20 Ways to Understand Nationalism (in Ukraine and the World)

In light of the war in Ukraine, issues of nationalism have resurfaced with full force: Is nationalism the same as patriotism? Is it good or bad; a force for self-sacrifice and unity, or one of militant tribalism and aggression? What is the fate of nationalism in a globalized world—will it live on, peter out, or even be revived and take vengeance on globalization?

Let us see how the world’s best thinkers on nations and nationalism have approached the topic. Rummaging through my own book shelves I found at least 20 different ways to approach it. I’ll quickly overview all of these.

In a follow-up article, I will sketch a desirable role for nationalism in a planetary world truly worth fighting for.

We can imagine worlds without borders, we can dream of heavens that unite us all, our planet viewed from space—but at the end of the line, the strongest social force to ever explode on this planet is the nation. Astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts, despite their claims to seeing the world as one, a “a blue marble in space with no borders” and so on, are indeed so much part of nationalist projects that the very title of their profession varies according to national loyalties.

That doesn’t make the nation eternal, or always good. But it means we’d be foolish to underestimate it. It’s a force we must understand so as to creatively and sensitively guide it towards universal and ethical ends.

Nationalism: The Strongest Social Force?

On a very basic level, most observers agree that nationalism—in theory—can be harnessed for both ethically viable and pathological purposes. As a social dynamic, it is the same as what we call “patriotism”; it’s just that we tend to call it patriotism when it’s attributed to the perceived underdog and/or when the actions it brings about are viewed as positive. People get swept away in collective effervescence and pride, giving blood, toil, and tears for the national or patriot cause.

And then after the “great historical events”, there is a sense of shared pride for the nation, a belonging, a characteristic form of deep sorrow of how we suffered through this. The American Spirit is not found in “artificial Americana” of Hollywood teenage movies, but in the solemn, rugged freedom you feel walking across an old bridge of its glory industrial age, listening to the blues, encountering the lonely vastness of the Great Plains or the Rockies, and hearing the dreams of young people and how they take it as their birthright to try to pave their own life paths. There is a romantic feeling to it that cannot be transmitted other than by being in the country for at least a period of time, by knowing the people, the environments, feeling its history. As foreigners, we can get little premonitions of the national pride of the USA, of the passionate but desperate absurdity known by the French folk spirit and its scent of revolution, of the grim Slavic sorrow of Russia, suffering and struggling from Ivan the Terrible, to the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like lovers, we tend to believe, at least on some level, that the nationalist sentiments tied to our own country are the strongest ones. But the art of ethnography and cultural perspective-taking can relieve us of such illusions: The national love stories of others are stronger than we can imagine. As Westerners, we are only now waking up to the force of nationalism in China and India.

History, language, music, art, food, and customs meld into one pattern—and this pattern is linked to a monopoly of violence. Given this “layered” nature of nationalism, it is as the depths of the sea: Invisible at the surface level. You need to dive into the depth of a collective psyche to see it, to feel it. It’s alive, and it’s always powerful, because it’s always sad, and it’s always proud—even if the pride may be a wounded one. When it rises from the depths, it can come as salvation, as ecstasy, as sudden unification, as unfettered rage, as terror, as genocide, as total war.

Individually, nationalism is not the strongest social force in the lives of most of us—we care much more about our personal life stories and of our families than about countries and nation states. But think about it: It’s the only social force that can involve millions of people and that people can be be prepared to kill and die for. Millions of people wouldn’t die for your life story or your family. Only you would. So it’s because a lot of people care not-so-little about the same thing that it’s such a strong force. In statistical mechanics, an average flow of a trillion particles will explain the events of the world better than the bouncing back and forth of any one particular particle. If ten million people in a certain geographical area simultaneously feel a bit of shame and respond with a bit of rage—but, individually, less so than if they had personally been slighted by a neighbor—what happens? A force is unleashed that spells murder and mayhem upon anything that comes in their way. Can big corporations truly compete with that power, even in our global days? Last I heard, McDonald’s is becoming “Uncle Vanya” in wartime Russia.

Most of us have a negative connotation to the word “nationalism” (although a growing minority on the right tend to disagree) and a positive connotation to the word “patriotism” (although some of our leftwing friends might disagree). Just like one man’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter, one’s chauvinist nationalism can be another’s patriotism.

To note this is not to say we are stuck with relativism. Although relativist stances can initially help us challenge our own biases, they offer no moral compass, and so they tend to inadvertently lead to a “might is right” perspective—as many critics have noted. So, even without accepting the naïve division into “good” patriotism and “bad” nationalism, we can be committed to using the forces of nationalism for good, to the best of our capacities of compassion and moral reason.

If nationalism is both terrible and wonderful, let us at least approach it with multiple perspectives, and try to get a rich and nuanced view of it. We cannot know what the fate of nationalism will be, but we can be almost certain that it will continue to play pivotal roles at key moments of world history. Ukraine is seeing the birth of a proud nation with more patriotic citizenry, perhaps even capable of curbing its history of corruption; those observers of the conflict from around the world who have wounded national pride at the hands of “the West” tend to hope to see a Russian victory over Western hegemony; and Russia itself is acting from a nationalist framework, whatever the geostrategic aspects of it may be.

There is no understanding the situation we are in without understanding the nature of nationalism. In short, this decisive moment is one of nationalism. As will future moments be. Those that understand this force the best will, perhaps, shape the history of the world the most.

20 Ways to Understand Nationalism

The different perspectives each have their scholarly proponents that I shall also mention. Let me first say two things.

Firstly, I agree with all of them—even as they seemingly contradict one another. But I believe their perspectives are “true but partial”—and I believe that seeing all of the perspectives together facilitates a better understanding of the phenomenon. However, simply listing the perspectives doesn’t really make us wiser. Rather, we have to try to see how they compare to one another, how they partially overlap, and how they form parts of a greater, non-arbitrary view of nations and nationalism. It is by seeing the “property space” within which the different perspectives arise, and then coordinating the perspectives in a case-sensitive manner, that the secret good nationalism is unlocked.

Secondly, of course, mentioning the scholars and their work is by no means a claim to discuss any of them exhaustively. I will offer abstracted versions of their views, hopefully skillfully abstracted ones. I will also on occasion bend their terminology or adapt it for the purposes of example of convenience. But it is the fate of the comprehensive social theorist to be a dabbler—and if I have an anthem I swear by, it’s the dabbler’s tragic and proud way of life.

Let’s go.

  1. Nationalism, as we think of it today, only emerged fully in the 19th century (Hobsbawm), and did so as a companion to a certain, industrial, mode of production (Gellner)

Eric J. Hobsbawm, one of the greatest historians of the 20th century, wrote Nations and Nationalism since 1780 in which he lays out a detailed account of how the “nation state” in many ways was “invented” in the 19th century, which involved a significant amount of social engineering on the behalf of rulers and bureaucrats. The nation state is when there is a “congruence between a political and a national unit”. This is a definition that Hobsbawm draws directly from the philosopher Ernest Gellner, whose 1983 work (also titled Nations and Nationalism) argued that nationalism must be a distinctly “modern” social phenomenon. Basically, for big economies to function, you must educate wide populations, and that requires a homogenization of language; hence nationalist projects begin to abound.

With this view, we must not lose from sight that nationalism is a historical phenomenon, and thus that it arose one time, not so long ago, and that it may shapeshift. Yes, there are older histories of many of our countries, but even these histories were defined and written, often romantically so, in the 19th century, by people who specifically wanted to engender nationalism.

  1. Nationalism consists of two categories of “the people”: Ethnos and Demos (Bauhn)

The distinction between Ethnos and Demos is an invention of my own, detailed in my 2019 book, Nordic Ideology, although it’s a fairly long-hanging fruit. The closest thing I have found is in Swedish philosopher Per Bauhn’s 1995 work, Nationalism and Morality, where he distinguishes between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism—and claims that only the former is ethically defensible (a position I feel sympathy for but must ultimately disagree with).

Ethnos is the people in their concrete, organic, customary reality: the Swedes of Sweden, with certain traditions, language, looks, habits, religions, norms, and so forth.

Demos is the “the people” qua citizens of a certain political unit: All free men of Athens, all citizens of the Kingdom of Sweden, of the Republic of India, and so forth. As such, you can have any race, religion, etc. as long as you are in a relationship of rights and obligations towards the polis, or whichever unit of polity you serve and which serves you. There is a social contract present, in one way or another, and it is of such a universal nature that your particularities cannot and should not make a difference. This is perhaps more the sort of loyalty that de Tocqueville had in mind when he penned his treatise, Democracy in America.

The political Right (not the libertarian one) tends to seek to defend the organic Ethnos against the impersonal and mechanical Demos. Adolf Hitler, for instance, specifically argued that the notion of “German citizenship” became devoid of meaning if it was not based on being ethnically German.

The political Left tends to seek to defend the universality and fairness inherent to inclusion in the Demos against the particularity and favoritism of Ethnos.

In reality—or this is my belief—neither Ethnos nor Demos can be conclusively destroyed by the other principle, even if they are both always in a state of evolution and change. They must evolve together, and they must be braided as two streams, from the particular, towards the universal, and back again.

  1. Nationalism is an expanded form of tribal community, but not the same as tribalism, and thus a precursor to cosmopolitanism (Harari)

The world-famous historian and author of SapiensYuval Noah Harari, notes that, while nations are not the same as tribes, they do after all get people to have solidarity with one another, even millions of complete strangers—paying taxes, helping each other out, and so forth. As such, Harari seems to situate himself in the “expanding circles of solidarity” camp: the claim that there is an evolution from solidarity only with oneself or the closest few, to solidarity with a larger tribe, to solidarity with a nation of people who share certain traits, and from there on to solidarity with all people, perhaps even with nature and animals.

Harari thus means that it would be unwise to vilify nationalism, as it has a “bright side” and can be viewed as one step in the evolution from ego-centrism, to planetary eco-centrism. Without functioning nationalism, many people would lack social security, healthcare, education, protection, and so forth. Thus, don’t try to remove this building block of human solidarity: It is an expanded or abstracted form of tribal community, necessary for yet more expanded and abstracted forms of solidarity to emerge.

  1. Nationalism, or just any ethnic identity, always builds on an us-versus-them logic (Barth)

The Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth famously argued that all ethnic—and thus national—identities must per definition be based on some negation or opposite. We don’t need a national identity to signify that we are not from Mars (“earthlings” isn’t really an ethnicity). But being French, Indian, or even European all mean something about who we are and who we are not, who we are distinct from.

In other words, the whole point of being Danish is that you’re not Swedish. If all people who were Danish were also Swedish (as is the case for people with double citizenship, etc.), Denmark would not exist as a specifically national identity. It would just be a regional flavor of being Swedish (if we assume, then, that all Danes were also Swedes but not vice versa).

As such, national opposition is built into the very concept of the nation. All national pride, from history, to language, to sports, to customs, to values, to religion, to economic achievement must have at least some element of us-versus-them.

  1. Nationalism is forged by conflict; the nation-building through war thesis (Sambanis)

In extension of the us-versus-them logic is the idea that conflicts bring nations into being; the so-called nation-building through war thesis propagated by, among others, Nicholas Sambanis. The reason Danes aren’t Swedish is because Danes and Swedes fought countless wars, and that the Kingdom of Denmark managed to remain a sovereign state and thus didn’t become Swedish.

This is a reversal of the conventional nationalism-leads-to-war wisdom. Conflicts create the need for increased social coherence and in-group solidarity, which incentivizes nation-building endeavors and narratives pertaining to a shared identity and an idea of a “we” worth dying for.

This causal direction has become apparent with the war between Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian identity wasn’t very strong, especially in the south and east, when the country won its independence in 1991. A large share of the population spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and elections throughout the period showed how the country was divided between a “Ukrainian” west and a “Russian” east. A large share of the population still had a Soviet identity, identifying with the country they were born in. This began to change with the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv and Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014. Over the years, the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians longing to be ruled from the Kremlin has dwindled, all while a new West-leaning identity has grown stronger, seeing Ukraine as the freedom-loving antithesis to authoritarian Russia. And today, after several months of war, plunder, and genocide, Ukrainian citizens across linguistic barriers have rallied behind the flag while each day of fighting is feeding an ever greater pride in being Ukrainian. I would go as far as saying that we’re witnessing the birth of a nation here.

If we look at history, the nation-building through war thesis has a lot of merit: The German nation-state was founded through three successive wars with Denmark, Austria and France. And what would American identity be without their revolution and war against the British? The French without the storm of the Bastille and the following wars with the rest of Europe?— Sweden without Denmark? Denmark without Sweden? Tom without Jerry, Jerry without Tom? You get the idea.

This doesn’t mean that national identities can’t emerge without violence, but the fact remains that wars and revolutions shape our collective identities and that such conflicts tend to remain at the center of our national narratives.

  1. Nationalism is socially constructed (Wendt) and an “imagined community” (Anderson)

In the scholarly discipline of “international relations”, Alexander Wendt has been a longstanding proponent of “social constructivism”. This is to say that yes, ethnic identities are always defined in opposition to one another, but then they are also changing depending on how the actions of one’s counterparts are interpreted—and their actions, of course, depend upon how they interpret “our” actions.

As such, national identities, and even whole nation states, can shift dramatically in meaning from one day to the next, simply because of how the actions of other national units are interpreted. Are France and Great Britain humiliating the German people? Let’s get back at them (WW2)! Is Russia invading countries for no good reason? Let’s resist heroically (Ukranians) or join NATO even if it costs us the pride and sovereignty that neutrality lent (Finland and Sweden).

Wendt’s vision is not so far away from that of the anthropologist, Benedict Anderson, who coined the term “imagined communities”. Nations are imagined communities because we cannot, obviously, actually have much to do with most of what our nation states are up to. Oftentimes, we cannot even name the basic bureaucracies, laws, and institutions of our own countries, and yet we really feel we’re part of them. Interesting, isn’t it? We’re imagining things. And then we’re imagining things about other countries too, who we then interpret and feel act towards our own country.

Without all of that social construction going on, it’s hard to see how nations could exist at all.

  1. Nationalism can be “activated” by different agents for different purposes (Brubaker)

The sociologist Rogers Brubaker argued in his 2006 work, Ethnicity Without Groups, that ethnic identities and nationalist fervor are not inherent to the groups themselves. Rather, in moments of conflicting interest, conflict, or any other shared political interest that may come up, much smaller interest groups begin to speak of ethnicities in distinct us-and-them terms, so as to engender and mobilize the strong forces of nationalism. As such, small political groups have time and again “activated” wider sentiments of nationalism to launch aggression again perceived competitors of enemies.

This is made apparent by examples that Brubaker takes from e.g. the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s: people who had lived peacefully as neighbors or even friends could become deadly enemies the moment that nationality was weaponized. The weaponization of nationalism, however, did not at all have to coincide with actual interests of the ethnic group in its entirety—rather, it tended to coincide with the interests of much smaller groups that were of a political, not an ethnic, nature.

