and have a few beers now and then. Yet his life can only be described as a very diff­icult one. His main problem? Loneliness.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

Besides his closest family, he doesn’t have any friends, let alone roman­tic partners. This isn’t because he’s not a nice person. He is quite friendly and rather intelli­gent, has some style going on, a somewhat rugged guy with tattoos who sometimes draws female atten­tion. He lives on consider­ably more resour­ces and money than most people during their stud­ent years, but he lacks something else: to be considered as a social equal and to be recognized as a friend.

By the look of it, this shouldn’t be very difficult to fix. Can’t he join a club and make some friends there? Can’t he go on online dating and find a partner? But no, he cannot. All of his old friends have subtly abandoned him. They sometimes say they will call or come visit when in town, but when push comes to shove, they never do. It’s just him, and his dog—every day, each day of the year, for years on end. And sometimes dinner at his mother’s house, but she won’t be there forever. Loneliness.

If this doesn’t qualify as a severe form of inequality, I don’t know what would. If this guy goes to the local pub and musters the courage to sit down with a party of strangers, he will very soon be asked “what he does”. And if he doesn’t want to spend his evening with odd evading answers or unsust­ainable lies, he will need to say he doesn’t have a job. The next question that presents itself is “why”. And that’s even more difficult to answer: “I have schizophrenia”. But that’s not the end of it. If it comes out, or is in­tu­ited, that this is a lonely man with no friends, he will evoke no interest or sympathy in his interlocutors. They will physically turn their backs on him—literally speaking—and find reasons to end the conversa­tion shortly. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

And this isn’t about money. If he had the same apartment, the same fin­ancial means, even being unemployed—but had lots of friends, con­tacts, fun stories about what he has going on and interesting things to say, then he would be welcomed. His illness has put him in a position where he has low social capital. From this position he has no references to make in any new social situation he finds himself; and in this manner, his social poverty reproduces itself and isolates him from his fellow human beings.

This is of course only one example of a wider and deeper phen­omenon of social inequality. Social capital comes in many com­plex forms: number of friends, in turn how well connected and popular these friends are, the depth and stability of those friendships, personal charm, good family rela­tions, professional contacts, socio-economic status, being “cool”, enjoying the trust and admiration of people, having sexual appeal, being respect­ed for one’s achievements, having many good stories to tell, being able to make fun and interesting events happen, and so forth.

Social capital of this kind can describe both a person and a society. A person who has higher social capital is one who always gets invited, who is welcome, for who doors are always open, and who can count on the supp­ort of others. A society with higher social capital can boast greater inter­­personal trust, higher levels of solidarity and greater propensity to help stra­ngers, trust in institutions and lower corruption, greater voter turn­out, more cooperation and lesser destructive competition—and gen­erally fe­wer people who are lonely and left to fend for themselves.

Social inequality exists not only in the human world, but can readily be observed in the animal kingdom. Different primates organize in groups where social status varies according to their species and environments, some animals being more egalitarian than others. In humans, if economic inequality doesn’t show up to significant degrees in small tribes of a 150 people, social inequality certainly does. And it is, of course, very painful for the deprived.

In larger human societies, social inequality can have very numerous and more com­plex causes. It interacts, unsurprisingly, with economic in­equality. If you have more contacts who trust, respect or even admire you, it becomes much easier to earn money as well. And if you earn money, it becomes eas­ier to be an interesting friend, romantic partner and so forth. But bey­ond economics, social inequality also follows the larger dominator hier­archies and stratifications of society, such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexu­ality, class, soc­ial stigma (like disabilities) and what the sociologist Bourdieu fam­ously called hab­itus, i.e. how you subtly express your stand­ing in soci­ety through gest­ures, taste, lang­uage use and so forth. It’s just easier to be a cool white male New Yorker in flashy clothes than to be a black disabled wo­man in a small town wearing Walmart clothes.

So this is what social inequality looks like; here’s a “sociogram” of 63 Chinese children in a class of 6th graders. They can nominate other kids as friends (arrow).[i]

All kids nominate at least two friends, but not all kids are nominated. Far from all children who are nominated by someone nominate them back. As you can see, there is a clear pecking order where some kids are at the center and even enjoy the prestige of being friends with the popular ones, while others are sidelined all but completely. They are also at the longest distance from the most popular ones.

Such spontaneous processes self-organize automatically throughout soc­­iety based on the ongoing interactions of people. And then they cryst­alize and reinforce themselves: The people at the center of the social clust­ers have innumerable advantages over those at the peripheries. What a cruel world!

It is insufficient to focus only on econ­omic in­equality when said pro­cesses of social stratification remain present. Social inequality is just as cyn­ical and harmful—and visce­rally felt—as its eco­nomic counterpart. It is not difficult to see, moreover, that social in­equal­ities also can have far-reach­ing econ­omic consequences.

In modern societies, such social inequality comes in two related but dist­inct flavors: the socio-economic status dominant in adult life, and the micro-social status or “coolness” or “popularity” dominant in adol­es­cent life and youth culture. The first is of course tied to such things as prof­ess­ional status, success and achievement, while the second is tied to per­sonal expression, taste, fashion and lifestyle, and it remains an im­por­tant factor for social and mating success throughout one’s lifespan.

With­in the creative class­es and other “culturally refined” segments of society, cool­ness in terms of aesthetics, education and taste are closely tied to economic success. In postindustrial societies, “cool­ness” tends to be­come yet more pronounced—where hipsters, hackers and hipp­ies often awake bitter resentment in the rest of the population with their flagrant di­splays of “refined” expressions of art, lifestyle, conversa­tion topics and fashion.

The long-term egalitarian goal must be, of course, to make such things as fashion and taste matter less for people’s social recognition and dignity. So we are not only looking to remedy the “hidden injuries of class” (as the sociologist Richard Sennett famously termed it), but also “to end the reign of cool”.

Social inequality harms people. When more pronounced, we can ex­pect a number of distortions of the games of everyday life. People are like­ly to become tenser and less relaxed, more scheming and strategic in their friend­ship forma­tions, less likely to challenge norms and habits, more soc­ially com­petitive, more prone to slander and mock one another, and more prone to take anti-social measures to check or reverse the social pres­tige of rivals. People will judge the ideas and opinions of one another less by merit and more by status, and there is less of a stable foundation for democratic ideals and solidarity in general. How afraid are we not of losing our social ties, or to be scorned and looked down upon? When it comes to social status, people are suckers—and for good reason, too.

Social inequality is, of course, yet more difficult to address than econo­mic inequality. After all, money and material resources can be trans­ferred from one person to another, but friendships, trust, respect and inclusion cannot; they are not “given”, but only elicited through different behaviors and inter­actions.

However, as strange as it initially may appear, we can often do more about social inequality than about its economic counterpart, and such mea­s­ures can often combat inequality more profoundly and effectively. We can­not chan­ge the logic of the global economic order overnight, but we can cert­ainly shape and design organizations and institutions that gen­er­ate a higher likelihood for social equality. In schools, we can have medi­tation training (which eli­cits more pro-social behaviors on a day-to-day basis), colla­bor­ative lear­ning games in which all kids get to contribute to the greater whole, carefully designed (and non-sexual) massage sessions where kids touch one another in a friendly manner across the hierarchies, play­grounds designed for inclusive games, training in social and emoti­onal intelligence, extended sexual education, and so forth.

In society at large, we can apply vaguer and corresponding measures, not least creating a layer of social support (by trained professionals) for the truly exclu­ded ones, who can then be coached to greater social com­petence and be encour­aged in their attempts. The sexual games can chan­ge if the aver­age person is more soc­ially and emotionally func­tional—and of course, norms can evolve to­wards less materialistic values, and unnece­s­sary tab­oos and stigma can be breached so that people are generally more acc­ept­ing of differences. For instance, in a more postmaterialist culture, being “unem­ployed” can be less of a big deal as people can be offered a wider range of oppor­tunities to create positive social identities beyond their employment stat­us and pro­fession—identities that reach deeper into the personal, civic, spiritual and aesthetic realms, echoing the words of the Young Marx:

“Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimu­lating and encouraging effect on other people.”[ii]

Even if the Young Marx writes with the “humanist”[iii] perspective of his time, and even if it smacks of romantic game denial, his vision is certainly a compelling one. Can we create a society in which people’s exchanges are free from irrational and distorting hierar­chies such as different levels of wealth?

Within affluent welfare societies like Sweden, the struggle for material equality is often really the struggle for social equality in disguise. In such societies, it is not that people are actually starving, but rather that lacking economic wealth can negati­vely affect their sta­tus and hinder their inclu­sion into social events. You even hear nurses, school teachers and police officers say: “It’s not that I really need that much money. I just want my paycheck to properly validate my work and effort.”

In such societies, it may well be time to more directly address the more complex, touchy—and embarrassing—issue of social inequality. This is not only a question of extending a vague “inclusion” of minorities and misfits, but also, and primarily, an issue of changing the games thr­ough which everyday life plays out. An important part of this is to help people become more socially competent and empowered.

Going back to my young relative with schizophrenia, he doesn’t need to be included because people feel sorry for him—he needs skills, resour­ces and occa­sions to be genuinely valuable to others so that they will be happy and proud to call him a friend or a lover. This, in turn, would save society a lot in terms of his worsening medical condition and by letting him be of service to others.

To conclude, here’s an example of how a scale of people’s social capital might look like: The richer you are, the more you can “afford” to act out­side of norms, comfort zones and so forth. How many bridges can you afford to burn?