  1. National identity is more fluid than we normally think it is (Jenkins) and can be subjected to individual choice (Song)

The sociologist Richard Jenkins points out in his 1997 work, Rethinking Ethnicity, that relationships fall across a scale from the less formal ones (“we’re buddies!”) to the more formal ones (“you’re a citizen of the USA!”) and that ethnicity and nationality can slide across this scale. As such, people can creatively use different positions on this scale to further their own interests or try to gain recognition or otherwise improve their lives—often entailing rather elaborate balancing acts of being “Chinese American” and so forth. However monolithic nationalism can appear from the outside, or at the macro scale, it tends to dissolve into a thousand unique realities whenever we zoom to the micro-sociological scale. The categorizations of nationalism are never straightforward—they always entail all sorts of negotiation, maneuvering, and sometimes deliberate manipulation to fit in. Likewise, people try to employ ethnic or racial markers to groups they seek to control or feel that they fear. Touchy questions: In today’s Europe of Muslim, Arab, and criminal gang uprisings in banlieues—who is considered to be representative of these uprisings? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the French Presidential election.

Miri Song, also a sociologist, expanded upon these questions in her 2003 work, Choosing Ethnic Identity. With ethnographic case studies, she showed that not only was national belonging always being renegotiated at the micro level; it was even the case that people make whole personal projects of creating themselves as a certain national and ethnic identity or mix of identities. Sometimes your skin color makes it harder for you to be the ethnic identity you wish, sometimes it makes it easier. Sometimes you get stuck between two identities, always categorized as “the other” and so your alienation and resentment grows. “The people” that is the object of a “national project” always consists of conscious, alive, participants who seek to choose their own identities.

  1. Nationalism can draw upon several co-existing ethnic identities (Taylor)

It is true that nationalism has been defined as the convergence between an ethnic identity (Swedish) and a political unit (Kingdom of Sweden). But, in practice, there are always multiple ethnic identities present within a state’s territory, and these can even be drawn upon as a part of the same nationalist project.

USA and Canada would be typical examples of such a nationalism, as these are originally not ethnic tribes, but charter-based projects for a variety of (mainly) settlers or colonizers. It is perhaps not then a coincidence that the great theorist of a multicultural state, the philosopher Charles Taylor, is Canadian. But for such multi-ethnic nations to function and not fall apart, they must develop ways to give recognition (nationalist pride, one way or another) to its different groups.

Thus, if nations struggle for recognition, so do ethnic groups within nations—but it is possible for nationalism to include the recognition of several ethnic identities, the struggles of which are thus conjoined.

  1. Nationalism is an ideology like liberalism and socialism, with a moderate and extremist (anti-democratic) wing (Lipset)

First published in 1960, Political Man by sociologist Seymour Lipset explored the conditions for political democracy. Here, nationalism was considered to be an ideology that could take parliamentary or anti-parliamentary forms. In the latter case, it is extremist nationalism and overlaps with fascism or Nazism—thus being antithetical to political democracy.

This is, I suppose, an outdated and not very original view of the topic. I bring it up given the deep roots of nationalist extremism in today’s Ukraine (which Putin’s regime also used as a pretext for attacking the country). If Ukrainian nationalism is crucial for defending and rebuilding the country, and has the rest of the world awe-struck, it undeniably also has this ingredient. Sometimes, the word “nationalism” can simply be used to denote these violent, racist, chauvinist, and criminal elements of society. It’s difficult to have good nationalism without at least an element of this—as the 2014 Maidan Square protests in Kyiv made apparent. The protests that ousted a pro-Russian illegitimate president also sported a presence of fascist marauders.

  1. Nationalism is an expression of “identitarian politics” (Dahl) or “identity politics” (Fukuyama)

My personal friend, the sociologist and expert on the far-right and the history of fascist and identitarian ideas, Goran Dahl, has described in older and recent books that nationalism is a commitment to a certain organic identity—not unlike entirely what I called the “Ethnos” above. As such, it marries a commitment to the particular (not the universal) to a commitment to the collective (not the individual). Our collective particularity—when that is the main category of your politics, then you’re a nationalist, to put it simply. Nationalism is often (but not always!) tied to a “radical conservatism”, to a “revolution from the Right”—and to ideas of reaffirming a lost sense of national pride, sometimes even with esoteric ideas of the reestablishment of a Golden Age (Compare to the party name of the Greek Nazis, Golden Dawn).This is described in his work, Radical Conservatism and the Future of Politics.

Goran Dahl has very little in common with the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, but indeed, in the latter’s 2018 book Identity, Fukuyama also makes the case that cultural identity is becoming a stronger force in today’s world, and hence culture wars and nationalism can be understood as a struggle for recognition of certain identities. As Fukuyama writes, nationalism (and Islamism) can be understood as a “species of identity politics”.

(I have argued similarly in The Listening Society).

  1. Nationalism is the strongest social force when things hit the fan (Mearsheimer)

John Mearsheimer (who just rose to internet fame through his NATO-critical commentary of the Ukrainian war, but was in fact already known as the world’s no. 1 scholar of international relations of the “realist” school) means that, when it really comes down to it, we can rather safely make a few rather crude assumptions of how the world works:

  1. When it really comes down to it, nation states are made up of monopolies on violence, and thus they’re more or less in charge of what happens.
  2. The nation states don’t control one another, and so they have to play against one another in a sort of international “anarchy” where the strongest players will win and get their way, pretty much regardless of who the “good guy” might be in that situation.
  3. And for that reason, when nations eventually come into conflict, national loyalty will very strongly tend to trump other loyalties (to ideas, to economic classes, to non-national identities).
  4. This means that conflict and competition can activate nationalism, and that nationalism thus again and again reveals itself to be the strongest social force, even if it may be so dormant in periods that we almost forget about it.
  5. We do ourselves a favor by not forgetting that: the struggle between nations, not ideologies or other things, is the strongest predictor of how nations act, and also the strongest force that drives people when things hit the fan.

As Mearsheimer has explained in seminars and interviews that comment upon the war in Ukraine, the reason it’s so difficult to capture a country is precisely that: the invading force triggers the force of nationalism. The same happened, he maintains, in e.g. Afghanistan.

  1. Nationalism is a form of “false consciousness” (Miliband) and is generated by an “ideological state apparatus” (Althusser)

Although the “realist” Mearsheimer supported Bernie Sanders in the US elections, he is pretty much the direct opposite of Marxist thinkers in terms of the analysis of basic notions like nationalism.

If we look at the latter group, they all somehow echo Marx’s view that national identity is a distraction from the “real” or “material” identity of class. And, indeed, to the credit of Marxists, it was true that the Nazis directly sought to use national identity as a way of neutralizing all struggle between classes in Germany and instead direct the us-and-them logic towards other nations and “races”, while “uniting all classes” in a positively framed category of the Third Reich and its Volksgenossen.

Ralph Miliband, the political sociologist, wrote in his 1969 work The State in Capitalist Society that the state—including its ideology and identity—is ultimately a vehicle of the ruling class. Its oh-so-moving national narratives are little more than that: excuses for people to go along with the interests of the already powerful. Power legitimizes itself through “politically socializing” the population, and nationalism is a part of that. “Ideology” in this sense is not thought of as just any set of political ideas: it means a certain veil that masks and normalizes injustices in society.

Another Marxist, of the structuralist brand, Louis Althusser, held that there is an “ideological state apparatus” that calls us forth as citizens and subjects of state power—not least through education and the media. As such, each of us is structured as a “subject”, as someone who acts and thinks in a particular way that reproduces society. Nationalism is part of this—similarly to Miliband’s perspective. But with Althusser, ideology cannot as easily be seen through or transcended; rather, it must be reconstructed in a new (for Althusser, communist) manner.

Marxist scholarship spoke relatively little of patriotism or positive nationalism, although it is fair to assume that for them, true patriotism should be towards universalist, socialist or communist, projects. Note for instance that the Soviet Union is more or less the only country that has had no geographical or ethnic denotation in its name.

With this perspective, you could still view the Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression as a form of benevolent patriotism—but you’re suspicious of the tendency to emphasize national belonging over class and material interests, of its power to justify new inequalities as soon as the war is over.

  1. Nationalism arose in the age of globalization—and since decolonization from the 1950s and onwards, new contenders have risen to challenge the power balance

What we classically associate with “nationalism” brings forth mental images of France, Germany, and the like: European countries becoming nation states. In today’s world, however, the most impactful nationalist projects are not the “nationalist” parties in these countries, but rather the nationalisms of former second and third world countries.

As such, nationalism plays a key role in the “rise of the Global South”. Robert B. Marks notes in the 2007 book, The Origins of the Modern World, that the association between “modern” society and the West is a pretty short parenthesis in world history. It’s thus, we might reason, likely to balance out as modern society spreads and takes root across the world. A very similar line of argument is detailed in the particular comparison between the industrialization of Europe and China in Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence. Should we be so surprised by the ferocity of Chinese nationalism when this chasm is closed? Likewise, Janet L. Abu-Lugod details the time Before European Hegemony in her work with that title, and by that she refers to the late middle ages. The greatest nationalist movements of today all seek to challenge this hegemony, this dominance of the West—and that’s not always a good thing, as such vengeful nationalism is often a violent and anti-democratic one.

Finally, one could mention the work of economic development and poverty scholars like John Ibister, who in Promises Not Kept details the many betrayals of the rich world vis-à-vis poor countries. Naturally, such narratives of economic subjugation and disrespect tend to fuel nationalist movements that resist the Global North and seek to establish Global South sovereignty, solidarity, and pride.

Naturally, Russia very deliberately caters to this aspect of nationalism in today’s world when its government maintains that they’re invading Ukraine in “the fight for a multipolar world”. Many people around the world cannot help but be enthused: Shall this spell the end of Western hegemony, of hurt pride, of promises not kept?

  1. Nationalism is a search for roots, for emotional grounding, in the fragmented condition of postmodernity (Friedman)

Jonathan Friedman, the anthropologist, is also a bit of a friend of my own. His way of understanding nationalism is a multifaceted one that I shall have to simplify for the sake of argument.

In his 1994 work, Cultural Identity and Global Process, Friedman touches upon nationalism many times. He means that globalization uproots and confuses our identities. People thus respond by looking to spark or revive nationalist identities—it’s not only postcolonial nationalism that is rising, so is Flemish, Basque, Scottish, and so on. As such, nationalism far from always integrates societies; separatist nationalists also destabilize and disintegrate them. This form of nationalism increases with globalization, and while it is to a significant extent caused by globalization, it is also inherent to the resistance towards (and the backlash against) it that we know today.

  1. Nationalism can be a form of resistance against globalization “from below”, revitalizing local and national histories (Overgaard, Andersen)

Morten Overgaard, also a friend not-of-the-same-political-views-as-myself, has envisioned a new role for nationalism in the established of future societies and economies (which he, using a the same term as I do, calls “metamodern”, although attaching a different meaning to the term).

For Overgaard, nationalism can be used to create the organic bonds that should be activated for “national collective intelligence”—hence detaching more and more of the economy from the processes of globalization and establishing a more commons-based economy, where the solidarity required for the commons to function builds on nationalist, cultural cohesion. This is discussed in his book, National Collective Intelligence. In my mind, there are too many possible slides into far-right aberrations for this to be a viable path.

Another Danish acquaintance, Lene Andersen, is less attracted perhaps to nationalism as such, but nevertheless argues for the establishment of stronger local, national, or regional (e.g. pan-Scandinavian) identities as vehicles for greater Bildung (German term, roughly meaning education in a holistic sense). She also associates this with “metamodern” future societies (as with Overgaard, though, in a manner that differs from my own). This is, I would say, a learned form of nationalism concerned with the interface between tradition and the psychological development of a population. Andersen lays this out in her book, The Nordic Secret.

Wartime economies like Ukraine’s actually don’t fall so far away from the visions of Overgaard and Andersen: people are cooperating and exchanging in distinctly non-capitalist manners based on national identity (Overgaard) and are actively seeking to protect their cultural heritage from destruction and viewing this as a test of personal character (Andersen).

  1. Nationalism expresses a deeper underlying “clash of civilizations” (Huntington)

An argument that is very well-known but cannot be missed if this list is to be exhaustive is that of political scientist Samuel Huntington. In his classical The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington holds that it’s not nations that will be the center as our world progresses into a new age: it’s larger communities of nations, bound together by deep, underlying, civilizational patterns and heritages.

The clash of civilizations according to Huntington (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. From Wikipedia.

Although the war in Ukraine can certainly be perceived as Ukraine fundamentally being torn between two such civilizational spheres, there are, however, also many counter-examples to Huntington’s predictions: Orthodox countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Romania closely aligning themselves with the West, not fellow Orthodox Russia; Confucian countries like South Korea and Taiwan, together with the insular civilization of Japan, also aligning with the West against China and Russia; Islamic countries more (or at least equally) interested in clashing with fellow Muslim countries as with other civilizations; and so on. In the case of Ukraine today, the “cleft country” aspect seems to have more or less vanished through the war with Russia, uniting the entire country, Western Ukrainian-speakers as well as Eastern Russian-speakers, against the Kremlin-controlled invaders.

That Ukraine and most of Orthodox Eastern Europe seems to have “defected” to the West, does not, however, take anything away from the fact that most Russians generally tend to identify with being a distinct Orthodox civilization that is different and in opposition to the West. The same can be said about the nature of Chinese nationalism, or Indian for that matter, not to mention the role of Islam in shaping identities in the Middle East.

In Huntington’s view, then, nationalism is a strong force, but it has deeper, pan-civilizational undercurrents that should not be underestimated.

  1. Nationalism is also resisted by “transnationalism from below”

In Transnationalism from Below (1998), an anthology by Michael P. Smith and Luis E. Guarnizo showed with plenty of examples that our common sense notion that “nationalism happens from below” and “transnationalism happens from above” is often a mistaken one. It just as often happens, mostly in the third world, that nationalist projects of nation states are faced by resistance from below, which swear by transnational solidarities and identities.

Poor peasants resisting the corporate influence on governments in Latin America, Mexican migrants resisting national borders, Hong Kong’s resistance against China’s nationalism—these are transnational by nature, working against nationalist projects, but without having any “global state” or the like in mind. This is a popular trope to study for social scientists, so further anthologies provide a flood of book chapters. Roxann Prazniak and Arif Dirlik have edited another one, titled Places and Politics in an Age of Globalization. In its ninth chapter, for instance, anthropologist Arturo Escobar (also an acquaintance) details how the mainstream versions of “economic development” are challenged from below, by those who should purportedly be developed by someone else.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work, Assemblage, could be said to follow a similar pattern: movements of resistance and solidarity exist around the world—feminist, queer, indigenous, minority, worker, environmentalist,, precariat, and so forth—and these all need to challenge national vestiges of power. Hence, they tend to ally and link up transnationally, however provisional and practically limited such “assemblages” of movements may be. This is also, thus, a transnationalism from below.

In the context of the Ukrainian war, you might notice how the LGBTQ+ communities scramble to show solidarity with Ukrainian peers. This is not a nationalist move—it is a transnational solidarity that resists the logic of nationalism.

  1. Nationalism can be reconstructed as planetary belonging

My friend Jeremy Johnson has argued in his chapter in the 2021 volume, Metamodernity, that it makes more sense to speak of the “planetary” than the “global”, because the former seems to encompass a wider view. It’s not just that people interact “across the globe”—it’s that we’re all part of one and the same planet, with a shared history that dives into the biological and geological processes we live by.

This theme can be reflected in other thinkers. In Paul Raskin’s (founder of the Tellus Institute) book, Journey to Earthlandthe argument is made that, if national identity could be formed around abstract countries, it should also be possible to create a “country” that spans across the earth in its entirety, as a planetary system. For Raskin’s imagined country, “Earthland”, globalism is the new nationalism. It commits to shared values and common interests, but otherwise leaves more room for unique cultural expressions than nationalism did.

Raskin does not truly respond to the theorists who emphasize the necessity of us-and-thems for national identity to even exist (who is the “other” of Earthland? Mars?)—but read together with Johnson’s shift from “global to planetary”, he at least makes an interesting claim: that people could become as enamored with the emerging planetary identity as they have been with their nations. He points out that nationalism also arose from smaller social units and tribes.

From this perspective, the Ukrainian war could be viewed not as much as a struggle between nation states, but rather as one between nationalist movements and early forms of planetary ones: “Earthland” is emerging through the transnational support of Ukraine. Perhaps nationalism for Earthland could, after all, become a power to reckon with?

  1. Nationalism can be reconstructed as bioregionalism

Finally. While globalist cosmopolitans dream of Earthland, deep ecologists dream of a return to the earth in another manner: that the future of political organization should be based on the ecosystems that people are part of, that they live in.

This position is called bioregionalism because it means that your home would be defined not by nations as we have known them, but by the bioregions we inhabit. For such deep ecologists, it makes more sense to define and protect the borders of the specific part of nature you live on together with other people. If nations were to be redefined as bioregions, the entire identity, institutions, and customs could be harmonized with the environment.

The future of national identity would thus be to morph into bioregionalism. Although there is undeniably an increasing interest in reconnecting with the environment around the world, to me the bioregionalists fail to understand just how strong the current form of nationalism is. Thus far, very few people die for their bioregions (indigenous activists in the Amazon, etc., would be the counter example).

But maybe there is more to it: If there is a positive future for nationalism, perhaps it could at least draw upon bioregionalist influences? Looking at the Ukrainian war again, it holds true that environmental aspects of geopolitics and nationalist struggle were activated around Chernobyl. Ukrainians needed to identify with the soil itself, as the presence of the invader became an environmental security threat.

Multi-Perspectivalism or Astrology?

I have long maintained that “whoever has the most perspectives when they die, wins”. I hope I have hereby contributed to a victorious death on your behalf.

But there is, undeniably, a disconcerting part of this exercise:

It is that pretty much all of the 20 perspectives can, with a bit of imagination and finding the facts that happen to suit their different claims, seem to describe and at least in part explain e.g. the conflict in Ukraine. At the same time, many of the perspectives seem to contradict one another. It sounds eerily like astrology: Read the Gemini, and you’re it! Read the Libra, you’re probably also it!

If seemingly contradictory theories can be confirmed with the same cases, is this not just a sign of the hopelessness of any social science? Should we give up—it’s little better than astrology, after all? The “clarity of mind” we gain from adopting one perspective over the other may be entirety illusory. We’re seeing patterns in the world because we’re teaching ourselves to look for those very patterns.

Here’s what I hold. Simply cataloguing perspectives and applying them is not enough to make us much wiser. It’s the first step, yes. These 20 perspectives are building blocks for your reasoning. They’re there to jog your mind, to help you get out of preconceived notions. It’s easy to see that anyone who doesn’t know of one of these perspectives is less smart for it.

But the next step is to coordinate the different perspectives—to offer a synthesis, a path forward for nationalism that is congruent with metamodernist values and Protopian goals. This shall be the topic of my next piece.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

NFTs Are Flowers of Evil, Yes, But They Can Save The World

Since 2021, the phenomenon of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) has shocked the world.

Here I track the sociological underpinnings of this strange phenomenon—how it emerges from postmodern art—and show how its apparent evils may portend great potentials for benevolent transformations of society.

Alice In Casino Wonderland

Suddenly, the digital rights to fairly ugly little “cryptopunks”—i.e. pixeled retro 1980s style images of punks that you can own in the same manner that you own a piece of Bitcoin—are being bought and sold for millions of dollars.

Stupefying fortunes made and lost overnight, a veritable digital Klondike of speculation arises alongside obvious perversions of artistic endeavors as artists and collectors scramble to make a fortune. Prices skyrocket. “Bored apes” join the fray and Madonna got one. Many more projects struggle to become part of the action. A whole market mushrooms with at least a dozen marketplaces like RaribleOpenSeaLarva Labs (where you can now get your very own cryptopunk for as little as 200.000 USD, but don’t ask about the expensive ones) and so on. In the background lurk major anonymous collectors like the legendary WhaleShark who reportedly owns 400k NTFs (enigmatically self-describing as a “social entrepreneur and investor with a focus on disrupting the status quo, while elevating the brave and dedicated communities behind the innovation”).

Of course, scams have proliferated in no-time. As wasps to non-zero Pepsi, grifters have amassed and scrambled to profit. This article lists ten types of scams that have already been identified and victimized many. I’m sure there’s more of where that came from.

Cryptopunks.

NFTs = The “Contemporary Art” Market Crossed with Cryptocurrency

I will refrain from a closer discussion of the technicalities of NFTs as many others have already done good jobs at explaining the phenomenon and it’s already being discussed by more people than I could overview. Basically, you become the owner of NFTs on a blockchain that guarantees that the image is owned by you, even if it’s a digital image that of course anyone else can still download and use. While anyone can have a printed postcard of the Mona Lisa, there is only one “real” Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The blockchain code is the digital counterpart of your owning this “real” Mona Lisa.

What I wish to draw attention to are instead the sociological traps and potentials of the rise of this phenomenon. Particularly, I am committed to the generation of new societal forms that can be called “Protopian” (i.e. societies that can flourish on the other side of modern life), and I’d like to lay out how the NFT phenomenon—for all its obvious wackiness and distortions of incentives and income distribution—can come to play a key role in the creation of social experiments with new and better adapted ways of organizing societies around the world.

The NFT phenomenon may be a hype with huge distractions of speculation and a long shadow of criminality. But its sheer force is undeniable: anything that can move countless millions of dollars across the world can only be viewed as an economic energy to be reckoned with. And such a strong force can and will, arguably, also be harnessed for socially sane purposes, along with the insane ones.

The NFT revolution combines two principles:

  • The creation of cryptocurrencies on a blockchain.
  • The speculation in contemporary art and art collections.

In brief, each NFT artwork is a unique “coin” or bill with a value seemingly arbitrarily attached to it. It’s just that the coin is the artwork in an of itself, or rather, the coin is the code that says you own the “original”. Like with money, if enough people “believe” in that value, it’s there. Poof. A lot of rabbits are being pulled out of a lot of hats. Some of the hatters go crazy, some become filthy rich. Both things have been known to coincide.

To better understand how the rise of the NFTs is part of a new social and economic logic, where cultural capital rules and drives financial capital (previously discussed by me here and here), we need to investigate the nature of how the arts (and their markets) have developed over the last decades.

The Social Construction of Reality Becomes Transparent

This discussion, in turn, shall lead us to an understanding of a more generally pervading principle of sociology: the social construction of reality or social constructionism. Simply put, we have gone from a (Modern) situation in which social construction was mostly unconscious and implicit, to one where it has become understood to a point where it can be hacked (Postmodernity), and we are now entering a cultural situation where it is becoming obvious and apparent, out in the open in all of its absurdity, and can thus be actively harnessed for purposes good and evil (Metamodernity). The genie of social construction is, as it were, out of the bottle for all to see—and for many more of us to use.

A new social game emerges: whoever can make others believe in the value of their tokenswins. It’s the game of social magic. The game of wizards of social construction. And to increase the value of your tokens, you have to get people to believe that others will believe in it, too, so that their investments will pay off in terms of spiking valuations. The mastery over social construction has risen to the top of the savviest minds—in tech, in finance, in arts, and soon across the field.

The NFTs lie at the very crux of this story—they started out, unsurprisingly, as a mechanism for a few people to get unreasonably rich unreasonably fast, quickly slid to ignoble uses, and are now beginning to increasingly become a genuine transformational potential for the common good.

My claim is that NFTs can play a key role in releasing our joint imaginative efforts to redefine social realities. This happens first, perhaps, within virtual worlds and the Metaverse (the emerging, immersive version of the Internet). But, as what Baudrillard called hyperreality increasingly drives and reorganizes the experience of and relationships pertain to everyday life, life and society as we know them can also transform as a result.

Inventive and idealistic employment of NFT technologies and investments can thus drive projects that redefine human relationships and create opportunities for what I call a Metamodern society.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How does this startling phenomenon relate to a wider sociological shift of our shared consciousness?

Postmodernism—and the Magic of Fake It ’til You Make It

To fully make the argument here, to see how and why the NFT market could evolve, we need to take a detour into the world of postmodern art.

In sociology, the term “passing” refers to a person’s ability to blend into a certain social context. For instance, I have crashed more than one academic conference since I simply “pass” as an academic, even enjoying a few nice buffet leftovers in the process. If I were a rugged, street-roaming mendicant, I wouldn’t have made it past the door to the seminars and keynotes. I have academic “passing”. I probably couldn’t have crashed a party held by biker thugs. You can pass a middle class, straight, or anything else. Passing is often a certain privilege—and it allows entry and access to certain networks. It’s one of the key mechanisms of how class society reproduces itself.

Learning a few manners and mannerisms to “pass” can go a long way. More than one inventive grifter have discovered as much: You can become “passing” as parts of the superrich elites. Recently, the world has watched in morbid fascination, on Netflix and other media, the workings of the Tinder Swindler (a common criminal who designed an elaborate scheme to live a superrich life, impressing the next woman with the wealth he scammed off of the last lady, in what amounted to a huge and uniquely pernicious pyramid scheme), Anna Sorokin (who impersonated a wealthy German heiress just to impress the upper echelons of New York society, of course mixing in a lot of contemporary art in the scheme), the Danish Stein Bagger (who simply conned his way to millions by making it appear as though he had a big company and getting plenty of loans), and, of course, the cult-like and worldwide scam that was the WeWork open office complex (which was made possible by an especially energetic and charismatic company founder who left so many lives in shambles). Fake it until you make it, right?

The Tinder Swindler—“passing” as a rich gentleman.

In their very own way, the financial system and stock markets have followed a similar logic, where social reality has been hacked—with very real consequences. The GameStop debacle that shook Wall Street in early 2021 (where Reddit users caught major investors in a “big short” and pumped the value of the stock to unearthly heights) is just one example. Another is the housing mortgage bubble of 2008—it heralded a new age of wild speculation, a virtual reality detached from the material economy, following its own logic but ultimately affecting economic realities. Fortunes made, fortunes lost, livelihoods destabilized. Virtual actions with very real consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the art world—which tends to portend social logics in so many ways—saw its own corresponding scandals play out already in earlier decades. And this, too, was honored with its own Netflix documentary. In Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art, the story of a major scam is detailed. A large number of fake paintings were sold by New York’s most respectable art dealer, Knoedler (founded back in 1846!), and ended up not only in the private collections of the superrich, but in renowned galleries like the Metropolitan.

These weren’t exactly “copies” of art; just paintings made in the styles of major American 1950s artists like Jackson PollockAndy Warhol, and Mark Rothko by a Chinese math professor in his garage in Queens. Then a few grifters went ahead and made up stories about the provenance of the paintings (they had been bought by an anonymous family back in the 1950s and had now been rediscovered, etc.). Beginning in 1995, the scams went on for well over a decade and involved over 80m USD—until eventually forensic analysis revealed that there was paint used only invented in the 1970s, the observation was made that there was no evidence of the paintings existing in old photographs with the painters, and so on. Knoedler, the “finest” art dealer in America, came down as a house of cards.

Knoedler Gallery in New York, before it closed in 2011.

Interesting as this documentary is, it seems to miss what in my mind is the main point of how the art market developed: that postmodern art itself had exhausted itself as a movement and begun to run amok as a Warholesque replica of its original impulse. The postmodern creative spark was no longer the crux of art itself, nor of the inventive genius and prescience of the artists, but the very field had been colonized by rich art collectors who wished to exchange financial capital for prestige and cultural capital, by the art dealers who pandered to this impulse through exclusive auctions, by designated experts who propped up the value of the art with so much sophisticated “analysis”, and—eventually—by downright con artists who managed to “pass” as any of the above. And, it should be said, by a growing cadre of fairly manipulative artists who exchanged artistic genius for the genius of magicians: to create scenes in which their artwork was valued and esteemed by the people who were, in turn, valued and esteemed in society at large.

What we normally refer to as “modern” art (pertaining to the “modernist” period) is a wide umbrella of art movements that, in painting, were prevalent roughly from the 1920s and onwards—but it may just as well be called “postmodern” art. If you look at the Wiki articles for Modernism and Postmodern art, many of the examples discussed overlap. This is because the social logic embodied within the arts always develops somewhat ahead of culture and society at large—so at high modernity, from the 1920s and onwards, you already see postmodern logic playing out in the realm of the arts.

This logic took a firm and undeniable hold of the art world when Marcel Duchamp put a porcelain urinal on display in a museum in 1917 and called it The FountainIn one stroke, he revealed the social construction of the very category we designate as “art”: art was art because it was being branded as such when displayed and revered in a museum. It caused a splash (no pun intended) and a scandal—which made the piece of art famous, and thus incredibly valuable. The postmodern tendencies of irreverence, ironic distancing, deconstructing social realities, critique, open questions, and social construction are all but painfully apparent in retrospect—even if the commentators of the time didn’t use the term postmodern (although, emblematically, the term was first used in a book published by a German philosopher the very same year).

The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917.

It was this tendency of irreverence towards the categories of modern society (art, religion, economy, and so forth) that in turn underlined much of the creative explosion in the decades that followed: we saw the rise of Picasso, Dalí, and all the rest of the geniuses that found ways of breaking away from modernity and its three-dimensional Newtonian space (which, in turn, goes back to the Italian Renaissance).

In the 1950s, especially in New York which was a sort of cultural center of the world after the Second World War, this movement culminated with the likes of Jackson Pollock (the wild expressionist who sought to express raw, internal states on the canvas with no inhibition or filter of interpretation or translation) and, of course, Andy Warhol.