  1. You can burn 90+ percent of your bridges without significant loss of subjective wellbeing, after recovering from the loss (famous people: even complete stran­g­ers will find you valuable and want to keep you alive and well).
  2. You can burn more than half your bridges without significant loss of subjective wellbeing.
  3. You can lose any one major field (professional, group of friends) of your life but still thrive.
  4. You can lose any one major bridge within any one major field but still thrive.
  5. You can lose any one major bridge but still manage at a lower level of subjective wellbeing.
  6. You cannot afford to lose any major bridge without a dramatic drop in wellbeing and the risk of crisis/depression increases.
  7. You have very few real bridges and must constantly worry about keeping them.
  8. You have very few bridges and feel a pressing fear of losing them very often (“social precariat”).
  9. You lack major bridges and live in crisis (“social precariat nightmare”).
  10. You lack bridges and support structure to handle crisis (pariah, everyone shuns you, and even social workers privately look down upon you while helping).

Each stage represents a quantitative difference that causes a qualita­tive shift. That’s how capital and inequality work. You get more of som­ething, and once you have a certain amount, the whole game shifts and your outlook on life changes. Just shifting one or two steps on this scale puts you on a whole other map, in a differ­ent world.[iv]

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.

[i]. Zhang, F. et al. 2014. Friendship quality, social preference, proximity prestige, and self-perceived social competence: Interactive influences on children’s lone­liness. Journal of School Psychology. 52(5).

[ii]. Marx, K., 1844. “The Power of Money” in Economic and Philosophical Manu­scripts.

[iii]. I’m not a fan of humanism, as discussed in the Appendix of Book One, as I view humanist ideas as unproductively anthropocentric and non-transpersonal. But of course, in the 19th century, this kind of thinking is to be expected.

[iv]. Of course, it’s a crude map with deliberately vague definitions, and depending on how we feel any given day we might interpret our situations differently along the scale. But I think it does its job: to highlight that social inequality is a scale that endows some with security and happiness and creates social insecurity and unhappiness for others.

 

Economic Inequality in a Nutshell

This first and most obvious form of inequality in our days revolves aro­und income, wealth and access to material resources; the ability to acquire goods and services from others. Because material wealth has long been the main focus of struggles for equality, it merits less discussion here. It is, of course, no less important. For instance, it is perhaps the single most wide­ly accepted finding within social science that greater eco­nomic inequ­ality (often measured by the so called “Gini coefficient”) has a solid corre­lation with violent crime, much more so than poverty in itself, and that lower economic inequality is conducive to stability, social trust and a higher qu­ality of life in society at large.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

There is, in the public debate, considerable confusion regarding the ques­tion whether economic inequality has been rising or falling during recent decades. On the Left, the idea that inequality is rising remains an almost religious tenet. A famous 2013 book by Thomas Piketty, Capi­tal in the Twenty-First Century, showed that a small group—the “top one per­cent”—has been amassing an increasingly larger portion of the wealth sin­ce the turn to neo-liberal economic pol­icies, begin­ning with the Rea­gan-Thatcher era around 1980, and that this is larg­ely a global trend. This trend is much more pronounced if you look at the top 0.01%, which has led many to believe that rising econo­mic inequal­ity is an uncontroversial fact. But there is more to the story as so often is the case with these things.

We are witnessing a few interrelated trends that have to do with econ­omic globalization, the lack of transnational governance, rapid economic growth and techno­logical advancement. These factors taken together cre­a­te a more complex picture. Let’s take a look:

  • The overall economic inequality of the world is falling, with the global Gini coefficient reaching a peak around the year 2000 (the most unequal distribution of income). It has since begun to decrease somewhat, largely due to the impressive economic growth of coun­tries like China, India and Brazil where large new middle classes have emerged. In­equality within these countries has also increased as not all members of society have been successfully in­clu­ded. Still, if we are to believe the forec­asts of an influential 2008 Goldman Sachs report, two billion more people should have joined the global middle class by 2030, and thus far, at the time of writing, the numbers have not disappointed.[i]
  • The economic inequality within rich countries, such as the US or the European countries, has been rising. This is largely due to the pressures of globalization where many jobs have been outsourced to low-income countries and immigration from poorer countries have created downward pressures on low-paying jobs. This means the middle and working classes of these societies have become more pressured since they are competing with­in a much larger world economy. Many jobs have also been automated, and countries have been less able to maintain generous welfare spend­ing and high taxation as many corporations have become more trans­national and thereby been able to move their profits and activities to countries with lower taxes. Taken toge­th­er, this means the general experience of “nor­mal people” in rich countries is that inequality is growing. As these popul­ations still largely dominate the global discourse, “the nor­mal Western­ers”, this has become the leading narrative.
  • Absolute poverty (living on less than two dollars a day) has been falling sharply due to economic growth around the world. An important aspect here is also that technological advancements have made it possible to get more value for less money. For instance, getting a smartphone, which contains many em­pow­ering technologies, is much less expen­sive than getting a camera, a computer, a telephone, and a GPS. Writing an email is less expensive than mailing a letter, reading Wikipedia is less expensive than buying books or news­papers, and so forth. Internet trade and large retail warehouses like Walmart have also increased the efficiency of distribution and thereby made many consumer goods much cheaper. The world at large is becoming richer at an astoun­ding pace.
  • And yes, Doctor Piketty, a small proportion of the global population has been amassing a growing share of the wealth. This is the result of two fundamental factors: globalization and technological progress. Glob­alization (increasing trade, communication and foreign direct invest­ments) conn­ects all of us into one bustling economy of seven going on eight billion people. In a smaller world, say a tribe of 150 people, you can never really get much richer than anyone else. But when there are billions of interacting people, those who gain the most central positions in the economy can become very, very rich. This is due to what network theo­rists like Albert-László Barabási call “non-random networks”, i.e. that the central positions always have more connections to make use of. Add to this some central technologies that are difficult to create, but many people want or need, and you have set up a cocktail for small groups to become incredibly wealthy. This is reinforced by the dynamics of the digital economy and its large platforms which tie millions of market agents to the same central nodes, which grants the advantages of “big data” to the central agents.

Thus, the interconnected world market is creating a situation where global inequality is decreasing, poverty is decreasing, but inequality is increa­sing within countries, and small transnational elites are becom­ing much, much richer than the rest of us.

You can see it all summed up in this one graph, taken from Our World in Data:[ii]

 

You can see how, in 1970, there were a rich world and a poor one (the two bumps on the 1970 distribution). By 2000, however, this had changed into one large, even global, pyramid with more peo­ple at the top and fewer at the very bottom. The rich countries no longer offer the same “buffer” against in­equality within their borders—now we are all part of the same competitive mega-structure that is the global market.[i]

Which conclusions can be drawn from this analysis? An obvious one is that inequality is increasingly a global issue, and thus more of a transnati­onal con­cern than a national one. This means that economic inequality—for all its importance and for all of its harmful effects—cannot readily be tack­­­led by means of classical Left economics of redistribution within the singular state. If you raise the taxes and redistribute wealth too vigorously within one country, this does not only necessitate the exclusion of foreig­n­ers, but it also scares away global capital. Hence, we need effective global systems of redistrib­ution. In order to reach a point where serious global redistrib­ution is possi­ble, we would require a larger systemic shift to­wards global govern­ance.

And to get there we need significant proportions of post­modern and metamodern people around the world. And these peo­ple only show up in significant numbers within the postindustrial stra­ta of the world eco­nomy, which makes any prospect of establishing such a world order un­achievable for the foreseeable future as it won’t be possible without vit­al economies such as China and India.

This is not to say that income redistribution is futile: Stronger econ­om­ies with functional institutions can still perform relatively extensive such meas­ures. But redistribution by means of taxes and social security is just not sufficient to counter the extremely powerful trends that drive the world economy: globalization, non-random network effects, techn­ol­ogical adv­an­cements and unregulated transnational mark­ets. How­­ever, as I will discuss in the following posts, there are other ways to decrease the viscerally felt ine­quality between human beings. In fact, I would argue, that an exagg­erated focus on economic inequality leaves us with an im­pov­erished vis­ion of what equality really is.

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.

[i]. Another version of telling this story is the famous graph by econ­omist Branko Milanović’s “elephant curve”. Source: The American Prospect, using data provided by Branko Milanović. It’s called the “elephant curve” because it looks like an elephant. The graph has been discussed at length in Milanović 2016 book, Global Inequality.

[i]. “The middle three quintiles (i.e. excluding the top and bottom 20%) in terms of country incomes could be responsible for 57% of global GDP in PPP terms, up from only 31% [in 2008] (and climb from 15% to 43% in USD terms). This group, which will be dominated by a subset of the BRICs and N11 (China, India, Brazil, Egypt, Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Vietnam) will matter more and more for global spending patterns.”

See: Wilson, D., Dragusanu, R., 2008. The Expanding Middle: The Explo­ding World Middle Class and Falling Global Inequality. Goldman Sachs: Global Econo­mics Paper No: 170.

[ii]. Originally from an OECD report: van Zanden et al. 2014. How Was Life? OECD.

The Paradoxes of Equality

Unfor­tunately we live in a universe where equality is an even trickier and more complex goal than freedom. By its very nature, equality is rid­den with yet greater inherent contradictions, with yet more intricate para­­doxes. Negative rights (“freedom from”) are less com­­plicated than positive rights and entitlements (“freedom to”). It is eas­ier to draw consistent lines for what people may not do to one another (physical abuse, theft, imprisonment, enslavement, and so forth) than for what we are obliged to do for one another (help in times of need, secure basic subsistence, provide education, healthcare, and so forth). But we have also not­ed that any real measure of freedom must be seen in light of the lived experience of humans and non-human animals, and as such it cannot be reduced to a libertarian defense of negative freedoms. My free­dom dep­ends on the inner workings of your thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

Furthermore, we have noted a second paradox of freedom: while free­dom is cast in terms of our emancipation from commonly held negative emo­tions which we all avoid during our everyday lives, it is also apparent that said negative emotions regulate our behaviors in ways making society possible in the first place. Without emotions of guilt and shame, it is diff­icult to see how we could make societal life function at all. And only highly functional societies can be expected to develop greater freedom. So freedom within a society always has to build upon un-freedom, upon an increasingly intimate form of self-organizing control. It is as though we were climbing a ladder with the goal of reaching above the ladder itself. But then what would we hold on to?