Convergence, 1952, by Jackson Pollock (from jacksonpollock.org)

At this point in time, the 1950s, there was arguably still a generative explosion of innovation in postmodern art. Pollock was not “just splashing paint like a kid” and adding a few nails for good measure. A host of research has revealed fractals in his paintings, an increasing complexity of these fractals as his career progresses, and even an increasing appeal of the more complex fractals to viewers in controlled experimental settings. There’s more to it than splashing colors and furiously adding nails.

But, most of all, it was Warhol who epitomized the consummation of postmodern logic in the arts: his work melded with his public persona and it showed a collapse between the popular and “fine” art, a ruthless reflection of the endless simulacras of modern copy-paste society, lifestyles of norm-breaking with a shrug at his famous New York venue The Factory, and his own replies in interviews always being deliberately devoid of meaning: “I don’t know what the art is about, you tell me” and so forth. Warhol was the pure embodiment of postmodern cultural logic in the art world, a kind of Foucault of the arts (as in the archetypal postmodern scholar/philosopher a few decades later, Michel Foucault). While the two are almost diametrically opposite in terms of demeanor and temperament (one mellow and shy, the other veritably sparkling with opinionated intensity), their biographies do indeed show more parallels than could be ignored. Warhol did not just comment upon the flatness of meaning in art, he lived it to the fullest, ironically thereby achieving an artist’s life like no other. It’s hard not to admire him: when asked, he plainly told everyone exactly what he was doing—he was just never believed or taken literally, which was largely the source of his success.

The creative venue of innovation opened up by Duchamp was in effect exhausted by Warhol (who, surprise-surprise, counted Duchamp among his greatest influences). “Post Warhol”, what was there really for postmodern art to do? What was left to reveal? The category of fine art had already been broken out of, by its own master, its own Houdini.

In many ways, the historical moment of postmodern art was over before the 1960s had passed. But, of course, that’s only true in terms of its ingenuity, originality, and deep relevance to culture. For most of us, it had just started! And so, millions of artists, dealers, collectors, and curators sought to join a party that was already over. A lot of money became involved. Bubbles started being blown up. Municipalities started paying huge sums for modernist sculptures and painting to fill up public spaces and institutions. The age of “incomprehensibly sophisticated culture” was here—always promising wealth and prestige to the acolytes refined enough to appreciate it.

Meanwhile, “the world spirit” (to vulgarly misuse Hegel’s term) had moved on to new horizons. What was left was a game of trying to become part of this action, of this moment of cultural breakthrough—as though it could be frozen in time, and, like a Warhol triptych, repeat itself in ever new shrill colors.

Now, in light of this analysis, I urge the reader to consider this fake Rothko painting that the Chinese math professor had made (drawing on the centuries-old East Asian tradition in art and crafts, to studiously copy works of art):

Pei-Shen Qian painting in the style of Mark Rothko, one of the Abstract Expressionist fakes sold by the Knoedler Gallery. Luke Nikas/the Winterthur Museum.

It’s a good “Rothko”—well made. But what of the painting itself, viewed apart from all connotations of “fine art”?

Well. What can we say, in all honesty? It’s two squares. It looks like someone’s been sampling two paints on a yellow background. If it’s sublimely beautiful, you tell me how and why.

Nevertheless, please do note that leading art dealers, a number of accredited experts, and buyers, and exhibition curators, all agreed that this was a sublime piece of rediscovered art. Note, moreover, that people reportedly fell deeply in love with this painting and exchanged millions of dollars for it. If there ever was a naked emperor, this is it: it came in the form of two squares on a yellow background—not even as a porcelain urinal. This was a situation in which scams were just waiting to happen, given that there was already such a degree of apparent bogus to the whole endeavor.

A part of us might be thinking that these superrich pretentious snobs had it coming. But there is more to it. They were part of a social logic playing out at the heart of Western (and even global) culture.

The very fact that the legendary Rothko could so easily be forged—in fact, that this was the attractor point awaiting the entirety of the postmodern art—should be obvious: It’s not really a very interesting painting in and of itself. Rothko just made squares, lots of squares. The real action was made up by the social processes that placed his squares in sacred spaces called museums and galleries, and then a postmodern priesthood of art scholars sprinkled their fairy dust on it. It was made to “pass” as art, because it was good at slapping the art world’s pretentions in their face. And then replicas of this irreverence were bound to show up. Capitalism, I guess, always wins. It gobbled up Rothko just as easily as the symbol of Che Guevara. If postmodernism sought to escape from the confines of modern disenchantment and hypocrisy, to at least be honest and authentic about just how artificial and synthetic our world is, late modernity responded by being massively inauthentic about authenticity. Checkmate.

Postmodernism flattened the view of art, revealing that its mystery is to be found outside of the artwork itself—in its contexts, in the participant eye of the beholder, even in the angle of observation. But the God of Cruel Jokes caught on, and turned this on its head: “Okay, so if the sacred can be constructed by manipulating context, I shall manipulate the context of postmodern art and sensibility to create meaningless money machines.”

After Warhol the artist, whose work is fundamentally emancipatory, came the Warholeque monster that we today know as contemporary art: a vast factory (sic!) of empty simulacras of feigned authenticity and phony critique. And cash.

Like all other social logics, postmodernism imploded: it collapsed under the weight of its own premises. As art, certainly—and as philosophy, increasingly so. When it collapses, it exacerbates the logic that came before it: that of mainstream, modern, consumer capitalism.

How NFTs Bring Social Construction to Its Conclusion

Now, only a few years after the humiliating own-goals of the art world, the NFTs emerged. The money involved is magnitudes larger and the whole thing seemed to emerge out of nowhere.

If we compare the way in which “value” is created and ascribed to a Rothko, to say, a cryptopunk, the two are similar. But a cryptopunk can, without even having material existence, be much more valuable. It doesn’t claim originality, nor a noble pedigree of provenance (“this was owned first by the Queen of England and kept in Buckingham Palace, then by Paul McCartney, then by Xi Jinping, and now it is yours!”). It doesn’t claim genius. It is not part of profound commentary of our world. It has no sacred aura. It’s just valuable because people speculate that it will become more valuable, because more people are believed to speculate in the future.

Does that mean that the cryptopunks are nothing more than a bubble, like the tulips of 1637, these fleurs du mal? No. For certain, the NFT market as a whole will see bubbles, rises and falls, and whole sections going defunct after some craze or pyramid scheme. But the cryptopunks—and the Bored Apes, peace be with them—will remain valuable simply because they have passed a threshold of enough of speculators. Their prices will vary, and they are far from “sound investments”, but, like a Rothko, they have become valuable because they are so damned famous (at least, collectively speaking), and they are so famous because they are valuable. So at least these will continue to hold value—or that’s my bet, but please don’t take financial advice from a social theorist.

But the most valuable NFTs are more like the fake Rothko than the “real” ones. The fake Rothko is recent. It’s made for money. It’s made for speculation. It’s made to be a money reserve, where investments build on rising expectations of rising expectations.

The difference between the fake Rothko and the cryptopunk is that the latter is honest about its dishonesty and absurdity. It just builds on the craze and momentum of cryptocurrencies and found a niche in this market: If people are already investing in “just a piece of blockchain”—why not mint unique pieces of “just a piece of blockchain”? It just happened to find a way to “pass” as a currency, and thus as a way to “pass” as an art investment.

It’s actually a lot like what Warhol himself did with the art world. He was entirely honest about the meaninglessness of what he was doing, thereby ironically enchanting his work and persona with an especially mystical lure. He appeared to be able to break the rules of social reality, which made him and his work sacred, larger than life. There’s a whole literature on these things in the sociology of religion. Warhol (and those like him in those select moments of history) seem to “walk on (sociological) water”. From thereon, everything they touch becomes gold.

Now, the originator/s of the cryptopunks have done something similar: they have created a phenomenon that seems to defy all social reason. The sheer banality of the cryptopunks (I could probably have made them in Paint when I was about 14–15) spits in the face of art being art, and it spits in the face of cryptocurrencies being practical means of exchange.

It’s a speculation that knows its a speculation. A construction of unreasonable fortunes of wealth that we know are absurd—and somehow damned funny. Like the GameStop stock explosion, it’s the revenge of pajama-clad basement hackers against the world of fine arts.

And that defiance of all reason drives the damned things to yet higher soaring valuations! It’s irony and sarcasm taking over the world, and now dictating where millions and millions of dollars do and accumulate.

Going from Bad to Good: Speculation for Cultural Capital

Now, in a world where the unequal distribution of wealth and the skewing of incentives away from honest work are major problems, there can be no doubt whether the NFTs are mostly good or bad. They are beautiful flowers, in a way, at least given the sheer audacity and weirdness of the social logic that brought them to life—but if so, they are still flowers of evil, fleurs du mal.

But just as all good things are also bad, so all bad things are also good. And especially powerfully bad things can lead to especially powerful good things.

The NFTs have opened up a certain Pandora’s Box of “speculation in just about anything”. Here’s my main argument:

  • Because the NFTs have made it apparent that you can create avalanches of speculative value worth millions and millions based on the most banal and stupid little things, they have also opened up the space of shared imagination for speculation in investments into increasingly meaningful 
  • The very fact that real, hard money is being spent on NFTs is exactly what unlocks their potential for becoming generators of new social realities: this sort of money makes something that was “unreal” yesterday suddenly become “real” today.

And meaningful things are those that have cultural uniqueness and value to people. Meaning, the management of complexity in society, and transformations are the main scarcities of our day and age. Up until now, you couldn’t buy a piece of it with your money. Now, as the world scrambles to create the “best NFTs”, the best ones will—and this is my little ironic prophecy—eventually turn out to be the most meaningful ones.

First, I suppose, this will entail more and more enticing and interesting artwork.

Secondly, from there on, NFTs will be minted that take stakes in the development of entire bodies of philosophy and literature, where sentences and statements are bought and sold, while funding further creative thinking.

Thirdly, solutions to social problems and postcapitalist cooperatives that resolve (like, e.g. Cooperation Jackson) will be able to be speculated in—not because you “want to help them”, but because you understand that others also want to own a piece of this unique piece of social experiment “before it became cool”.

Fourth, you might even see speculations in the creations of entire societies—initially, of course, the unhoused younger generations may be buying virtual real estate in cyberspace and stimulating the creation of all sorts of online worlds (gaming-gone-wild), but eventually, stakes can be bought in experimental societies themselves, in Protopian projects. Imagine you own a piece of the future form of nation-state that effectively resolves issues of work and distribution, versus if you own a cryptopunk—which one do you think will be most cherished in the end?

We can collectively begin to speculate in cultural capital, in sociological imagination, in the artworks of life itself. It will take many more imaginative leaps to get there, but there is good reason to believe that such an attractor point could be on the horizon: in a world where meaninglessness is exposed in all of its vulgarity, the genuinely meaningful would likely become highly valued—indeed, valued enough to explode in crazy evaluations that defy all social logic. And so idealistic recreators of society could begin to manage billions through collective and democratic forms of governance.

In terms of development from modern life, to postmoderity, and onwards to what I call “metamodernity” the most fundamental principle is this one:

  • Modernity divides social reality into clearly distinguished spheres, like art, religion, market, politics, science, the civil sphere, and private life.
  • Postmodernism challenges and breaks out of the confines of these categories, escapes the implicit definitions of “what art can be”.
  • Metamodernity begins to come online when art has escaped from its modern confines and now, as a genie out of the bottle, begins to recreate all of society in its radical experimentation and creativity.

Let’s be honest, it’s an equally wondrous and terrifying prospect.

Future: Metamodern Intellectual Property

The above discussion promptly leads to another one: If the multitude of “pro-social” and transformative movements and creatives are to wrest control over the speculative madness of our age, we would need new forms of intellectual property to manage such projects.

For NFTs to begin to play socially creative and positive roles in the search of Protopian solutions to the troubles of modern society, we must also reimagine the intellectual ownership structures themselves—not least as much of the symbols that could be issued as NFTs would necessarily be intellectual innovations and memes.

In her book chapter of the 2021 volume Metamodernity (in which I also have a chapter), Siva Thambisetty argues that there is something rotten in the kingdom of intellectual property (IP). While the purpose of IP has been to spur innovation and protect innovators, it has also created artificial scarcity, skewed incentives, shifted games from innovation to legal battles, excluded the needing, and radically centralized economic power to few hands. Likewise, my friend Rufus Pollock has written a book titled The Open Revolution that argues for rewarding innovators through a system that still guarantees open access to the innovations themselves (not entirely unlike how Spotify or national license services function for music).

If there are speculative bubbles of “art investments” (where art itself, then, increasingly spills over into other realms and begin to redefine them) in increasingly socially and culturally meaningful endeavors, there should reasonably be regulations that guarantee the accountability of the projects as well as making certain that a part of the speculative drive actually benefits the project itself.

This would be an entirely new form of market—a synthesis of intellectual property, philanthropy, the financial market (including stock markets), and, of course, blockchain and the art market.

At this point, the jury’s still out on what such regulations might look like exactly. All I am saying is that such a new beast would require new regulations and clarified rules of engagement—and that the states that are first movers in innovating this kind of “metamodern intellectual property” are likely to attract a truckload of capital that can be used also by the state itself.

This last one is a tall order. But, as any respectable sociologist will tell you, states and markets develop together as new technological tropes emerge. The home of the next level of intellectual property will thus likely also become the center of metamodernism in the world, with the largest concentration of Protopian experiments.

Protopian experiments are necessary to transform society from its modern trajectory of unsustainability into something more stable and desirable. And Protopian experiments could be funded by self-consciously speculative NFT bubbles.

Or, put differently: If we can swindle ourselves into doing stupid things, we can also swindle ourselves into doing good things. It’s a pyramid scheme turned on its head: taking speculation and directing its forces to those who imaginatively create better societies around the world. It’s a weird path, for certain, but one that shouldn’t be ignored.

That is why I can say—if not with certainty, then at least with some hope—that these flowers of evil can one day save the world.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

When Irony Saves the Faithful

“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”

Arthur C. Clarke

My recent articles have centered around the concept of “Protopia”—the more flexible, dynamic, and abstract version of an imagined “Utopia”. If utopian dreams were too rigid and dangerous, Protopia at least provides us with shared hope, motivation, and a sense of direction.

How, then, should “Protopians” conduct themselves? Their key virtue must be, I shall argue, a certain quality of “sincere irony”: it’s abstract and playful enough to allow for new visions and new faith in the worlds our hearts know are possible—but at the same time self-critical and detached enough not to get stuck in naïve and totalitarian projects.

Ladies and gents, fellow Protopians, I give you: Sincere Irony!

Protopians Must Live by Sincere Irony In Order To Cultivate the Necessary Mutual Trust

As an author, how do I build trust with the reader? It’s a valid question. Trust is hard to come by these days.

Mutual trust generally consists of four dimensions, I would argue:

  1. competence (or credibility, that you know the other person is capable of doing what you need them to do),
  2. goodwill (that you have reason to believe in the benevolent intentions of the other),
  3. reliability (that what is agreed upon or claimed will be lived up to, most of the time), and
  4. alignment (that our interests align and don’t contradict one another).

If all of these four are in place, a solid foundation of mutual trust can form, from which beneficial and creative collaborations can flourish. When people build trust in e.g. work relationships, they tend to forget about the last one. The secret is to reveal to others what you really want, and to ask the same of them. People will often gladly tell you. Find the people that want, not necessarily the exact same, but things that can be truly aligned with your goals. Then you know that they will genuinely wish for your success (in a deep and wide sense of the term), and they know that you genuinely wish for theirs.

You could arguably add a fifth dimension, which has to do with emotional report or resonance; that you feel seen and understood. This last aspect is important, but it often tends to be overemphasized in our time, as people are starved for authenticity and connection. It will likely fall into place if all the other four dimensions are there. What good, after all, is an emotional connection if you end up not being able to rely upon one another and if your goals collide?

So let’s build trust. It’s a tall order, but it’s how we truly prosper as the social beings that we are. People find many, warranted or unwarranted, reasons to mistrust one another. And yet, lives are only as rich as the prevalence of trust. We move together, as people like to say, “at the speed of trust”. When it comes to the relationship between an author and a reader, trust is also necessary for the author’s messages to be heard and sink in with the reader.

Strange as it may sound, my main method for this trust-building with the reader is irony. Slightly crazy people like myself, who say unusual things, invoke a natural level of suspicion in readers and listeners. It just comes with the territory. But by adopting an ironic stance, I am conveying to you that I’m not taking myself too seriously. There is room for critique, for questioning, for jokes, for open ends. That is the magic of irony, if done correctly and with the right kind of twinkle in the eye. If I went on like a frenzied agitator, you’d be right to suspect me of tunnel vision, fanaticism, or hubris. The very fact that I’m approaching the whole thing like more of a joke shows you that, in the greater scheme of things, at least I know when I am saying something somewhat outrageous, and I understand that, at the end of the day, the joke is on me. At least I know that while I do act as a comedian at times (this most Satanic of professions), I am also the butt of the joke. It shows you that I have at least some ability to take an outside perspective on how my message is perceived and taken in. Irony is, strangely enough, a token of my sanity. As it were, the use of irony grounds the dangerous electric wire of authenticity and hope, so that a stronger current can run through it. The sincerity of my message is carried forward through the channels of irony and (a lighthearted form of) sarcasm.

In the end, it’s how much authentic life experience and thinking I manage to convey, how well I connect to who you are as a sensing and emotional being, that determines the effect of the article itself. This article itself also consists of four dimensions:

  1. the ideas themselves,
  2. the writing down of, packaging, and formulation of those ideas,
  3. the angle through which the ideas are spread and marketed to the right readers, and
  4. the reception and use/application of the ideas by real people in real situations.

When push comes to shove, the only dimension that truly matters is the last one; the actual effect of the article in real people’s lives, even those who didn’t read it themselves, is what the article ultimately “is”. And that requires a certain quality of trust and something else, a quality pulsating through the pages and beyond.

What, then, is that power running through the wires at the speed of trust? Again, it is authenticity. It is sincerity. The mastery over irony allows, at least in our cultural context of so many peddlers of messages and ideas, for sincerity to blossom. One has to display one’s own weaknesses and limitations for people to know that what they’re getting is, after all, the real thing. I’m saving you the trouble of joking at my expense and revealing my weaknesses and intentions, because they’re already revealed and analyzed asunder for your enjoyment (but do feel free to add your own critiques and jokes!). And this requires a certain stance, a stance of ironic sincerity, or sincere irony, whichever formulation you prefer. The two qualities contain one another; they are conjoined in cosmic dance, a yin-and-yang, a Shiva-Shakti act of revolutionary lovemaking.

It’s a riskier and, I would argue, gutsier stance than being either ironic or directly sincere. It’s a carefully crafted both-and. It’s the jiu-jitsu path to sincere relatedness. If we’re ironic about our life projects, then we can also allow ourselves a few big dreams, a bit of French revolution in the air, even a bit of religious fervor, of piety and faith. And that’s something modern human beings have been lacking. Who would have thought that faith and piety would return through irony and its God of cruel jokes?

Frank Sinatra. By Ike Vern.

Did It Whose Way?

One can even argue that there’s a three-step process of personal growth and cultural expression: first, authenticity/sincerity, second, irony/nihilism, and third, sincere irony. This third one comes in many flavors that capture slightly different sides of it: informed naivety, magical realism, playful struggle, pragmatic romanticism, even conservative radicalism.

Let me illustrate this by way of Frank Sinatra’s song, My Way. You remember the song, don’t you? Sing it silently to yourself with the help of these lyrics. Yes, all five verses.

 

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

 

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

 

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

 

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way

 

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows
I took the blows
And did it my way

 

Yes, it was my way

 

When we read this we hear a clarion call to authenticity, to being true to ourselves. We hear Sinatra, singing in 1969, at the fairly ripe age of 53, a modern anthem of American (and Western) individualism, reflecting a long and rich life experience. Even a bit of wisdom, albeit the Wisdom of the West. Like you, I’ve also struggled to cut loose from societal expectations and inhibitions, and I too long to reflect back at my life, feeling, in truth, that I did it my way. I remember a good friend who would even listen to the song alone in the car during a period in her life where she was suffering from having chosen the wrong professional path for herself. Eventually, she did break free, went back to school, reeducated herself to be a medical doctor, and attained a fulfilling career somewhat late in life. And, in the end, I think she stopped listening to this old song, because she could truly say she did it her way. Here, you have a hymn to authenticity, to a sincere life: For what is a man, what has he got?/ If not himself, then he has naught / To say the things he truly feels / And not the words of one who kneels. Seriously, my eyes tear up when I hear that. The words do speak to me.

Beautiful. Now consider these little factoids. Who actually wrote this song? It was not Frank Sinatra. It was Paul Anka, another singer (“Oooh pleeaase, staaay by me, Diiiaa-naaa!”). And how old was he when he wrote this old man’s reflection back on a life well-lived? 26. And what kind of life is Paul Anka known for having lived? One of Beverly Hills decadence with Swedish (etc.) Hollywood housewives who openly admitted to being gold diggers. Hardly a pinnacle of wisdom and authentic connection. Most likely, in a stroke of marketing genius, Anka placed the song in the reverberating vocal chords of the person from which it would be best received. The melody of the song was bought from an obscure Frenchman by Paul Anka for one dollar, and Sinatra showed up to their meeting with a number of mafioso types. Sinatra then went on to use the same song for the next 25 years or so, always doing a new comeback with a new farewell tour. Sinatra’s daughter later revealed that he came to hate his signature song: “He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”

You’d have to look far for an ounce of artistic authenticity behind this song. Every penny was squeezed systematically out of this piece of poetry. That’s the song’s real bottom line. The anthem of modern Western authenticity is a result of a marketing stunt. “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”, is a lyrics line from The Sound of Music. Well—once you know your marketing, you can sell most anything. There’s another, darker, snippet of the Wisdom of the West.

And now we’re getting into the second stage: irony, or even nihilism. Here’s the thing. Our senses only ever interact with surfaces. We so like to believe that we can feel into the deeper essences of the realities behind it all, but alas, experimental psychology lays its somber verdict: we respond to what reaches our senses—and nothing else. The rest we simply conjure up in our minds and emotional wiring. Automatic responses to stimuli. Endless facades, an inescapable prison of surfaces. The world is flat, and how we experience it can be endlessly manipulated because, ultimately, the mind itself is flat. And it is endlessly manipulated. If every situation is socially constructed, guess who rules the world? Whoever is the best wizard of Oz, whoever pulls the levers of social construction, whoever frames the situations within which events play out. The engineers of symbolic and situational machinery. Whoever knows their marketing. And what’s the ultimate treat for the social constructor? It’s to construct situations whereby authenticity is enacted. But even authenticity is an act. This is true down to the biochemical level: bigger pills will have greater placebo effects, and more suggestible people (often the spiritually and religiously inclined) will experience greater placebos. That is also to say, the more gullible people will.

And so a righteous rebellion stirs in the ironic mind: “Not me, I won’t be the sucker.” There’s one born every minute, they say, but not this one. I’ll question, I will tear down the facades, I will joke back, I will study the minutiae of social control, I will fight power structures, I will “deconstruct” your messages and marketing, and I will see the ideology and self-interest behind your purported virtues and values. In the end, the joke won’t be on me, it will be on whoever thought they could lure me in, fool me, and rule me.

Armed with an ironic stance towards society and its surfaces, always revealing the emptiness behind the words, the techniques used to manipulate us, and the crude ever-present workings of power, this type of mind becomes like a Houdini, breaking out of the prisons that others have created for us with their subtle-strings-attached offerings. And so a form of grim nihilism creeps in. Frank Sinatra is not singing about being authentic: read the context of the song, and you notice he’s really singing about consumer capitalism, about using the longing of people with suppressed dreams to make a buck and, while you’re at it, get a Beverly Hills house and the gold digger wife that comes with it.

But, then again, if we’re always dispelling the enacted enchantments of everyone else, where does this leave us? It leaves us in a place where there is really nothing left to believe in, to commit to, to live for, except the resistance and irony itself. That’s a pretty high price to pay. And it may not be the most, well, constructive stance towards life.

Enter a new sincerity; an ironic sincerity. This is the third stage in this simple model. What if you do realize exactly how Sinatra’s song was deliberately constructed by a sly mind that wanted to play on your vulnerable strings—and you choose to still believe in it? What if there is a place beyond pure irony, an irony taken so far that it turns on itself? A skepticism that is skeptical even of itself? Then the irony inverts, and, like a well springing open, something else can flow from it: hope, idealism, sincerity, connection; yes, even childlike trust, religious faith, spiritual piety. This faith is made of other stuff than blind or naive belief; it grows from the ruins of an ironic revolt against the lies and obfuscations of the world. Its hymn is a subtle one, a vague whisper: After deconstruction, reconstruction must follow.

So once you’ve learned to question the world and to pick it apart you begin, with sincere irony, to reconstruct it playfully. You begin learning the art of mastering the many placebo effects around us, for the benefit of our own happiness and sanity, and for the benefit of others. Another quote would be in order, one by the American novelist, David Foster Wallace:

“Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

Exactly. This is sincere irony expressed better than I could have caught it. It’s from his A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, published in 1998. This was a voice ahead of its time. By making ourselves intentionally gullible, for just a moment, we get all the real (even biochemically observable) advantages of a stronger placebo effect. One such placebo effect is happiness, optimism, a sense of direction, a sense of agency, and even free will, a higher “subjective state” in everyday life.

We meet Morpheus trying to peddle us a red pill (the grim truth), and sure, what the hell, we’ll take it. But! Then we swiftly snatch the blue one (happy illusion) out of his other hand and gobble it down, too, before he can stop us. If Neo would have done that, he would have beaten the Matrix much more easily, and he would have had more fun along the way, too. Too bad nobody told him about that third option, the ironically sincere one.

How does being sincerely ironic empower us, then? Think about it. If you internalize the ironic ridicule of others before they have a chance of applying it to you, you can more easily shrug it off; you can work from a place of near invulnerability, and thus dare to be truly vulnerable, and thus bravely constructive, finding and suggesting new pathways for yourself and society. Mastery over irony-turned-on-itself allows for new sincerity. And extreme sincerity even becomes the sharpest weapon of irony, because it’s just so damn outrageous. This does not shield you from constructive criticism; rather it opens you up to it, because you always-already expect to be incomplete, to be open-ended, to be improved upon.

In the face of every “how dare you!” that inevitably comes your way, irony shields you. You are not shielded in the sense that “I tense up and lock it outside”. It’s more like an electric wire that carries the current of your dearest truths (again, open-ended truths to be improved upon by you, the reader). Yes, you will be laughed at and looked down upon, accused of “cringe”, eyes will be rolled, and all of that. But the very acknowledgment of that fact releases a creative spark, a freedom of expression that runs deeper than any bill of rights could guarantee.

And so I can say, with all the force of conviction, that sincere irony, in the hands of sublimely mediocre and ridiculously ordinary people, will change the face of the world. Because that’s where the wild things are. The sincerely ironic can reconstruct the world by virtue of their untamed imagination, which comes with the trust they build. The child returns; the beast is unleashed.

Where, then, does this leave us in regard to Frank Sinatra’s song? Well, look at it this way: The fact that the conception of the song and its powerful lyrics involved a clever marketing stunt does not need to take anything away from its quality of beauty. If it is true that all that ever reaches us is not the inherent “essence” of the thing we experience, but rather a surface that stimulates something in us, a surface that touches our senses and moves something inside of us—then does it not follow that the quality of the song belongs to the personal experience of the listener, rather than to the motives of its creators? Or, put differently, does not the acknowledgment of the fact that “all is surface” carry within itself the proposition that authentic expression can be found in anything that plays the strings of our soul, no matter for what reason?

Again, you can see that we’re taking the blue pill, after we’ve taken the red one. Stir, and it’s a purple cocktail, an elixir from the very crossroads of fact and fiction. Hence, it is by enriching our own capacity to experience the magic of reality that we can reclaim the qualities of hope, of progress, of faith, even after our ironic distancing from them. And so we can begin to find the nuggets of beauty in the cultural ruins that irony and nihilism leave behind: My Way may not be the result of the trembling heart of Frank Sinatra looking back upon his life, but it is the result of the sense of freedom and individual dignity offered by American life of that period, for all of its faults and vices. It hits home for many of us because it still expresses this collective experience, without which the song could never have been imagined in the first place. And so, we can simply enjoy it with good conscience, taking the power back of our own construction of meaning in the world; intentionally making ourselves credulous, gullible for just a moment. We can use it to, among other things, give our “subjective state” a little boost.

So after “deconstructing” and picking apart the many tricks played upon us, we can now “reconstruct” new tricks for the sake of magic and direction in our lives, and in the world around us. We can become our own wizards of Oz (and of one another), and begin to deliberately run the machinery of our own illusions, re-enchanting reality. Dorothy Gale found a little unassuming man behind the machinery that ran the smokescreens of the “great wizard of Oz”, and shouted accusingly “You’re a bad man!”, angry for having been fooled. To which he replied: “I’m not a bad man, just a bad wizard”. In the end, the wizard turned out to be (sublimely) mediocre, like the rest of us. But we can take up the mantle of all dispelled conjurors, and together co-create a more enchanted reality to live in. Dorothy could have stayed behind the curtains and learned a thing or two about running the machine herself. Would that prospect not lead us towards a more compelling open horizon than pure irony? We have worlds to construct, always finding new sources of magic. That is ultimately the reason I feel this stance, sincere irony, can salvage our souls and let us struggle playfully together towards beautifully impossible but tremendously important goals. Again, at the end of irony, at its omega point, when skepticism is turned even on itself, it brings that spark of the creative imagination that belongs only to the faithful.

Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

Jesus: Lost and Found

At one point or another, I suppose it is inevitable that we should ruin this dinner party by talking about religion. As William James, this American “father of sociology”, wrote in his 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience: “Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life”. It’s how we relate to the whole. Also known as: “the question of life, the universe, and everything”. Or, simply: What is of ultimate significance? What is, when all is said and done, truly important?