We have to wrestle with freedom as a common good, as something em­anating from our everyday inter­actions with one another, with our envir­on­ment and our “selves”. Freedom flows not only from institutions, but also from intimate and personal relationships.

Your freedom does not begin where my freedom ends; that’s an illu­sion based upon the under­lying assum­ption that human beings are sealed containers, that we are indivi­duals, in­divisible atoms. But in a behavioral-sci­entific sense, it is clear we are more than individuals, that we are “div­iduals” or “transindividuals”, as des­cribed in The Listening Society. Hence, your free­dom begins not at my imagined outward border, but at the center of my heart.

Once you understand this, you can also see that equality is part and par­cel of freedom’s development as equality determines the nature and quality of our relations. So let’s talk about the paradoxes of equality, and then march quickly to resolve them. I am offer­ing an anatomy of equality and its evolution.

The Four Paradoxes of Equality

Let me go through four fundamental paradoxes of “equality” that make the issue an eternally insolvable problem.

1. WE AREN’T ACTUALLY EQUAL

The first paradox of equality is that humans are not equals. As I labored to describe in The Listening Society, there are great developmental differ­ences between us, with some people advancing to higher stages of adult psy­chological dev­elopment than others: some have more complex think­ing, more uni­ver­sal values, more refined relationships to life and exist­ence.

The same holds true in terms of other characteristics: some are health­ier and strong­er, some have more balanced personalities, some are more ind­ust­rious and have greater endurance and tolerance of stress, some have higher IQ, some are more sociable, some are better looking—and some have the opposite traits. At a superficial level, this could have us think that equality in a deeper sense is not possible as our differences and variations of endow­ments will always manifest in our lives and our rela­tionships. But such a defeatist stance will not serve us well; it is, after all, quite appa­rent that different societies have different levels of equality, and hence that equa­lity can develop. Rather, we must venture deeper into an understand­ing of equality to resolve this paradox.

2. THE CRUELTY OF PERFECT MERITOCRACY

A limited version of the value of equality is the idea of “meritocracy”, or the “equality of opportunity”. According to this ideal, the aim of pur­suing equality is one of removing all obstacles for people to achieve what the traits of their character would “naturally” let them “deserve”. You may re­member Martin Luther King’s echoing voice: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That may be a good starting point for equal­ity, but it is cer­tainly not the endpoint. The Martin Luther Kings of today and of the fut­ure must ask for much more. They must be much more analytically strin­gent and radical.

Let’s say for a moment that we really achieved a society in which people are truly “judged by the content of their character”. This would mean that people with more competitive traits would gain more recognition, power, resources—and ultimately happiness—than their more miserably endow­ed fellow citizens. And there would really be no excuses in a perfect meri­to­cracy. You got every opportunity, and you still ended up getting the short end of the stick. You’re a bloody loser and you know it. You can’t blame anyone but yourself. And everybody else blames you as well. You are not judged by distinctions of class, gender or race, but you are still judged. And the en­titled feel even more exalted, yet more deserving. Drawn to its logical con­clusion, King’s vision—so often held almost as a religious tenet of mod­ernity—reveals an inescapably cruel and cynical side.

It’s a meagre vision for society because it ignores the fact that people are not equals. Any deeper equality is not possible unless we add­ress this issue.

3. RECOGNITION FROM THE RECOGNIZED

To a large extent, equality is about recognition, and you are recognized not only des­pite your race/gender/class, but also because of your abilities to pro­duce things other people want (products, services, elicited emoti­ons). And people will only give you recognition if they are unable to take it from you, i.e. if there is a power balance in place. Cows “give” us milk but receive no recognition because they are powerless in our bovine-opp­ressive soci­ety.

The meritocratic vision of equality still builds upon out­dated, religious (I am tempted to say Protestant) ideas: that you have a soul, and that “God” doles out rewards depending on how pretty you are on the inside. With King, we have—perhaps unsurprisingly—smuggled in a good dose of Luth­er and Calvin.

In reality, of course, no such God exists. And there is no fate that re­wards good character according to a universal measure; no law of Kar­ma, at least not in the traditional sense. People don’t “deserve” anything in any deeper, cosmic sense.

As the ladder of life is strung—as society is “stratified” into higher and lower strata—people simply end up in different social positions as the result of cold, mechanical pro­cesses, some of which orig­inate within each of us and from our own choices and actions, and some of which orig­inate from structures lying far beyond our control. There is really no solid bor­der between the inequality that comes from beyond ourselves, and the one that comes from within (from our psyches, personal traits and behav­iors).

Naturally, not all inequality is always a bad thing, but up to a certain point—a rather high threshold—inequality is painful to people and detri­mental to soc­ieties, whether it originates from people’s inner traits or from unfair collective structures.

We are called, then, to look for an intimately lived and felt equality; one that in turn shapes our relationships in the direction of mutual respect and sol­idarity, caring, even love. Such equality must ultimately be based upon social recognition, that people’s value and quality are genuinely app­rec­iated and honored by others. This and similar arguments have been made by many sociologists in recent years, most notably perhaps by the social theo­rist Axel Honn­eth.[i] This line of thought goes back as far as Hegel (in The Phenomenology of Spirit), who viewed the struggle for re­cognition as a primary driver in history, and it has been theorized not only on the Left, and not only by sociologists—in 2018 none other than Francis Fukuyama published a book titled Identity, which also looks close­ly at the primacy of recognition in society.

But this striving for a de facto equality of recognition, espoused by Hon­neth and others, lands us in yet another paradox, largely missed by the theo­rists of recog­nition. It is, if possible, an even more caustic one.

All humans desire recognition—civic, soc­ial, economic, emotional and sexual. We want to be recognized as worthy citizens, as real people, as com­petent contributors, as good friends and fam­ily members, and as gendered and sexual beings.

But—and this is the paradox that defenders of recognition tend to miss —we only want recog­nition from those who we ourselves value, from those who we our­selves “recognize” as equals or superiors, from the ones we res­pect, admire or desire.

We don’t want to be admired by the ones we look down upon, but by the ones we look up to. We don’t want to be members of a community we don’t respect. We don’t want to have our taste and lifestyle venerated by those we deem to have poor taste and ignoble lifestyles. We don’t want to be validated as beautiful and desirable by those we deem ugly and rep­ulsive. In short, we desire recognition from the recog­nized. And it goes farther than that—we even want only the recognition of those who in turn are recognized by others we in turn recognize. Recognition is a networked tagging game; a game of performances and displays. Recogni­tion repro­duces recognition. Disdain reproduces disdain.

And the eliciting of respect and recognition is not a volitional act on behalf of the beholder. Admiration, attra­c­tion and respect are things that occur automat­ically, as a result of our emotional, social and cultural wir­ing. We can’t help our­selves but to admire the gifted, to desire the beauti­ful, to clamor for the glamorous, to respect the powerful, to be dazzled by the smooth and the cool. And conversely, alas, we cannot help but feel disdain for those we perceive as stupid, ugly, delinquent, weird or imm­oral—dis­dain for the peo­ple who don’t elicit positive emotional responses in us or otherwise don’t provide things we value.

Sure, on a theoretical and impersonal level, we can extend our solidar­ity to the wretched, with citizenship and the vote and human rights. But we won’t choose them as friends; we won’t enter long-lasting and prod­uctive profess­ional partner­ships with them; we won’t invite them to our parties; we won’t miss them; we won’t marry them; we won’t truly love them.

That innocent wish we so often hail as uni­versally human: “I just want to be respected, loved and desired”, has an inescapable dark side, whisp­er­ing under its breath: “I merely want to be respected, loved and de­sired… by the ones I respect, love and desire”. And we often respect, love and de­sire someone simply because other people seem to.

Ours is a tragic universe, where universal love cannot be the simple an­swer. Any attempt to be genuinely loving of the unloved will prove unsus­tain­able. Even if you let one alcoholic beggar live at your house, you will pay a significant price for doing so, and you will have to exclude the next beggar who comes knocking. And the exchange between you and the begg­­ar will be an act of charity rather than a genuine and mutual offering of res­pect. The whole thing is set up to create large groups of the unwant­ed, the disrespected, the untouchable.

This cruel mechanism of social reality lays its verdict on all of us; as not­ed earlier, we are all winners and losers, in different contexts and to differ­ent extents. We all know both sides, and we all know the intense pain of rejection, of withheld recognition and cold indifference. And we all know, perhaps apart from the uncond­itional love of mothers for their children, that all that matters in life, at the most sensitive and intimate level, can be taken away from us. Hence, we cannot give our care and recognition freely.

If we play our cards wrong, if we convene with the lonely, the failures, the nerds, with those who cannot offer us new and productive outlets for life, this will not only create limited rewards for us; it will spill over and affect how others judge our status and standing in society.

Hence, we stay clear of those who have little recognition, in turn offer­ing them no re­cogni­tion so that we can gain the recognition we so desire. The wounds of the lonely and the despised are as frightening and con­tagious as lepro­sy.

4. WE ENVY ONE ANOTHER

Last, but not least, there is the disturbing tendency of humans to envy those who gain the kinds of recognition we our­selves long for. This creates another paradox of equality.

We withhold our recognition for reasons of envy. Such envy can show up for different reasons: that we feel competition for the scarce resource of atten­tion and recognition, that we are invested in another story about real­ity (why should the footballer be recognized when great poets like “my­self” are ignored; why should brilliant Marxists be admir­ed when in truth lib­ertarian economics are the best; why should great intell­ectuals be hon­ored when “I” am so much kinder and more spiritual?)—or that we feel some­one’s recognition was acquired through undue priv­ileges, that “the fight was fixed”. Or simply that we find someone morally un­deser­ving: why should such a wretched person be so lucky?