Let’s keep this broad view of what religion is in mind. What, then, can a sincerely ironic stance do for our religious relationship to reality, ourselves, life, the universe, and everything? Where does it leave that “faith” we were just speaking of?

Here, you can see a similar but distinct progression as the one outlined above: from sincere belief, through nihilism and skepticism, towards sincere irony. If sincerity would mean something like “believe in Jesus as the son of God, and as your personal savior who made miracles happen” where God is the ultimate source of all true, good, and beautiful in the world and the everpresent creator of it all, the nihilistic stance is simply to not believe in any of that: it’s bullshit.

And, of course, it is bullshit. Jesus couldn’t heal the sick, turn water into wine, or walk on water, nor was he born by a virgin, nor was he the son of God, nor was he resurrected. Mohammed couldn’t move a mountain, and Buddha didn’t fly around and cast fireballs (yep, that’s a thing in the scriptures); he didn’t even teleport across the Ganges. And even if God was in the world making miracles happen, why on earth would the focus be on wine and fireworks, or getting teenagers pregnant without consent (i.e. the Virgin Mary)? It’s preposterous not only at the level of empirical claims; it’s preposterous even at an existential and spiritual level, just too dumb to do any notion of God or [other placeholder of ultimate significance] any justice.

Yeah, yeah, of course we don’t believe in that stuff. But there are mysteries, things beyond our comprehension, things like… special and difficult-to-understand capabilities of rare, accomplished, spiritual masters, right? Things like Rupert Sheldrake’s biology of morphic fields, new frontiers of science that rediscover spiritual perennial truths beyond the rational mind. Or at least the possibility thereof. There are synchronicities and serendipities too unlikely to have occurred naturally. There are energiesFlows.

No, it’s all bullshit. There aren’t any miracles. Not even just a little, not even in a profound transrational sense, not even in the distant East. So stop it. No, Ruper Sheldrake’s theory of telepathic dogs isn’t correct. There aren’t any morphic fields and dogs aren’t telepathic. Certainly, with Joseph Campbell, that great interpreter of myths, we can look at “walking on water” as a metaphor for “mastering our unconscious” and so on; but believing in the miracle itself very demonstrably does harm. I won’t bore you with the work of the “new atheists” who labor to show this, but they do have a point.

It can feel a bit brutal, but it’s time to take the red pill. We live in a world entirely devoid of all magic and all miracles. That is to say, we live in a world where things are caused by other things in replicable, if complex, manners. That’s the same as understanding that there are no nooks and crannies left of magic or miracles, not even at farthest reaches of the mind, the universe, the far East, life, and everything. All in this sense “metaphysical” claims of all the religions are entirely false; and there is really no need for a shred of mercy or sentimentality about it.

Well yes, I see what you’re saying Hanzi, but…

No, seriously, stop it. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors with that stuff. There is no “but”, no “both and” here, no “higher synthesis”, no hidden pattern in profound symbols that reveals an esoteric truth that unlocks your chosenness, no meditative insight that saves the metaphysical claims of any of the religions… No multiperspectivalism that puts you into contact with the indigenous spirit worlds. No healing practice that sends energies through the deepest layers of consciousness across continents.

That’s what killing God feels like: it’s a brutal dead end. It’s not supposed to feel good or right. It just is what it is: the death of ideas that are false. And then we go after all the saints and sages (they’re mediocre), every miracle, every siddhi, every magic residual in the known universe. Kill, kill, kill. Die, die, die.

And together with the magic, we also kill off all crazy guru abuses, many of the cults (but cults can and do still show up in political and self-development guises), and our tendency to disregard and disrespect science. We also kill off New Age abuse of desperate people, the cruel commercialization of the human soul where sad people pay for expensive crystals. Oh yeah, and then we kill the notion of “the soul” because that’s also magical thinking. Santa, too.

And now, if the red pill has been properly gobbled down, and only then, do we take the blue pill. It’s the ultimate marshmallow test of humanity. Real magic is felt, not believed. Or let me restate that a bit more precisely: Magic is an experiential, not a cognitive, category.

We can reconstruct God, yes, but only after we’re done properly killing them. Now, we are free to reconstruct religion, to delve head-first into the faith of the faithless (with the words of the philosopher Simon Critchley).

So the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything, can indeed be a better one than an absurd “42”. Once you’ve grounded the wire of spirituality with relentless skepticism and ironic distance and the most ruthless nihilism imaginable, you can begin to reclaim the spiritual realm. If you want to be crude about it, you could say that spiritual experience exists within and beyond the traditional religions, but that it becomes a good and constructive force in our day and age only at the other side of atheism. By first mastering atheism, for all of its unimaginative and judgmental simple-mindedness, we can begin to unleash the power of spirituality in our lives and beyond. Religion is recaptured from the monster of modern life.

Enter sincere irony: the teachings of ironic prophets. The religions that can grow and prosper in this realm aren’t exactly religions as we normally think of them. They excavate and revive not the metaphysical and miraculous claims of the contemplative traditions of religions, but their existential truths. And yes, the religions are true, they were right, as all of them point to insights that are correct but which modern everyday life is oblivious of.

Take Jesus, for example. It is true that we lost him as the literal son of a heavenly father and cosmic creator in our merciless purge of all magic from the world. We lost him, of course, in the sense that we no longer believe in what are, if you’re entirely sober about it, childish bullshit fairy tales. But now we can find him again, in a more mature and adult relationship. He’s not our savior or daddy figure. But he’s not entirely wrong, either: non-judgment and forgiveness really are higher truths if you look at it, there are very good reasons indeed to try to find universal love for all and to live by it; and, yes, we really are sinners in that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as inherently good but rather become good by always seeing how we are flawed and limited in our moral capacities. And yes, there really is a whole kingdom of God within us, waiting to be discovered in the higher reaches of our inner subjective states which also reach into the depth and core of our being. And yes, people who came before us really did go through torture for us to be here, so a little damn gratitude wouldn’t be such a bad idea. As far as I can see, Jesus has more correct and insightful things to say than almost anyone I can think of.

Likewise, with the Buddha, we can see that you literally can advance through the stages of meditative absorption if you diligently practice meditation, and that this even shows on a brain scanner. And yes, the stages are roughly yet correctly described and they can be taught and learned. And yes, our desires are always functions of our own minds and end up being frustrated one way or another, and we do well to transform their nature towards becoming less self-centered. And yes, we really do experience a loss of the discrete “sense of self” if we experience the deeper meditative and “higher” inner states. And all experience, pleasurable or painful, even the sense of a separate soul, really does melt away in a radical emptiness if we study it closely and attentively enough. Once we identify with the deeper layers of the mind, and with the consciousness of which we are a part, we can easily see that doing harm to others, to anyone, is in a sense doing harm to ourselves. So even the law of Karma has something going for it: What goes around comes around. That’s true even on a practical level. On average and over time, we tend to benefit from kind actions, when they are performed with discernment. The more we focus on others, the easier time we usually have maintaining a good subjective state ourselves, and genuinely kind actions tend to reward us with nice surprises later down the road, if seldom in the ways we expected. Even if counter-examples show up in the short run (we try to be kind and feel cheated, etc.), karma is certainly worth believing in, sincerely.

And with Islam we can experience a sense of wholeness or oneness that has indeed been shown empirically to support happiness and wellbeing (whereas the bleak belief structures of Buddhism, “everything is suffering”, actually tend to make you less happy unless paired with extensive contemplative practice). By focusing on one principle, one God, one path, we can feel more at home in the universe. Research has even shown that Muslims have the highest score of sense of “oneness” (which in turn correlates with life satisfaction) and atheists have the lowest. Oneness is a genuinely psychologically helpful fiction, like the belief in free will. People feel better and are healthier if they believe in free will, even if it factually speaking doesn’t exist. You get a sense of direction and control, and that affects how your mind self-organizes and avoids dumb excuses. Praise Allah for those placebo effects!

With indigenous religions and rituals, we can begin to reconnect to our bodies, to our communities, to nature, to the complexities of the world around us. We can come into contact with spirit worlds, not as a source of magic in the literal sense, but as a source of relationality and connection, not to mention a sense of enchantment. How inventive we must be, and how attentive to respecting the wisdom of the oldest cultures on the planet, to tap into this ancient homestead of the human psyche! Animist worldviews, for all their differences between them, were in some way or form how humans lived and expressed themselves for at least tens of thousands of years. It does make sense to think that what humans adapted to for so long also makes sense at a psychological level, more so than our modern lives. Arguably, the more we connect to this wisdom, the greater role can also be played by indigenous wisdom in creating new forms of sustainable life and community.

I would even include, among the things we can playfully reconstruct, the zeal of the revolutionary, of the communist, the anarchist: the belief in the possibility of overturning the injustices of society, of imagining new worlds for humans to live in. This is the fire of the French revolution and its sense that this moment can birth new worlds through an uncompromising commitment to justice. Many of the people who were part of anarchist Catalonia in the 1930s later remembered it as the happiest and most beautiful days of their lives. What a source of energy and agency such “revolutionary happiness” can bring! “The irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist” as philosophers Hardt and Negri once wrote about, can be channeled, if it is only approached responsibly; that is to say, playfully and ironically. And, of course, one must understand that there is no such thing as what Leon Trotsky called “the permanent revolution”; revolution occurs in moments of seismic change, in social and psychological earthquakes; it is analogous to falling in love, as discussed by the Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni. Between such “moments of movement”, there is institution, habit—longer stretches of mediocrity. But still, these moments—of the dramatic, the tremendous, the musical—are real enough, and they can be sparked. They really do happen in people’s lives; a sense of complete, shared ecstasy taking over one’s entire being, and they really can change society.

And beyond the political passions that stir the soul, even the occult can be played with: dark rituals, satanic cabaals, sex magic, and so on. Sure, the Order of the Golden Dawn never quite delivered on its mysteries and magic spells, nor did any of the esoteric groups of the last turn of the century. But reinvented magical rituals that draw upon the inner beast and its carnal desires, unfiltered dreams, and raw emotions can certainly release strong forces in our lives, at least for short, revolutionary moments. For what it’s worth, they inspired rock bands by the dozen, too. The variety of practices called “chaos magick” involves making ourselves entirely suggestible, entirely open to new beliefs, so as to actively reshape our own minds. The occult paths can help us hack our minds, dramatically and profoundly: they include the “fuck like a beast” insight to a degree that Christianity and classical (Theravadan) Buddhism did not. Or, less drastically, there is the ongoing popularization of BDSM and sex-positive events. Tantric sex is part of such explorations, as is tantra in the deeper and original sense (spirituality beginning from the embodied) and the use of sacred symbols. Pagan revivals of Odin and summer solstice rituals can also play a part here, but make sure not to link these to those crazy far-right ideas.

And, of course, there’s the whole reinvention of psychedelic culture and practice, making it more therapeutic, science-based, and responsible (a promising area—I’m also connected to the Psychedelic Society in the UK and respect their work—but it is one in which I’d like to see more caution and healthy conservatism; addiction and psychiatric harm are real things, as are abuses within this field). However, I’ll leave that last discussion to others.

Simply stated: There are a lot of blue pills to take, and they can bring us closer to truth, rather than farther away from it. This includes “transrational” truth; existential truths that lie beyond our analytical minds, but somehow ring true from a place within and beyond us.

Oh, let’s be honest—how we long for the ecstatic, for some real magic in our lives, for what life was supposed to be! And—as the mystical traditions taught, and the religions hinted at in their mythologies—truth brings us closer to magic, while illusion has it that the world is plain and mundane. In that sense, all the religions were right, and today’s prevailing atheist-rationalist-materialist-reductionist-scientist worldview is false.

Photo by Alain Pham on Unsplash

Praise the Shallow

By now I imagine a question may come to mind for some readers, the more seriously religious ones. One might think that Hanzi takes a too sloppy and superficial view of religion, one that does not allow for serious commitment and depth that pertains to following one particular path. Should, then, religion and spirituality always remain piecemeal, only a collage of different trends that happen to pop up on the internet? What about going deep into and following a tradition, a contemplative path set by centuries of hard-earned human experience of the practitioners before us? Will deeper truths really reveal themselves to us if we treat these human accomplishments without respect? There’s Kierkegaard’s old “either-or”: make up your damned mind and take a leap of faith to live for something, and commit to that path! Or, with another saying that recurs these days from serious spiritual practitioners and followers of a path: “You have to eat the whole fish.” That is to say, to reap the full benefits of a spiritual path, of a contemplative religion or form of mysticism, you have to work according to the internal logic of that path and stay on it, like any good training program. Otherwise, it’s like you’re hopping back and forth from golf to basketball to chess—and neither path will open up and reveal its secrets to you, and none of them will yield to mastery. And it’s mastery that transforms you.

Okay, fair point. Well, the problem is—and I’ve seen this again and again—that the whole fish eats you. You think you’re going on a deep spiritual path, with your critical mind intact, but before you know it, you’re posting childish gobbledygook about miracles on Facebook to prove that your religion is the true one after all. You have lost touch with all shared reality, and as such you’ve lost all relevance to the world we live in. Why does this happen? Because you invest your life’s entire project in the narrative of one religion, to the extent that you so badly want all of its premises to be true, to be The Truth. In the end, at some deep level, you sell out the truth for some emotional and spiritual candy bars (for some inner rewards).

There’s a certain threshold we can pass, a great price to pay: a certain kind of sanity we’ll likely never recover. You thought you were an intrepid explorer of the kingdom within, but what you’ve become is actually no different from a Flat Earther (the folks who literally think the earth is flat, it’s a big thing these days). And then you start trying to convert everyone else to your beliefs, while bankrupting your own philosophy by tying it to your blatantly incorrect beliefs.

I’m not saying we can’t go deep into one tradition, or that it should always be avoided. All I am saying is that taking the red pill first, and then trying out several blue pills, is the safer and more productive way of being religious. From a position of sincere irony, you can then go deeper and deeper into the paths that open to you. You make certain that you don’t get sucked into one tunnel-visioned perspective, consuming you like a raw, rattling fish.

Many of these topics of “reinventing religion” have been explored by other works, like my friend Nick Jankel’s Spiritual Atheist, or why not Jamie Wheal’Recapture the Rapture, and this is not an article on theology or religion. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has labored extensively to meet the meaning-crisis with a reinvention of religion for our time, sketching the deep structures of a reconstructed religiosity. Suffice to say here that sincere irony allows for the multi-pronged open exploration of faith, for the re-enchantment of a world left in spiritual shambles after the death of God. As such, we can meditate, pray, dream, play, and practice what Layman Pascal calls our “spiritual style” with no sense of shame or embarrassment, with no apologies made.

We can even try to speak our own truths about the great cosmic joke, and become ironic prophets of our own—and of one another. As such, the field of religion, of all of the religions and their perennial wisdoms (which are related but distinct), even of revolutions and the occult, open up to us. We can begin to practice piety in a space that is safer and compatible not only with modern science, but also with critical thinking, and with the sincere irony that increasingly marks our digital age.

But remember. All the religious and spiritual experiences of the world will not efface broken dishwashers and people cutting in line at the bus stop. Religion and zeal can be reinvented and rediscovered with sincere irony, as can wisdom, faith, rapture, ritual, mystery, and contemplation, but they only ever return us, after some wild roller coaster rides through passion, over transcendence, and into inner peace, to a (hopefully) sublime mediocrity. It is this sublime mediocrity, this inescapable “ground of being”, that we’re perfecting.

So, once you’ve truly killed God, you can take the blue pill and begin to use those sought-after both-ands of science and spirituality of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Here, you can combine ruthless reason with the perfectly unreasonable longings of the (scientifically speaking, non-existent) soul. Before the proper death of God, magic will always sneak in, not as a wonderful re-enchantment of the cosmos, but as an endless source of deceit and disappointment. Even the saint, even the prophet, is mediocre. In the end, even Jesus doesn’t look a lot like Jesus (simple thought experiment: what would you think of a guy who, in a fit of self-righteous rage, turned over the table of some poor tourist trinket vendors at a cathedral?). And that’s why we need to lose him—and then find him, again and again. And that’s the real miracle of religion: You can kill God, you can even crucify Him and mock Him with a crown of thorns while you’re at it, and He still shows up three days later, happy to go.

If God is always on His way to the guillotine, if He’s always beheaded and overturned by a new revolution of the critical mind, of new perspectives and life experiences, what you get is The Headless God. An open-ended God. A God of exploration. Now that is the God that’s left even after the crudest murders of the sacred, and that’s a God truly worth worshipping. If being whacked by the critical mind, if being crucified and denied, if being killed and mocked, still doesn’t kill you and you are still reborn, still wearing the crown of thorns, well then at least my hat’s off and I’m on my knees before you, ready to give you everything. With this view of the divine, “the sacred” is revealed through a relentless series of iconoclasms.

This sincerely ironic reconstruction of faith goes beyond the tired cliché of “spiritual but not religious” (which is, for many reasons we needn’t belabor, a dead end): it helps us to reinvent not only spirituality (the experience and expression of the higher inner states), but religion itself (the meaning-making fabric of our relatedness to reality). Religion is redefined; it escapes its confines and combines with art, science, and critical thinking; it becomes tailored to the Internet age and to every unique person and to every context, to every moment. Not every moment and aspect of life can realistically be “spiritual”… But we all do have some kind of “religion”. Hence, rather than trying to be “spiritual but not religious”, we should admit that we’ve been “religious but not (always) spiritual” all along. If that makes sense.

Sincere irony can rescue God. And then God does save our fallen souls at the auspicious crossroads of fact and fiction. Isn’t that sublimely mediocre?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The Sound of Both Ands Clapping

As a last note on this, I’d like to mine the gold strains of some other both-ands that are closely related to sincere irony.

A famous Zen koan asks “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. The Zen koans were designed to radically break us out of our conceptual minds and lead us into the realm of pure paradox and the strokes of wordless insight that thrive there. Perhaps at a somewhat less profound level, there are paradoxical both-ands that capture different aspects of the “oscillation” between irony and sincerity. Some of these have been proposed by the Dutch art scholars, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker: pragmatic romanticism, informed naivety, and magical realism.

Now, we have to choose our both-ands carefully. Not all both-ands are born equal. The point is that the two seemingly opposite elements must conflict in a manner that sparks a desirable field of possibilities. So, you cannot walk around both-anding just anything and think that you have achieved a greater synthesis or wisdom. Both rob the bank and give to the poor? Well, it’s good enough for a fairy tale about Robin Hood, but probably not a good idea in reality. Both being nationalist and socialist? Well, that spells National Socialism, a.k.a. Nazism.

As mentioned, the philosopher Kierkegaard titled his most famous work “either or”: you have to make up your mind sometimes, take a leap of faith, take a stand, to truly live in authenticity. But the point here is that both-and contains either-or; but either-or does not contain both-and.

If you’ll allow me a bit of tangled reasoning:

  • It’s not either “both-and” or “either-or”;
  • it’s both “both-and” and “either-or”.
  • It’s both-and with discernment.

All of this is just to say that there are productive and destructive paradoxes; so you cannot combine just any contradiction arbitrarily (again, combining both toilet and kitchen is not a mark of wisdom). To do both-ands well, you have to define the two opposing elements non-arbitrarily, in manners that make sense on a deeper level that enriches both sides. And you do this by first differentiating between the two, separating them out fully, and only then do you experiment with combining them. You differentiate, and then you reintegrate where possible and desirable.

Let’s get started with some more both-ands, then. Good ones, not bad ones.

Pragmatic Romanticism

Pragmatic romanticism is the principle of both taking up an unapologetically romantic stance towards life, like those passionate painters, poets, and philosophers of Romanticism in the 19th century, and to do so as pragmatically as humanly possible. Yes, life should be enchanted, and yes, you have to follow that unique inner spark and express your individuality, because only that can truly bring harmony between what is within and what is around us. Yes, mountaineering and (with the words of Jamie Wheal) “recapturing the rapture” of nature lead to a sense of the dramatic! The tremendous! The cosmic images of the Hubble space telescope speak to us, and then they can speak through us, as we channel our inspiration into the world. The romantic moment, be it of spiritual bliss, creative insight, or even falling in love, makes the entirety of the world and its suffering somehow “worth it”. And yet—none of that will by itself resolve, for instance, the climate crisis. And the climate crisis will sweep much of the potential for such beauty off the face of the Earth. Thus, it is by stretching the soul between these two poles, by holding on to them both at once, that one can create movements that work from the spirit of the romantic, and towards real solutions. But think about it: Do you think that being purely pragmatic is enough? Where will the strokes of genius come from? Where will the tenacity to go that extra mile come from? Where will the inspiration that fuels profound transformation of the entire economy and way of life come from? It comes from the bleeding heart, from a sense of tragedy, from those moments when we are in love with life. There is, in this sense, nothing more pragmatic than pure, unapologetic romanticism. Pragmatism is lost without love and rapture, without the romantic. But the moments of rapture cannot sustain themselves. A climate movement, for instance, can only be truly successful if it deliberately uses the love for and mystery of nature to fuel human engagement with science, policy, and the dirtiest of all: politics. (The same could be said, by the way, of marriage.) So if the world has been divided between pragmatists and romantic souls, it appears that a most fruitful paradox to meditate upon becomes pragmatic romanticism. The two may perhaps never be happily married, but in the both-and that attempts to grasp them in one embrace, there is creativity and hope to be found.

Informed Naivety

Informed naivety is the both-and of knowing that what you believe in is indeed naive, seeing how it is “impossible”, but still working from that vision because it will still move things in the right direction. So maybe it is naive to think that climate change can be curbed, or that political polarization can be mitigated and people can begin to understand one another better, or that we can create free and fair solarpunk autonomous zones of postcapitalism and distributed governance. But the very fact that people do insist on working naively on those issues means that potentials emerge that otherwise wouldn’t have. The world is run and reproduced by realists, but it is transformed, bit by bit, by dreamers. The sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin once noted that, in times prior to democracy, the end of the divine right of kings was unimaginable, and that today, the end of capitalism is equally so. Yet, democracy did emerge, once the conditions were ripe for it. It is by being students of such conditions of transformation and change that we can adopt and live by an informed naivety. Such naivety keeps some of our childlike qualities, like innocence and directness of experience, but attempts to marry them to the discerning and protective mind of the educated adult. It keeps the door open to alternatives, to other worlds, and it feeds our (non-existent) souls with hope and inspiration. The cypherpunks and the hackers of the Ethereum blockchain community serve as an example: The deeper they delve into computation and the crude incentives of economic modeling and finance, the more they can begin to imagine radically different futures of freedom and equality under decentralized cooperation.

Magical Realism

Magical realism you might have heard of already: It’s a big thing in literature, with authors like Haruki Murakami (author of e.g. Kafka on the Shore, 2005) combining a bit of social realism, and renderings of everyday life and history, with magical interruptions that break through common reality, in a sense commenting upon it and helping us reach deeper beneath its surfaces. And so boring bus rides and visits to libraries are combined with talking cats and forces of fate that drive the story: “Your problem is that your shadow is a bit—how should I put it? Faint.” comments the black tomcat. It speaks to something many of us can recognize, a lacking sense of fullness when we’re not following our inner path, but it couldn’t have been as succinctly described without the invocation of magic into the narrative, in this case talking cats and thinned-out shadows. This has been an influential movement around the world, particularly in Latin American 20th century literature. Literary scholars are crazy about it and love to write dissertations on the topic. But in this context, I’m thinking of magical realism in the sense where it is applied to life itself, even beyond the realm of art and literature. Yes, we may need to “stick to reality” to remain sane and effective; but our experienced reality is always a projection of our minds, as cognitive science has revealed with increasing clarity. And, as discussed, our minds are more pliable and plastic than we normally imagine, so we can always play with how the world is perceived, interpreted, and participated in. We have available to us the vast potentials of magic and mystery; and, indeed, the farther we travel into the true mechanisms of reality, the farther reaches of relativity, quantum physics, of cosmology, of big history, of complexity, of studies of consciousness and cognition, of sociology, the more mysterious it all actually seems, and the more tools of re-enchantment indeed become available. This is actually a path taken by some of the most forward-thinking performance magicians of our day and age: My friend, Ferdinando Buscema, loves to reveal some of the “magic” behind his tricks, and, in that same move, he ironically makes the tricks seem yet more magical. As such, he combines his background as a mechanical engineer with the art of magic. Ferdinando was inspired by TechGnosis, a 1998 book by Erik Davis, which explores the historical connection between technology and magic and a deep view of cyberculture; indeed, he was inspired to such a degree that he committed the entire book to his active memory, word for word, including the position of each word on each page, in effect carrying the book with him at all times. There is magic in technology, and technology in magic. So magical realism does not only use magic to re-enchant the world of crude physics and reason; it uses crude mechanics to enhance our connection to the magical. In the mathematician Warren Weaver’s 1949 article “Science and Complexity”, he guides us through the development of science, through mechanical physics (things that are sure to occur), to statistical chemistry (things that are likely to occur), to complexity in life and society: that which seems unlikely, impossible even, but nevertheless occurs despite it all. The magical, the emergent, sparks from building step by step on the crudest and simplest rules. And strangely, that somehow makes it even more enchanted, even more connected to the basic movements and regularities of the cosmos. The understanding of complexity as a field of science springs from crude mechanics and reductive physics, and yet, from that very same complexity, springs what appears to be magic.

Each of the above (pragmatic romanticism, informed naivety, and magical realism) somehow relates to the difficult interplay between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. We need to practice stretching our minds between two polarities: from profound enchantment and sense of intuition, wholeness, and radical openness on one hand (right hemisphere), to understanding complexity and the crudest scientific and logical discernment on the other (left hemisphere). It’s interesting to notice how great resistance there is to this simple insight. The world of humans consists almost entirely of people of one type or the other—those that seek to save science, realism, and reason from magic, idealism, and woo woo, or those that seek to save the spiritual realm from cynicism, scientism, and reductionism. In the greater scheme of things, it’s okay that different people take different positions on one side or another of this polarity, even different cultures do, as it’s part of a greater oscillation that runs through society at large. But for sublime mediocrity to be served best in our own lives, the richest position by far is an uncompromising, but calibrated, both-and.

Other Both-Ands

Except for these three both-ands, you can extend the list. Here are some suggestions of my own: the crossroads of fact and fictionstruggle-reborn-as-playconservative radicalism, game change, and, of course, sublime mediocrity.

  • The “crossroads of fact and fiction” is the place where dabs of fiction are used to speak more truly and clearly about facts and reality.
  • Struggle-reborn-as-play is when we deepen the sense of our struggles for a kinder and more just world to the point where the love of and gratefulness towards the world becomes apparent as the very underlying source of these same struggles, so that they suddenly appear less like a war and more like a playful experiment. We become “happy revolutionaries”, committed to and flowing from what social theorist Jason Storm has called “revolutionary happiness”.
  • Conservative radicalism is when you commit fully to transforming society, but take a careful and gradual stance towards how radical transformation can realistically come about.
  • Game change (as described in detail in my other work) is when you accept that life is a game with winners and losers, but still think it’s an unjust game, and resolve to change that game for the better in regards to all of its players.

And beyond that, there are more dangerous but still potentially fruitful concepts that we should only approach with the greatest caution, because they can easily misfire and bring “the worst of both worlds”: sneaky kindness, hierarchical equalityreligious nihilism, or idealistic machiavellianism. Without venturing into these, explore them at your own peril. My other work certainly tries to venture into these treacherous waters and time will tell if I overstretched.

Wrathful compassion is another somewhat risky one. I got it from a friend, Anasuya Sengupta, who is, in my own estimation, an exceedingly accomplished social justice activist. She’s the kind of person that many feminists and (anti-)postcolonialists aspire to be; always very enmeshed in the down-to-earth duty to balance out the injustices of the web and of information, always taking up new projects to help people in need in real communities around the world, and always very well informed and thoughtful in her theoretical underpinnings and methods of collaboration. Never complaining or bitter, even in the face of harsh difficulties, always constructive, active, and brave. If you ask her about the source of this admirable and rare level of engagement, she speaks of that quality of “wrathful compassion”. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everyone: it requires the wrath to be truly felt and embodied, and then connected to a source of compassion that flows from a genuine sense of injustice. In theory, any abusive leader, or destructive rebel, could claim that their mistreatment of others is really just a deeper expression of wrathful compassion. It could easily be used as a justification for why certain basic ethics don’t apply to us. But it is, as far as I can tell, a very powerful both-and if done correctly: the unstoppable energy and agency of wrath, channeled towards universal purposes motivated by compassion.

Yet another, somewhat less dangerous, one is empirical pessimism combined with theoretical optimism: yes, it is true that civilizational collapse may occur sooner or later, and yes, we’re all mediocre and likely to fail to change the ways of the world, and yes, things always go horribly awry sooner or later (pessimism, then, in the empirical sense: what will actually happen is often pretty bad: hence, “empirical pessimism”). But it is still true that whenever we find out something that brings us closer to truth, justice, and beauty, such qualities nevertheless manifest (so, in theory, the greater good is always there as a potential, and still worth striving for: “theoretical optimism”). The two sides actually fit together: admitting that death, collapse, the ubiquity of mistakes, crash boom bang, are the rule, not the exception, takes nothing away from the sense that all things connect in the end, in a larger view, and are worth resolving with truth-seeking. So in the short run, the conservatives and cynics are always right: “It’ll never work, guys. Get a job. And a damn haircut.” But in the long run, at least some of the most radical among us always turn out to be right: democracy did emerge, as did human rights and gender equality before the law, and the social welfare state. The universe has literally evolved from dust to Shakespeare, why then should it stop now? It’s a tragic and eternally broken world, but because there is such a thing as truth, the very same brokenness always holds the promise of something unimaginably wonderful emerging. The tragedy of the universe also holds within it the capacity for the good and the just, towards which the truth leads us. It’s pretty close to Gandhi’s old dictum: “Truth is God”. That’s a God worth keeping and submitting to.