The strange and ubiquitous hunger of the human soul, the hunger for recognition, makes the fair and even distribution of recog­nition yet more acrimonious. Envy is an often under­estimated force of hum­an soc­ieties and interactions, and as discussed earlier, it generally goes unnoti­ced by the envier him­self. It leads us to give unhelpful and unsol­ic­ited advice, to slander and diminish the gifts and bea­u­ties of one another. It works as a subtle but per­vasive counterforce to human dignity and equ­al­­ity. It gets in the way of any struggle for deeper equality.

I have thus offered four paradoxical natures of equality: first, that we are not de facto equal; second, that even a perfect meritocracy with no struct­ural dis­crim­ination reproduces an exacer­bated felt inequality; third, that all equal­ity is based upon viscerally felt and embodied recognition, but that we will only seek the recognition of the recognized, and thus only offer true recog­nition to limited segments of our social surroundings—and last, the strange and subtle presence of envy.

This might all look rather hopeless. Yet, equality varies over societies and epochs. Equality can be deve­loped; it can evolve. At the most uni­versal level, equality is deepened when the games of life are developed.

Recognition cannot be forced to be given, nor can it be redistributed like material wealth, nor can it be force-fed to the starving. But, again, the fact that equality is paradoxical, and perhaps cannot be “achieved” in any absol­ute sense, doesn’t mean it cannot develop and grow.

Deeply felt equal­ity is an emergent property of society’s self-organ­iza­tion, of its power relat­ions, of people’s opportunities, of second chances given, of freely avail­able information, of education and feedback processes governing peo­ple’s lives, of people’s degree of emotional and social intel­l­ig­ence, of people’s physical stature, and so forth. And the depth of our equ­ality affects all aspects of society—just as inequality harms every aspect of society and ultimately limits our freedom.

The issue is not, then, to “achieve” equality, but to tackle its paradoxes more intelligently; to work around them with wide and deep-reaching mea­s­ures.

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.

 

[i]. Honneth, A., 1992/1996. Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Oxford: Polity Press.

Introduction Chapter to the Next Hanzi Book: The 6 Hidden Patterns of History

Introduction: A History without Time

Chapter theme song: Time, Hans Zimmer.

 

Q: What is history?

HF: History is the past. But it can only be told in the present.

Of an infinity of possible stories and interpretations of past events, we somehow conjure up specific histories. Our understanding of these past events propose meaningful sequences; we must guess at thin threads of cause and effect, or at the very least a kind of resonant melody; and we must weave this fabric of meaning through time.

This holds true in the history of our personal lives, in the history of families, tribes and nations, and in the history of the world.

On the lute of history, all possible melodies can be played; some more beautiful and harmonic than others; some in greater resonance with the present and the emerging future.

Some with greater power to explain—beauties, traumas, and potentials.

Some with greater power to enthrall its listener.

Some with greater power to emancipate, to free you from the shackles of your own corner of space-time.

In this book, I claim we’ve been taught the wrong melody. We’re singing it wrong. We’re in the wrong club, dancing off a cliff.

Q: So how do you know which history to tell? Which is the true history?

HF: We cannot simply tell “the true story”, because that story, in its fullness, remains forever unavailable to us. The “whole true story” would rather constitute the totality of all possible interpretations,  connected to an astronomical immensity of causes and events of immeasurable detail, vastness, and complexity.

We do not possess “the eyes of God”, the all-seeing, ultimate perspective-of-all-perspectives. Indeed, it may not even be theoretically possible to “tell the whole truth” or to “see with the eyes of God”, as that would require so much information processing that the heat generated would upset the studied universe and rip any prediction of it to shreds. When the great physicist Laplace, in the early 19th century, famously stipulated a theoretical demon who knows the positions and speeds of all particles, and could thus predict the entirety of the future of the cosmos, he was simply wrong. Such a demon could only self-destruct. The eyes of God belong to no one, not even in theory.

God is dead. Even in theory.

And indeed, Mohammed or Jesus or anyone else, cannot be God’s prophet or mouthpiece, because the same issue applies to the act of communicating the ultimate truth: communication has energy costs, and the ultimate communication would shred the universe to pieces. So God’s prophet is also dead. The voice of God thus belongs to no one.

There is still, however, always a pattern to how and why we tell the histories we do. Despite its many possible interpretations, history is always told non-arbitrarily. We tell the best story we can, given our own limited perspective, which in turn depends on who, when and where we are. We cannot arbitrarily recount the past. By logical necessity, it must be so.

We are thus always somewhere between two impossibilities: the ultimate truth of all things—and complete, utter nonsense. Never can the full truth be reached; nor, however, can we ever speak the ultimate nonsense, no matter how hard we try. Like a Rorschach test of ink dots that still yield an image to the observer, even nonsense is structured. Even the schizophrenic mind, even the dream; it all follows some elusive (but ultimately discernable) order or logic, some pattern. There is only relative distance between harmony and cacophony.

As students of history, we must shape the history told, always filtered through our own limited faculties of knowledge, perspective-taking, and meaning-making. As thinking, breathing beings, we are always-already situated in world history ourselves—at a certain time and position within a certain society. We can only recount and reflect upon the past from our own historical vantage point.

And yet, however, I would claim, that the progression of our knowledge of  history is the arduous climb from the depths of relative arbitrariness, of relative nonsense, to relative truth. Some histories told are closer to the truth, and some are closer to utter nonsense. The claim that “Napoleon rode into the Prussian city of Jena in October 1806” is probably more true than “The Mongols were beaten back by the Mamluks of Egypt in 1260 with the aid of superior Mamluk attack penguins”.

And yet, because we structure the past into certain patterns of graspable and delineated events, we are somehow able to cut through the incomprehensible infinitudes of occurrences and weave stories. We can make the past fathomable, relatively non-arbitrary. We make the past come alive in novel ways. We learn from history, and we are reshaped by it. Through this necessary act of vanity, we transcend pure chaos and confusion.

History, then, is always told and studied with one purpose or another. This purpose can be more or less clearly understood and stated. But there is always a purpose of some kind. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be making an effort to uncover and then to tell the story.

And “truth seeking” is never in itself a sufficient purpose: there is an infinite number of possible truths to seek, down to counting grains of sand on the porch. Something other, some religious drive, compels us to seek this particular truth; to cut through time in this particular angle.

In the most general sense, all history writing, all descriptions of the past, share one purpose: to shape the future. And the future isn’t here: we can only believe in it; hence its necessarily religious aspect.

Naturally, nobody can read your history before you have written and published it. Someone, somewhere, is affected, partly transformed—in the future. And their future life courses change, in large or small ways, for better or worse. History must thereby always, necessarily, be directed towards the future. Where else would it be going?

Q: So you want to write a history book to shape the future?

HF: Yes, the purpose of writing and studying history is to shape the future. We use the treasures of the past to enrich the future. I am no exception.

I will be weaving together a new interpretation of “the history of the world”, from a vantage point of what I call the metamodern perspective.

Q: The metamodern perspective?

HF: What we have been taught in school and at universities is a “modern” and/or “postmodern” history. These are immense bodies of work, which cannot simply be replaced by one new book. We will continue to learn from modern and postmodern history writing for ages to come. But they are written from, as I see it, increasingly outdated perspectives.

Metamodernism is another take on reality, humanity and society—one that grows from the living conditions of the information age—and the history of the world looks quite different to the metamodern mind. The writing of such a world history is necessary as a backdrop for the shaping of the future in a metamodern direction, which is, as I will labor to argue and explain, vital for the emerging global civilization to survive and to thrive.

In terms of topics and themes, I have had to be highly selective, needless to say. If I cannot fully tell the “story of the world”, at least I can move as nimbly as possible between carefully selected themes in history. I am recounting a history of the world, yes, but I am also, and primarily, displaying a metamodern perspective on history, its patterns and directions. I am commenting on previously known events—but in a new light, cutting through the chaos with new angles, with new suggested conclusions.

Q: So there are no predecessors to this work?

HF: I wouldn’t exactly say that.

There are theories going back to the 19th and even 18th centuries which are echoed in these pages. And there are writers, historians, and philosophers who have covered different aspects of the perspective I offer in the current volume, often with greater skill and rigor than I can muster. Jean Gebser’s work comes to mind. More recently, Robert Wright has been cutting some fascinating paths through history which resonate with my own work—in turn referencing numerous predecessors. And then there’s the whole Big History discourse, not to mention Global History, both of which we’ll get back to.

But then again, none of these put together this exact theory—and none of them land in quite the same conclusion about history’s direction. However, to get my argument and theory up and running, I have of course relied upon findings and accounts of mainstream Modern and Postmodern historians—like Hobsbawm, Toynbee, and Braudel—as well as findings from archeology, anthropology, sociology, and so on.

Q: Why, really, are you doing this?

HF: I am among the people who have been touched by a fire of the soul. I make no apologies for this. I seek to light the same—or a corresponding—flame in your heart.

The flame of revolution.

I feel that we must take a certain general direction of development of the world-system, of our multiplicity of interrelated cultures, of humanity and her beyond. “The world-soul” needs to be reconstituted, reprogrammed. We must change the dominant stories about the world and our place in it. This is an issue of great moral significance, as you will hopefully see.

I seek to contribute to bringing about a metamodern world revolution, and I am looking for fellow revolutionaries—or rather, what I call co-creators, “those who write new values on new tablets”.

But to replace the modern world with a metamodern world, we must understand the pattern of such revolutions. And it’s not anything like a Jacobin or Bolshevik revolution. We’re looking for what I call “non-linear revolutionaries”. Again, they taught you history all wrong in school.

Or, if you will allow me to switch back to an earlier metaphor: History is not arbitrary, and it plays in certain discernable melodies. Many different melodies are possible to hear. I don’t purport to be offering the only melody of history; only one that I think is particularly beautiful and powerful at this time and place. The melody is still playing at this point in history. So the issue here is to share that melody with you so that you may learn an instrument—whichever suits you best given your talents and circumstances—and then play the next note in the great song of history. And that may be a good way of spending one’s lifetime.

Of course, the next note to be played is not determined. The melody isn’t written down; but if you’ve heard the melody playing thus far, you may be able to “hear” what next note the melody “needs”. I cannot teach you to play the instrument or decide which note to play, but my hope is that—if enough people hear a similar melody, and each decides to play the next few notes—perhaps we can make the next few steps of our world’s evolution more harmonious and beautiful.

Hence, you could say, I’m looking for a cocreated revolutionary orchestra to play the next few notes of this great song. Nobody directs the orchestra; no prophet is there to guide us. But if we hear a similar melody, our creative efforts can flow together in richer resonance. And new melodies can be conceived, played on new instruments and on new musical scales entirely.

Come to think of it, actually, we’re not quite looking for a revolution.

We are looking for a new renaissance; a rebirth of the human mind and spirit—a reintegration of earlier forms of culture and civilization, a marriage of the perennial and the edge of the future. The metamodern renaissance spans across the humanities, the liberal arts, the sciences, our work life and industries, our norms and everyday life, our inner depths, and our structures of economy and governance. As we get into it, we shall discover that metamodernism has a deeper kinship with the Renaissance than with any particular political or technological revolution.

Q: Charming. So what revolutions are you talking about?

HF: There are, I believe, six hidden patterns of history: six “meta-memes”; each of which constitutes a fundamental revolution—or renaissance—of culture. That is the main thesis of this book.

Once you have seen these patterns, and their inherent logic, you cannot “unsee” them (until, of course, another better explanatory model shows up and rips this one to shreds, which is, after all, likely to happen sooner rather than later). There is a unifying logic to how they function and progress, and yet each of the metamemes is distinct and has its own logic.

The six metamemes offer explanatory power. They offer order. They offer a better understanding of (and thus empathy towards) other people. And they point us in certain directions of development. They guide us. Hey, they even offer some peace of mind and a bit of hope. And they lead to a dazzling conclusion: a fundamental revolt against the modern world.

But a playful revolt. A renaissance of exploration and new potentials.

Q: The six patterns are hidden?

HF: These six patterns aren’t truly hidden. It’s just that we have become accustomed to studying history without coherent frameworks that order the events into larger wholes. They are, as it were, hidden in plain sight.

I call these six hidden patterns “metamemes” (more on this soon), and they are named, in order of appearance:

  • Animistic
  • Faustian
  • Postfaustian
  • Modern
  • Postmodern
  • Metamodern

Our main issue is to understand each of these on a deep, intuitive level.

The last of these patterns, Metamodern, is still emerging. I will still try to describe it, as I believe some of its inherent logic is already discernable—and this is highly relevant knowledge to any co-creator of a non-linear world revolution.

Q: So there is a spirit of evolution, a force that propels the direction of history, from the big bang, through cosmological history, through biological evolution, and then through cultural stages of evolution, driving the universe towards a goal of unification?

HF: Actually, no.

Or rather, we can and should remain agnostic about any such force. The moment we start believing in such an entity, and that we can somehow intuitively or intellectually tap into this force in service of its purpose, we become tunnel-visioned “true believers”, fanatics set on a particular direction of history and thus blind to the multiplicity of perspectives and the richness, contradictions, and paradoxes of history. We implicitly take ourselves to be prophets, speaking the word of God, which—again—belongs to no one: An unforgivable vanity, a cardinal sin.

Rather than aligning ourselves with “the force that propels history”, we should “listen to the melodies of the future”. That can still involve listening intuitively, following our hearts. But even the subtle whispers of the heart do not grant us knowledge of where history is going.

Evolution doesn’t look forward and push itself towards a goal or end or “singularity” or what the Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin called the “Omega Point”. It would be more accurate to say that evolution “stumbles backwards”; it doesn’t really see where it is going, or why.

Take something like the Russian Empire—there is little if any apparent connection between the presumably Viking (or Varangian) chieftain Rurik’s establishment of Novgorod in 862, the rise and fall of the Kievan Rus, the regrouping of post-Mongol Russian power around Moscow, the purges of the nobility under Ivan the Terrible, the establishment of Saint Petersburg under Peter the Great and the thousands that died in the process, and the defeat at the Crimean War, and the royal court being enthralled by the crazed faith healer Rasputin in the early 20th century—and the emergence of the Soviet Union and its role in the Cold War, and its collapse some 80 years later, with resulting stagnation and failed transitions to liberal capitalism. If there has indeed been a directionality and pattern to this evolution, it has certainly been one full of contradictions, blunders and meaningless failures and mistakes. Catherine the Great, a German-born ruler who corresponded with Voltaire and embraced the Enlightenment, later turned her back entirely on the Enlightenment ideals, in the wake of the French Revolution. She pivoted—as did her evolving country.

The whole thing doesn’t “see where it’s going”. Today’s Russia stumbled itself into existence through failures, tragedies, and paradoxes—through twists and turns of human ingenuity, vanity, tragedy, and sheer stupidity. As did all of the world’s nations. Crash, boom, bang, oops—death, decay, suffering untold. Tragedies and cruel jokes at the expense of the human spirit. Absolute absurdity. And in the midst of it all: creation—the emergence of the utterly unexpected, the stumbled-upon.

Simply put: directionality and pattern do not presuppose a pre-given purpose. Historical evolution has recognizable patterns and directions, but probably no “end-goal” or “telos”. And if it has no end-goal, it has no particular “destiny”, either.

To the extent that we wish to shape the future with this book, we need to be sincere interpreters and analysts, but only ironic prophets.

If there is indeed a spirit of evolution that guides this story, we must conclude that it is a very clumsy and incompetent one. It’s all over the place, working in “mysterious ways” to say the least. And yet, with a bird’s eye view, we can also conclude that it has not stumbled entirely at random. Even the chaotic and grim history of Russia has emerged through epochs that follow certain cultural patterns: the metamemes.

Q: Um, okay. So when did these metameme periods happen?

HF: Wrong question. Metamemes aren’t what you think. They’re not like Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so on.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously argued that “modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological category”. What he meant by that is that it’s not really meaningful to try to understand at what particular time the world “became modern”—the answer to this will vary depending on the context. Much of the world still today isn’t modern in a meaningful sense. Rather, one must struggle to understand why modernity emerged, through which mechanisms, which properties delineate it from non-modernity or pre-modernity. That would be the only usable explanation, because that’s what has real explanatory, and, ultimately, predictive power. That’s also how the classical sociologists of the late 19th century approached the study of modern society.

I couldn’t agree more, dear Adorno. And modernity is one of the six metamemes. None of the metamemes are “chronological categories”. They’re not periods. They’re not eras. They’re not epochs. They are something else.

They are certain patterns of history—certain qualities, certain properties, certain logics, certain dynamics. They are large patterns-of-patterns; they are overarching patterns-that-connect. As such, metamemes stretch across and through any crude periodization we may conjure up. They slip through any attempt to catch them chronologically, to freeze them in time.

Think about it; the events of world history have nothing—or very little—to do with the year numbers and epochs we ascribe to them. Sure, years give us intervals of time, but beyond that, epochs and years are completely arbitrary. They are, in that sense, unscientific—because they offer no explanatory or predictive power. They are fancies, little more.

The metamemes are qualitative categories. That is to say, you can describe how they work. What they do. What they are. Now that is truly an explanation. Saying something is “medieval” or that it happened in 1212, is not.

And for this reason, this will be a quite unconventional history of the world. I will rely on sequences and years, yes, on historical time and geographical space. But that is not the focus. I am offering you a qualitative understanding of the history of the world, a history of the patterns that drive and shape the cultural world; if you will, a history without time.

Q: Okay, Hanzi. Fair enough. So you want to try out a new way of telling the history of the world because you think this could bring about a world revolution (or renaissance). I can see how that would excite you and make your insignificant little speck of a life seem worthwhile, perhaps even compensate for a few childhood traumas and belittlements that life has heaped on you. Good luck with that.

But I still don’t quite get how you view this “history without time”—I mean, what is history if not a series of events in time? Please answer me directly: What is history?

HF:  Nice punch. Indeed, what is world history?

It’s not primarily, as Marx and Engels would have us believe, the history of classes and their struggle against each other.

Nor is it the history of kings and queens.

It’s not the history of nations, or even cycles of civilizations, their ebbs and flows, their rise, decay, and downfall.

It’s not the history of the everyday life of living, breathing human beings.

It’s not the progress of technology in itself.

It’s not a series of events, what is sometimes called “one damned thing after another” (ODTAA).

And it’s definitely not the history of human races and their struggle to the death, race against race.

It’s not even the history of humanity as a whole, of the species homo sapiens. What a silly world history that would be.

Human history, the history of the world, what is commonly known as “cultural history”, is the history of memes.

This is, need I add, an informational view of history. We are answering the question: What structures and drives the elements of information? That’s what drives history; which is to say, it is what explains and connects the events. Information is the element that coordinates human actions, and it thus guides human events, including human responses to natural events.

When the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote his reflection on the tsunami that had hit Lisbon in 1755, he changed the human response to it: perhaps it was not, as commonly believed, a punishment from God; perhaps it was just a meaningless natural event. In his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Voltaire notes:

“’If it be true,’ they said, ‘that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not fallen.

If the order of things requires that everything should be as it is, then human nature has not been corrupted, and consequently has no need for a Redeemer.

if the miseries of individuals are merely the by-product of this general and necessary order,

then we are nothing more than cogs which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are no more precious in the eyes of God than the animals by which we are devoured.”

A new metameme was emerging to challenge the old one, with new and real consequences for human action. So let us focus on memes. Look at it this way.

The history of the physical world is cosmology. The history of the planet is geology. Geological properties can only emerge within a larger cosmological story. The history of life, this self-organization of complex, sentient entities, is biology. Life can only play out in some select corners of the universe, where goldilocks conditions allow it, in an interplay with geological settings.  Biology carries within itself molecular patterns that we call genes. Biology, or natural history, is the history of genes and their evolutionary struggle.

Cultural history, what we usually call just “history”,  is yet another level up of emergence and abstraction. It exists within a biological framework.[i] You need biological creatures with malleable bodies in which memes can be encoded. Memes are patterns that are imprinted, not into the molecules of the creature, their DNA, but into some more changeable part of the body, like connections between nerve cells. Memes are memories, learned skills and crafts,  stories, ideas, taken-for-granted assumptions, languages. They are transferrable patterns which are imprinted in a more abstract layer of bodily configurations (as compared to DNA). And they transfer through communication and imitation.

The word “meme” took on a life of its own after Richard Dawkins introduced it a while ago. He juxtaposed it with “gene”. It’s a good move. Memes are like ghosts-of-abstraction which possess the biological bodies of their carriers. They emerge through ongoing interactions between human beings, and then take over those same human beings and control the movements of their bodies, shaping very specific patterns of these. Biologically, I can be a light-skinned homo sapiens with green irises and long legs. Culturally, I can be a Russian-speaking, socialist ballet dancer. Through the medium of my biological body, memes “remote-control” me and make me do pirouettes for the glory of Stalin. When I open my mouth to speak, my tongue will move in a specifically Russian manner. I am a memetic creature as much as I am a genetic one—just as much as I am a physical object with a certain mass, speed and position in space-time.

Cultural history must thereby, necessarily, be the history of how all memes emerge, how they struggle, combine, and evolve, and how they steer the world. Because culture consists of memes. Whereas genes can only be transferred and experimented with through new generations, through new bodies (with some leeway for epigenetic factors, i.e. how genes are turned on and off during a lifetime), memes can evolve much more quickly and according to another logic entirely. And that logic is culture, and its development is “history”.

Memes are more malleable than genes. We cannot all get brown eyes and black hair, but we can all learn at least some Swahili, if exposed to it. Given, of course, that we have the biological prerequisites for the meme to transfer to us (brain, ears, tongue, etc.).

Or look at it this way, from the negative: Is it possible to write a piece of history without discussing matters of class? Yes. Without describing the doings of kings and queens? Yes. Without relating to nations? Yes. But is it possible to discuss any cultural history without relating to memes? No. Because memes are the most basic category of history.

And metamemes are the fundamental patterns of the memes themselves. The memes don’t emerge independently, but in relation to each other. They emerge as functions of larger, more fundamental, metamemes.

Thus, metamemes are patterns-of-cultural-patterns.

Q: How then is this not a history of humanity? Memes are about humans and the things we do. Humans have culture!

HF: Okay, so it is and isn’t. Humans have more complexly malleable bodies than other known creatures, and thus they happen to currently be the main carriers of cultural memes on our planet. Memes evolve primarily within and through humans. But hey, other animals have memes too. Researchers have shown that whales in the South Pacific have different songs that spread as fashions over time. Those are memes, too.

There is nothing special or chosen about homo sapiens per se. It might as well have been other creatures that were the main substrate of memetic evolution—and who knows, it probably will be sometime in the future. Octopuses come to mind; maybe (if bioengineering is applied) larger brains can be grown in those squishy wet things than in our rigid skulls. Maybe they can be a good seed for a superior substrate for memetic evolution, and maybe one day human history will appear as trivial as whale songs travelling across the South Pacific.

So the main juxtaposition is not humanity versus nature, or humans versus non-human animals. What a stupid, arbitrary, illogical division that would be! The main juxtaposition is between two different levels of emergence: genes and memes. Biology and culture. Genes come before memes. Biology contains culture, even as culture can operate upon and reshape biology (through selective breeding, genetic manipulation, food and lifestyles, and so on). Human biology is not, as many have claimed “a constant”; it just evolves slower and by another logic. But memes are their own thing; they escape the limits of genetic evolution.

Memes create something beyond biology: imagined worlds of culture, religions, philosophies, paradigms, stories about the universe, grand dramas, narratives[ii].

If we are, then, to go beyond our speciesist narcissism, and grow the fuck up, we need to start telling history like it is: not about humanity, but about memes. Humanity is only interesting because it happens to be good at carrying and thus generating memes, so that cultural evolution is sparked. What a spark, though!

If this seems a bit gloomy—if we feel a little less species-special—there is a silver lining to it. Namely, we’re off the hook in terms of species-specific guilt vis-à-vis the biosphere as a whole. It’s not that humanity is bad and nature is good. It’s that nature evolves into meme-carrying creatures, and some memes tend to wreck their own biological substrate. That’s it. Ecological disaster can happen for a number of reasons; the present crisis has emerged because memes follow another logic than ecological systems do. Our cultural evolution is shredding the basis of its own biological substrate.

The memes can sustain their evolution only by somehow adapting to and accounting for ecological systems. The memes must either include the biosphere, or perish. This would have occurred even if memes evolved most rapidly through some other biological substrate, through another species. So if humanity is not special, this means we’re not “special good or bad”.

That being said, yes, we shall primarily study human history in this book. And some biological properties that are particular to humans shape how our particular sequences of memes play out.

Q: I get it. You have a morbid fascination with the death of human civilization. You hate humanity.

HF: I truly don’t. That’s not what I said.

I love humanity. Hey, I love doggity and magpiety as well. I’m just not as obsessed with it. I find no particular reason to make “this one cloud of genetic material whose carriers can often-but-not-always mate with each other and reproduce” into a basic assumed category of reality and science.  I find no particular reason to base the study of history upon this… genetic category.

Think about it. Does it make sense to let a biological category define the full scope of cultural history? “Humanity” in itself is just a meme, an idea in the head of many humans. We can change that idea for something else, something more universal, something that explains stuff better and helps us create deeper meaning and pursue more universally solid goals. And such a category is, I believe, the history of memes.

Sounds dry? You would rather have a human history of dreams, of hopes, of striving, of flesh and blood and all-too-human passions and agency, than one of abstract memes? The point is that memes are the cultural crystallization of all of these things. It is, I contend, by understanding the metamemes, that we most succinctly fathom the adventures and sorrows of the human spirit.

This book is a revolt against modernity. Hopefully, though, not a blast from the past (as “the integral traditionalists” would have it), but a blast from the future; a future that also redefines and reintegrates the past in novel ways.

It’s also, in a sense, a revolt against “the humanities” as taught at our universities, and against the modern “religion” of humanism, which places ”humanity” and the singular human being, at the center of all things. Why should the non-natural sciences, “the humanities”, philosophy and history and so on, be tied to a certain biological species? Surely, truth and meaning must exist beyond such confines?

Some people call this position of mine “posthumanism”, “anti-speciesism”, “anti-anthropocentrism” and so on. I just call it common sense. I don’t have the burden of proof here. If you want to obsess about humanity and its God-chosen specialness, the burden of proof is on you. Humanity is special because people went to the moon? Because Beethoven wrote Für Elise? Says who? According to what judge? You prove it.

Q: And… what exactly does this have to do with metamemes?

HF: It is important to decenter the view from “humanity”, because our evolution must travel beyond humanity, if humanity is to survive (along with lots of other lifeforms). So the focus on humanity must take a backseat and allow us identify with a wider world of emergent properties.

Q: So we identify with the larger biosphere instead of humanity, as deep ecologists have proposed? Or perhaps even with a larger cosmological evolution?

HF: Um, not exactly. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it won’t quite cut it.

The issue is that culture is emergent from the biosphere, yes, and emergent from a larger cosmological context, yes—but it is not reducible to it. So identifying with the biosphere as a whole leaves us with few answers about how humans should organize their societies, how they should find meaning in the world, how they should relate to one another, and so forth.

Culture is its own thing. Technology is its own thing. We need to reconnect them to the biosphere, yes, but that doesn’t exhaust the answer. We must understand their internal logic, and thus the logic of how they have evolved.

Q: So are metamemes the same as “memeplexes”?

HF: What some writers call a  memeplex is any large pattern of memes. I don’t use the term so much, because it gets too vague. The metamemes are a subsection of the memeplexes; they are the patterns of how cultures can be described in developmental terms; if you will, in developmental stages. Metamemes are specifically defined, very large memeplexes; they evolve in a recognizable and logical sequence (hence “developmental”).

Here’s an example. A meme could be ballet. Did any tribal culture, anywhere in the world, ever generate a dance that resembles ballet? No. They produce an incredible array of dances and prances and rituals, but no ballet. Why? Because ballet is “Western”? Well, then, why did no medieval or even renaissance European societies ever produce ballet dances?

No. Ballet is not tied to geography, ethnicity, or race. The answer is that ballet is Modern. It is generated under the logic of the Modern metameme.

Actually, ballet sprung out of fencing and the court society centered and modelled on early Modern France. Like a racing car, ballet is based upon removing all but the most necessary movements. In a sense, it is ultimately utilitarian. That is what creates its elegance. It is Ockham’s razor applied to the movements of the human body. It is the Enlightenment paradigm embodied in motion.

The chance of ballet emerging in a pre-Modern context is simply zero. Zero. Ballet did not come about arbitrarily. Sure, there are arbitrary elements to it which were shaped by individual people, but there are many prerequisites specific to early Modern life that make possible for something like ballet to pop into existence. Ballet isn’t Animistic (like tribal hunter-gatherer societies); it’s Modern. No Ockham’s razor, no Enlightenment, no ballet.

Q: Um, there are some things to explain there. But first of all, this sounds pretty racist to me. You’re saying that Western ballet is better and “more advanced” than all the tribal dances in the world. Who are you to say?  Good grief. This developmental perspective of “metamemes” can  really make some Western people quite blind. Isn’t the measure of “more advanced” in itself your narrow Western bias? You think, like in the 19th century, that Europeans, white men, are “more civilized”?

HF: You said better, more advanced, and more civilized. I didn’t say that.

I said that, descriptively, certain memes (like ballet) pertain to certain metamemes (like modernity)—by logical necessity. This may interact with certain geographical and ethnic entities like “Western” or “Indian”, but it’s not a theory about such entities.

My claim is, rather, that such entities, “civilizational cultural spheres”, are ultimately epiphenomena; i.e. that they’re a lot less important than we’ve usually been taught to think. We tend to over-essentialize them, to ascribe too much explanatory power to “Western”, “Indian” and so on. If you think about it, it’s obvious that I have much more in common with a contemporary urban Indian than with a German even in the 1700s. The memetic distance is smaller to the contemporary Indian citizen.

But again, about ballet, the burden of proof is on you: show me ballet (or something that corresponds closely to it in terms of choreography) emerging in a tribal, Animistic setting, and I shall solemnly eat my hat. I’ll record it on YouTube so you revel in it on repeat and in slow-motion. Then go on to finding an Animistic theory of gravity, Animistic social science, or Animistic stock markets. The burden is yours, not mine.

If you start from the negatives, and work by falsification, it becomes obvious that history is non-arbitrarily ordered. What I mean by that is that is that you can look at all the things that obviously do not exists in, say, pre-Modern societies, and which cannot emerge without the Modern (or later) metameme. Show me the Picasso of the 11th century? Poststructuralist critique of literature in the Warring States period of China? No?

I’m not saying that ballet is “finer”. I watched the Swan Lake once in Copenhagen, and it bored me to tears. Not going back there. I had much more fun doing an ecstatic tribal style dance around a fire at a Burning Man event. Naked.

I’m just saying that it pertains to the Modern metameme, and I shall labor to explore the meaning of this throughout the book. Death metal is also (late) Modern. But, of course, fearsome songs about blood, gore and demons are found across all the metamemes.

Let’s go on with another example. Is opera truly “Western”? What about Chinese opera, then? Western opera and Chinese opera showed up in different settings, the Chinese evolving considerably earlier and independently, in a more pre-modern setting, today counting over a hundred regional styles. But neither tradition could have been generated in an Animistic context.

Calling ballet “Modern” is not a matter of preference—this always depends on the eye of the observer, one may prefer things for any number of reasons—but simply a point about the non-arbitrary nature of history. History is structured. It’s not, to use an worn expression, just “one damned thing after another” (ODATAA). History has melodies; I would say, beautiful ones.

And if history does indeed play in discernable melodies, why not listen to them?

Q: Okay, so a bit off topic: Where does this leave “the rise of the West”, then? I mean, the historical process that lead European powers to become the nexus of globalization, modernization—and colonialism.

HF: Just as humanity has no predefined special place among species and nature, so does no geographical or ethnic part of humanity have a special or select place “before the others”. There is, in the last instance, no “middle kingdom”; it’s just that memes emerge in different times and places among certain groups of people. But memes evolve fast and they travel fast. They combine well; they merge and have ebbs and flows and fashions. They mutate. So whatever may show up in one ethnic setting can very well travel and take hold in another. Did you know that ketchup is originally an Indonesian fish sauce imported to coastal urban China in the 1700s—and didn’t contain tomatoes? Speaking of ballet, would you say it is today more of a Western affair, or more of a Russian and East European one?

Nations, peoples and civilizations are themselves memes. They emerge as ideas in the heads of human beings, through their interactions, and they control the movements of human bodies. So even these are structured according to certain metamemes.

There is, I hold, nothing Western-centric or Eurocentric in itself about the theory of metamemes. It can be misused in Western-centric or even racist ways, but let us take all necessary precautions to prevent that. By all means.

If anything, the theory of metamemes works against Western-centric views of history and the world. Sure, Europe shaped modernity and modernity shaped the West, but modernity is not reducible to “Western”; there are other versions of it, still being explored to this day. Nor should Indian, Chinese, or any other culture, be exotified and taken to have too inherent qualities. The history of the world is just that: world history, and this includes all cultural spheres, all civilizations, all metamemes, all genders, all ecological environments.

I’ll get back to discussing the rise of the West later in the book, more to explain why and how it happened.

Q: But you still mean to say that there can and should be an evolution into the Metamodern metameme. So you do think that the later metamemes are better, because each of them “builds upon” the preceding one?

HF: Tricky question. But a fair one. And very important, so I commend your perseverance.

Here’s what I believe. We don’t have the eyes of God, and in the last instance, only an all-seeing God would know what is good, better, or the best. But from different vantage points, we can make arguments for why some developmental properties can and should be preferable than others in different settings.

For instance, in Modern humanism, as will be described later in the book, human rights are important, and so Modern societies are adverse to slavery. The Romans were pre-Modern and had slaves. As did the Vikings. Better or worse? Who’s to say, in the end? But at least we can make the argument that, under the current historical circumstances, and in terms of human happiness and suffering, we would probably be worse off with a global legal slave trade than we are without one. So let’s prefer Modern values on this one, shall we?

Does this mean that Roman and Viking culture were “worse” than today’s Modern Poland, for instance? Not really. Does it say anything about the individual value of any one Roman citizen or Viking clansman in comparison to a contemporary Pole? No. Does it mean Cicero and Seneca and Harald Bluetooth were lesser men than today’s Polish cabinet members? No.

It just means that, on a collective level, given a certain level of complexity in society, it makes sense to accept certain Modern patterns of thought and values. Under certain circumstances, the Modern metameme has comparative advantages, and without the Modern metameme in place, a society of a certain level of complexity would likely fall apart.

A somewhat dangerous simplification—but perhaps still a useful one—would be to say that metamemes matter on a collective level, but that they say nothing about people individually who happen to carry and express metamemes through their actions: their quality, worth, and so on. For instance, if my grandmother resonated with another metameme than I do, she was still a person I to this day have many reasons to remember fondly and look up to respectfully.

But even that kind of misses the point. The point is that the Metamodern metameme makes more sense in the presently emerging world-system, because its logic corresponds to the actual society we live in. So if we don’t, in some sense, become metamodern, we’re all going to crash and burn.

It goes both ways, really. Later metamemes can be disruptive, meaningless, and destructive if they enter into the wrong context at the wrong time. How many indigenous cultures have not been oppressed and ripped apart by an inappropriate exposure to other, larger, cultures with later metamemes?

And, of course, the different metamemes have different pros and cons. There is always a price for development, often a very tragic one.

Still, we have good reasons to study, understand, and relate productively to, the evolution of metamemes, strategically—and sensitively—spurring their development.

Q: But Animistic culture has gone on for over 40 000 years (as I think we’ll discuss later). Modern culture is only 500 years old and already crashing the planet. Does it really make sense to believe that we need more of this development?

HF: Actually, yes. Imagine if, in the present day, people would literally stop believing in a Modern worldview, and assume, as animists and many faustians (will get back to defining these) naturally did, that the world is flat—and that you solve medical problems by invoking spirits. What would actually happen? Collapse would happen. Suffering untold. Imagine what the response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have looked like. And in some places, there have indeed been pre-Modern responses to the virus pandemic; just gurgle some cologne.

Animistic cultures sometimes did collapse, just at slower pace and on smaller scale than the Modern world is doing. All cultures collapse sooner or later. Once a certain Modern world has come into being and thus affects the environment on a massively larger scale, however, there are only two ways ahead:  either collapse, or evolve. The universe is a beautiful place, but it has its rough edges.

And we’re on a rough edge right now. We have passed a threshold after which the Modern metameme, for all its glory—it is just a magnificent as all the other metamemes—simply cannot sustain itself. Also, it cannot produce a thriving global community with shiny, happy people.

Q: Shiny, happy people, huh?

HF: Yes, and non-human animals, to whichever extent that is practically possible. Shiny, happy dogs and seals and fish and monkeys. Tall order, I know. But why should we strive for anything less? I don’t see any particular reason to extend our caring only to humans.

That it’s hard doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Rather, I’d argue, we should do what makes sense. It’s not about creating a utopia where “everyone is happy”. It is about exchanging ideas, paradigms, and narratives that make less sense, with others which make more sense—given the current historical circumstances. And, in the process, that may open up the possibility of avoiding some horrible outcomes and generating better likelihoods for relatively sustainable flourishing and happiness.

Q: Aren’t you being a tad bit too arrogant? Who are you to take upon yourself to define this direction of the evolution of all life on our planet? And how could one small person contribute to creating a world of shiny, happy people and non-human animals?

HF: Then again, who is anyone to take up such a task? What authority could we possibly defer to? We’ll just have to make do with limited, wounded, mediocre people who pretend to be great philosophers and scrutinize their work. Perhaps we can co-create something worthwhile in terms of new transnational and global institutions based on a worldview that is in tune with the internet age.

Anybody really has the right to take a shot at it, don’t you think? Or should we just abstain from any discussion about the overall development of global civilization? What kind of humility would that be—one that silences perhaps the most important discussion we can have?

By that note, I could ask you the same, who are you to be asking all of these questions? You have the right to wonder, and I am taking the right to speak my truth.

Q: That’s the worst part; you even control which questions you’re being asked by writing both sides of this conversation! Come on, stop hiding.

I won’t play along. I’ll grill you. I’ll be a thorn in your side and your self-congratulatory ego project of world-savior mania. I’ll make you sweat.

And sometimes, I’ll play nice and ask some questions just to see how you respond. I’m Q, I’ll wake you up at night, shake you with doubts and uncomfortable questions, being tough but fair. And I’ll bring your pretentions down, showing that what you’re saying is neither new nor unique, nor very feasible, not even very relevant.

HF: Now, who’s taking themselves too seriously?

Q: Stop being passive-aggressive. I know you’re angry at me and you just want me to be submissive and adoring of your self-proclaimed talent and magnificent theory and captivating stories. But I’m a part of your larger, transpersonal self. I’ll bring out all your weak spots and shadows. I’ll get you to reveal yourself, to others and to yourself. I’ll demystify your fake persona. And that will get us closer to the raw, emotional and hard, crunchy truth… So have no illusions as to why I’m sticking around. I’ll be keeping it real.

Here I am. But where’s the real you? I’m the playful one; I’m the trickster. You’re the joke.

HF: Whoa. Okay. At least I’ll try to be a good joke. At your service.

Hopefully, in the end, we can join together in holistic laughter at our shared existential predicament. We’re interdependent; the philosopher needs the Great Inquirer, the Q—and vice versa.

It’s not a Sherlock-Watson kind of deal. It’s not even properly Socratic—in Plato’s writings Socrates always ends up on top.

Rather, imagine a nightmare version of Watson, one that calls on Sherlock at 3 am and flushes him with a bucket of cold water. That’s you, Q. Sometimes I loathe you for it.

And Watson keeps Sherlock’s schedule; you define what topic we’re discussing in each and every paragraph. We need a Watson who knows his stuff, one that can combine curiosity with biting back and representing counter-arguments and real concerns. No question is ever fully answered—and thus, Q must always be larger than A (for Answer), in this case me. Master is the Q, slave is the A.

Think about it this way: If we’re both figments of the same imagination, then my responses flow just as much from yourself as your questions flow from me and my machinations. After all, aren’t the questions just as an important part of a book as its answers?

And if I did indeed create you, and I didn’t want to be challenged, wouldn’t I have conjured up a more docile and servile Q, one that met me only with grateful curiosity? After all, if you’re also me, then I will hardly appear magnanimous to the reader, since your sometimes harsh voice is ultimately my own. A real philosopher cannot have a cute Q.

No, it’s not you against me. I think we’re both traveling where the ideas guide us. In that sense, the book writes itself. We’re just listening in, both of us. Tuning in to radio Metamodern FM, to hear a new melody of history—so we can write songs for new days and long nights. I’m listening to hear your questions and comments, and you’re listening to hear how I respond.

Still, that being said, I think that I’ll be able to give you useful and interesting answers, and I still think the path of inquiry we’re taking together leads to a great adventure. So I’m really not angry with you. I’m grateful for your directness and bluntness.

That way, you do that part of the job for me, the dirty work. Somebody needs to have their sleeves rolled up and get their hands dirty, and that’ll be you. How else could we change the world?

And I can just be polite. Magnanimous, even. Like a worthy philosopher of history.

Now be a good Q and get this party started, will you!

Q: Fuck you Hanzi, you arrogant cunt.

[i] Hey, of course, we can begin to imagine memetic evolution beyond biological life, and thus a cultural history in a non-organic substrate. But let’s set that aside for now.

[ii] By the way, instead of “story” I sometimes use the word “narrative”, which to me means “story in a wider and deeper sense”, such as all the underlying assumptions of a certain set of interlinked stories, some of the words used in the stories, the connotations of these words, and so on. So basically, “narrative”, when I use the word, means story, but more in the abstract.

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.

 

Beyond The Sklavenmoral Regime: The Übermensch

Freedom is a collective good in which your freedom is largely co-dependent upon mine and vice versa. This is probably the best way to understand freedom as a societal pheno­menon because it treats freedom as something that can be approached through pol­itical and cultural development. But there is still room for describing the different levels of freedom en­joyed by citizens as (in)dividual people. There are bound to be mino­ri­ties within each country who have significantly lower degrees of freedom than others, just as there are elites whose freedom is significantly higher.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

Let me suggest this simple scale without lingering much upon it:

  1. Slavery—your rights and freedoms are at the whim of another and you do not own even your own body.
  2. Serfdom—you formally own your body but your lowly social position is predefined and you are not allowed to travel freely and others can take a significant portion of the fruits of your labor.
  3. Subjected citizenship—you can travel around freely and do what you want but have no say in public matters.
  4. Impoverished citizenship—you have a basic enfranchisement and enti­t­lement in public matters but no real say in them without taking sign­ificant risks, such as in socialist republics.
  5. Basic citizenship—as above, but you can try to have a say without sign­ificant risks.
  6. Socially active citizenship—you have a meaningful and substantial relationship to public affairs that affect your life.
  7. Integrated citizenship—you have real and effective ways of affecting things happening around you.
  8. Norm-defining citizenship—you also have real and effective ways of affecting the political discourses and arenas around you.
  9. Co-creative citizenship—society at large, its arenas, institutions and functions feel and effectively are as your own home and you feel comfortable and entitled to participate in any part of it.

Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that the majority of citizens even in the “most free” countries of today are quite far from the highest reaches of freedom. If you consider countries such as Sweden, Germany or the US, most people have a freedom level of “5” according to this scale, while significant minorities have freedom levels of 1-4: trafficking victims, illegal immigrants, kids stuck with tyrannical parents and so forth. If you look at countries like China, most people are in the ballpark of free­dom 3-4.

The point here is that there are real demographics out there with dif­ferent distributions of these levels of freedom. Even in theory it is impos­sible to imagine a society in which “everybody” has the highest level of freedom, freedom level 9. But it certainly is conceivable that we could create societies in which much larger portions of the population climb the ladder by one or two steps, and where there are smaller pockets of opp­ress­ion.

Roughly speaking, however, it is clear that these different levels of free­dom must be tied to the overall cultural and institutional development of freedom in society. It is difficult to imagine a society run by fear and guilt in which a significant part of the population would feel as deeply enmesh­ed cozy co-creators of the whole of culture (levels 7-9)—or even as digni­fied and protected citizens (level 5).

The Highest Reaches of Freedom

Let us look at freedom viewed through a more trans­personal lens, with the emo­tional regi­mes. A part of us wants to escape from freedom. And yet, the future of society depends precisely upon our ability to cultivate such a high­er freedom and embrace it.

What, then, happens after the emotional regime of Sklavenmoral? What lies beyond the chains of fear, guilt, shame and Sklaven­mor­al; bey­ond hat­red, judgment, contempt and envy?

If a person is no longer constrained by such negative emotions, but still remains socially and ethically functional, I would argue that she is approa­ch­ing a more profound existential free­dom, one that Nietzsche personi­fied in the concept of the Übermensch.

This Übermensch can only come into being if there is suffi­cient inner personal development: self-discipline, in­trin­sic motivations, a strong compass, self-knowledge—and the four dim­en­si­ons of psychologi­cal development: cognitive com­plexity, access to the right symbolic maps of the world, higher inner states and greater inn­er depths (inti­mate know­ing of both the light and darkness of exist­ence).

Übermensch is usu­ally translated as “superman”, but this translation is somewhat misleading. There is a distinction in the German language bet­ween different uses of the word über—it can mean “over” or “above”, but it can also mean “through” or “across”.

A better translation may thus be “the trans-human”, a category that reaches through and goes beyond what we normally think of as human existence. In this interpretation, the Übermensch is not a superhuman comic hero, but rather a person who lives relatively unrest­rained by the normal dynamics of everyday life as we commonly experience them.

And, in this view, the Übermensch is not really a description of a cer­tain kind of person, but more of a social cate­gory. We have seen that my free­dom depends on you. The Über­mensch state in a particular person is only poss­ible to the extent that the larger patterns of our social interacti­ons and emotional exchanges can bring it into being.

So at the end of the painful and winding road towards freedom, a wheel turned through endless painful variations of dividuation and inte­gra­tion, waits that crazy Nietzschean moustache: the Übermensch, which ren­ders the very concept of freedom obsolete. Human beings long to be eman­ci­pa­ted—the Über­mensch wants to be unleashed.

What then, would a human being—her relational body and mind—be, if she were entirely unrestrained by fear, guilt, shame and Sklavenmoral; freed from the sha­ck­les of others’ hatred, judg­ment, contempt and envy?

This is not a question of fantasy or theoretical speculation, but indeed a real and empirical one, even if the answer at this point remains hypo­the­tical. If these regimes that control us weren’t there, but we were still highly functional members of a global society, what would we do? What would we be?

I’ll tell you what I think. A life form unrestrained would begin to con­sci­ously self-organize in ways that create higher subjective states, greater exist­ential depth, grasping for greater complexity. It would gaze deeper into the universe and recreate it, while recreating herself in the image of the order of the cosmos.

In sheer terror before the empty meaninglessness of the universe that reveals itself at the end of all external and societal oppression, we must gar­ner superhuman courage to resist folding over and escaping from the form­lessness of pure freedom.

I believe that we would—we must—plunge head-on into the mysteries of existence, not as individuals, but as an evolving global network of post­human trans­individuals, living in volitionally organized virtual tribes. Un­hinged, uninhibited, we would ex­plore with rapacious curi­osity, play with religious fervor, wor­ship with trembling devotion, fuck like beasts—dis­solving our very sense of self into the crystal-clear night.

Serving beauty and mending tragedy, we would dance, fight and laugh our way towards more terrifying heights and depths of con­sciousness, man­i­festing pristine universal, impersonal love—a love that fathoms and em­braces reality, and all sentient beings, with math­e­m­a­tical prec­ision. We would co-create worlds and we would co-destroy them. And we would bear the heavy burden of such res­ponsibility.

At the top of this edifice we call civilization, when this tower of Babel touches the skies, a profoundly familiar call echoes through all of us: the call of the wild. This is the alpha and omega point. Before civilization, there is the wild, the untamed, the naked. After civilization, there is the wild, the untamed, the naked. But this time the call echoes into higher complexity and into the terrifying emptiness of outer space. Freedom must be hard and it must be wild.

At the highest reaches of what we think of as “freedom”, we can ex­plode beyond what has hitherto been thought of as human. Art conquers every­day life and subdues its tamed structures to a radical creativity. The wild. We beco­me poets. And the poet acts; to create relative utopias, to pursue dan­gerous dreams.

To the sound of roaring electric guit­ars we recognize that we are indeed gods with anuses; and as the flies buzzing through the en­chan­ted meaning­less­ness of the cosmos, in an act of necessary vanity, we set our controls for the heart of the sun.

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.