The Double Extremist Stance

All of these are fruitful, if not innocent and harmless, paradoxes for us to contemplate, to play with, and to experiment with. What is the sound of both ands clapping? What potentials are we keeping ourselves from by thinking that one extreme always excludes its apparent opposite? The balanced mind is not necessarily one of golden means, of averages and compromises; a stronger balance can be achieved by becoming not just an extremist, but a double extremist. The farther you go in one extreme, the more potential is actually opened up at the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, resulting in a wider embrace of life and reality. For instance, we may attempt to be extremely secular, and extremely religious, both at once.

Life is always-already an experiment, and thus it is actually irresponsible for us not to take seriously its vast possibilities and potentials. We have every right to try to transform society, and ourselves, even if it is admittedly always a dangerous business. Because the status quo is also dangerous, also insane. With this call to live by sincere irony, I thus invite you to take a stance of enlightened madness, of double extremism, and to help to turn our struggles into play.

Not only does this stance fuel a sense of hope and humor during life’s darker tunnels and its sub-mediocre patches of tragedy, but it powers our shared capacity to reimagine and reshape our lives, and ultimately the world. Even if (and when) we fail, that’s a win for Protopia.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Protopian Education Conclusion: Connecting the Eight Pathways

Summary So Far

By now—if you have read the previous articles that outline the eight pathways to a new planetary paradigm of education—a vision of the future of global education has begun to crystallize. Briefly put, I have roughly suggested an educational system that:

  1. Emphasizes the cultivation of a multi-dimensional ecological relatedness.
  2. Works to counter and adapt to the disruptions of technological innovations.
  3. Leverages tech for purposes of tailoring education to the individual and supporting learning through modelling.
  4. Emphasizes inner work and creates safe spaces for this to happen, while cultivating trust and training teachers in how to do so.
  5. Is organized as a network, connected to other spheres of society through real-world projects, and managed with sociocratic principles of self-governance.
  6. Is tailored to prioritize the cultivation of basic traits and meta-skills over specific knowledge content, while still prioritizing the hard work of learning to study more efficiently, and includes an expanded sexual and gender-relations education.
  7. Gives Global South countries a say in how world history and social science are taught in the Global North and makes Big History the backbone subject of all other subjects.
  8. Has a second layer of virtual networked education, tailored for the needs and concerns of global refugee populations

… but this series is not here to present a vision of the future of education. These particular suggestions may be revised or exchanged. Our main emphasis is, and remains, to present the map of the eight pathways from education as we know it, to a new paradigm of education.

What’s Holding Us Back

Through this study I have come to believe that a major shift in the world of education is held back primarily by three factors:

  1. That key agents do not have a shared map or understanding of the basic shift between paradigms of education, and thus find it hard to work together and achieve consistent results.
  2. That key agents at the top leadership level hold each other back by failing to align interests, goals and projects in accordance with a shared understanding and mutual aid.
  3. That political and economic systems limit the degrees of freedom that reformers have to act.

Simply stated, agreement upon a shared map of how education can and should be transformed is necessary for real progress to be made—what are the different pathways and how do they interrelate? The map does not have to be perfect to be usable, nor is agreement required about the details. It only needs to be “good enough for now, safe enough to try”; it just needs basic consent from key stakeholders (as the formerly discussed sociocratic method of governance states). Not consensus—only consent.

And it is by having such a shared map, that rifts between different global organizations, countries and other key agents can be bridged. If key stakeholders show up at a workshop with such a shared framework in mind, the ability to reach shared understanding and align interests may be increased. Again, even if the map may need improvement, it can offer a place to start from.

And from there on, strategic alliances of reformers can be forged around the different pathways, or other projects that relate to them and have synergies with them, or in synergies across and between them—and this can help to escape the political and economic constraints that hold the field of global education, and its key players, in check.

This requires a kind of non-linear leadership; not the leadership of going from A to B, but leadership that works synergistically—or even, as manner of speaking, alchemically—to transform gridlocks into opportunities, to travel through a maze of pitfalls and opportunities for change. The more people have a shared map, the easier they can cooperate and find pathways through the maze. May non-linear leaders emerge and rise to the task.

It’s All Connected

Synergies between these eight pathways are possible in more ways than can be imagined beforehand, not least as the pathways still need to be trodden and further explored—but most of all, because each synergy effect is case-specific and must be discovered within its own unique situation.

That being said, let us look at some of the chains of synergies and interrelations between the different pathways.

  • Strategically countering the negative effects of mobile technology’s tendency to hijack our attention and take us out of the present moment is necessary for serious inner work to take place in educational settings.
  • Serious inner work and being present in the moment is necessary for us to be fully engaged with the beauty of nature and our sense of connectedness to the biosphere.
  • Connectedness with the biosphere and direct experience of nature is nurturing for our mental health. • Good mental health is necessary for cultivating meta-skills such as compassion and sensemaking.
  • The meta-skills of compassion and sense-making are necessary for the perspectives of other cultures to be truly understood, such as if the Global South perspectives are included into the curricula of the Global North.
  • The Global South perspectives are necessary for populations around the world to better understand the realities and perspectives of refugees, the vast majority of whom are from this region, and this can boost the support for their education via virtual systems of empowerment.
  • When networked virtual systems of education are created for refugee purposes, this can also spur innovation in the leveraging of tech in other parts of global education, leading to Big Data being used there to tailor education to individual needs according to algorithms.
    Big Data and AI-driven education can free up teaching time and let teachers focus more on connecting personally with their pupils, engendering greater mutual trust.
  • Greater mutual trust and freed-up teacher time can help shape education in a more networked direction.
  • A more networked education can offer greater support to the introduction of more real-world projects.
  • Real-world projects can offer a bridging out to other systems of society, thus creating a basis for more community-based schooling.
  • A more community-based schooling can offer a more experiential and less cerebral kind of learning.
  • A more experiential and less cerebral learning can offer better prerequisites for serious collective and individual trauma work.
  • Serious trauma work can help to heal not only painful histories and issues of ethnic identity, but also issues of gender conflict and identity.
  • Healing painful ethnic relations and histories is necessary for members of the Global South to leapfrog into a new economic, technological, and cultural era of greater planetary equality.

The list could go on. The point is, again, that these pathways interconnect. They all point in a similar direction: towards a new paradigm of education. Exclude one of the paths, and our non-linear road to a rewired global education becomes more difficult. If the map takes hold, more non-linear leaders will become skilled at seeing and navigating these connections, grabbing the moments given to transform education through strategic alliances across nations and sectors.

Of course, the pathways interconnect not only with each other, but also with the wider systems of society, culture and economy. To transform education is, ultimately, to transform society itself. By extension, transforming global education is to transform global society.

At this moment in history, East and West are meeting as equals and finding ways to integrate. North and South are meeting as equals. Industrial society is giving way to information society. And society is shifting from the national to the transnational and global. Each of these shifts occur within and through education, since education is the largest interface between each individual human being and her society.

To transform global society into what it must become, we must grow as cultures, nations, and human beings.

And growing means learning. And learning means playing.

So let us play.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Protopian Education Eight: Adjusting to an Education on the Move

“A refugee is someone who survived and who can create the future”.

—Amela Koluder

According to pre-Ukrainian war figures from UNHCR, there are currently around 7.4 million school-age refugees, of which 3.7 million are out of school entirely. It has been estimated that 63% of refugees are enrolled in primary schools, only 24% in secondary school, and 3% in higher education (compared to 91%, 84% and 37% globally).

It is, naturally, of utmost concern that these children are reached by quality education, as lost years of schooling will likely affect their lives and their chances of ever finding homes and livelihoods in the economies and societies of established countries. It is not a far stretch to also consider the rest of the some 22.5 million refugees, the adults and preschoolers, as deprived of educational resources and opportunities and lifelong learning.

As the wave of refugees from Ukraine attests to, there is, unfortunately, little reason to believe that this is the last, or smallest, population of refugees that will exist; the many chaotic conditions of life and changes in global society make future waves of refugees likely to emerge:

  • As argued in the previous article in this series, the world is more interconnected at the global and transnational levels, which breaks open what sociologist Ulrich Beckcalled “the container state”, making states unable to handle populations that fall between the cracks of defined citizenship.
  • The increased mobility that communication technologies (and transport) allow make people more likely to move when their life conditions become unbearable.
  • The political (and popular) reluctance to accept and successfully integrate migrants, often for fear of being socially and economically overburdened or to experience clashes between cultures.
  • The displacement of populations due to the effects climate change (and other environmental factors).
  • A, at least in some regards, more unstable geopolitical world order.

Taken together, there is little reason to be optimistic about this problem solving itself; despite the best transnational efforts, refugees and displaced populations living in camps and under vulnerable conditions will likely be here for times to come. Of course, the main thrust can and should be to reduce the sheer number of refugees and displaced populations—but the world of education cannot ignore the fact that refugees exist and that all stand to benefit from their inclusion into education.

If the new educational paradigm is to be truly global in its nature, it simply follows that strategies must be tailored to educate refugees—the world’s current refugees, and the refugees of the future.

A great opportunity is to leverage mobile technology to support education among refugee populations (not least mobile technologies do play an increasingly important role in refugee lives, 39% of households are estimated to have access to an Internet-capable device). Mobile technology could help to increase the reach and quality of the education of refugees. UNESCO has indeed already investigated this opportunity, claiming that the potentials are there but also that more research is needed to progress effectively.

In the following, I offer a few considerations about how “a new paradigm of education” could translate into and inform measures to empower and secure the education of refugees.

A Global Virtual “School System of Last Resort”

A fundamental issue of being a refugee is that one’s citizenship is often not fully recognized; one “falls between the cracks” and is thus deprived of the rights and services bestowed upon citizens of different countries.

Without clearly identifying people as citizens, state structures are often inept, and sometimes oppressive, towards the sans papiers. It may thus be beneficial to create an internationally funded schooling system that enrolls people without such requirements, giving each an identity number, and tracking their progress longitudinally: which courses have they taken, what are their interests and special needs, and so forth. Such a system could exist virtually and have its own staff; it would be a Global Virtual “School System of Last Resort”. This could offer refugee learners at least some sense of educational belonging and continuity.

Another fundamental aspect of being a refugee is that one is often on the move; trying to find a viable place in the world for oneself and one’s family. If already enrolled and tracked in a virtual school, it may be easier to pick up where one left off.

Naturally, such a system can and should be combined with actual teachers who can visit refugee camps and teach there. But for these to have good understanding and data on the progress of learners, and for this to be done with continuity, it is also beneficial to gather data on the learning progress of refugees.

Whereas it may be unrealistic to ever expect the quality of refugee education to match conventional institutions, both systems may benefit from a shift in perspective towards the “network schooling” as discussed under the “Protopian Education Five” part of this series. The aim would no longer be solely to reach as many as possible with quality education (although that is, of course, a viable goal), but also, and perhaps primarily, to inspire and encourage disenfranchised children and young to create their own learning projects, and supporting the acquisition of knowledge they need to solve real-world community problems and or produce benefits for themselves.

It is thus worth considering whether network schooling, supported not only by mobile tech, but also Big Data, could be a model for refugee education. In a networked world, where more people are excluded, there need to be networks of learning even beyond the state level.

Migration Flows and Citizenship

Another perspective I would like to offer concerns how and in which ways refugees are taught and empowered. It is no secret that more educated refugees generally fare better than uneducated ones, having more knowledge and skills to manage the demands of paperwork and legal frameworks that face them.

If migration flows continue to increase, and if states continue to fail to manage them, there will be an increasing number of people who, at least in effect, lack a proper citizenship. Hence, one of the educational goals of refugees may be to learn the basics of what citizenship of different relevant countries entail, how they are acquired, and what expectations and obligations that come with them. In other words, it may be a high priority to empower refugees to increase their chances of becoming fully enfranchised citizens of relevant countries; this would facilitate the process of arrival and integration into new communities, and help refugees to make life choices about migration on better grounds.

Such programs of education cannot guarantee that refugees do indeed acquire citizenship and new homes in desired countries. But there does appear to be a mutual interest here: receiving countries can invest in equipping refugees with proper understanding of their countries and systems in order to better be able to accept and integrate refugees; refugees are likely to have a strong interest in learning about how to change their situation—and make informed choices in difficult situations.

Like everyone else, refugees naturally have a will and wish to learn about other issues as well, and getting a proper education for its own sake. However, assuming that the goal of most refugees is to change their situation into a more stable one, it makes sense to make education as empowering as possible to this end. In the end, even if refugees are in many ways victimized populations, it is also the refugees themselves that can do the most to change their situations—and there is thus a strong argument to do everything possible to empower them to do so.

Strong forces might disagree with such a solution: many countries would prefer to avoid informing refugees about how to come to their country and how to become a citizen, so as to avoid the initial costs of accepting new members of society. However, if countries pledge to do this together, and via a shared educational system deliberately designed for the purpose of refugee education (as discussed above), the results may indeed be balanced and manageable—more so than the current situation in which the refugee populations are effectively locked out and accumulate in larger numbers.

In conclusion, the global education system must prepare for a world in which refugees are a reality; but this does not mean that nothing can be done—on the contrary, it means that the right educational institutions and practices can not only mitigate the harms of displacement, but even help reduce displacement itself, establishing new pathways to citizenship, by empowering the refugees.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Protopian Education Seven: Adapting to the Rise of the Global South

“The developing world is full of entrepreneurs and visionaries, who with access to education, equity and credit would play a key role in developing the economic situations in their countries”.
—Muhammad Yunus

From West-Centric to World-Centric Education

“reformers of global education must, along with the rest of humanity, reckon with the rise of the Global South—both as an emerging fact, as goal or ideal, and as a change of perspective.”

“In their countries, but also in the world at large”, one may add to the above quote by Yunus. Access to high quality education can and will empower the billions of people who today can only enter the global economy from a deprived and deprivileged position—and there is every reason to believe that such an empowerment of the many would benefit the world as a whole. Not only would innovation and trade be nourished; this rich tapestry of world citizens also bring their own cultures, histories and perspectives to the table; and many perspectives are required to tackle the great global challenges of climate change, global health, technological disruption, and migration. The global world, by definition, cannot be a Western one, nor a Russian or Chinese one—it must include and empower the Global South as a whole, and balance the multiplicity of human experience and cultures.

It has been argued by many that the main force of such change is education. Education can create opportunities in people’s lives, but it can also empower populations to organize and take issue with injustices and systemic failures of their own societies, spurring institutional change and bringing stability to destabilized regions.

Thus, reformers of global education must, along with the rest of humanity, reckon with the rise of the Global South—both as an emerging fact, as goal or ideal, and as a change of perspective.

One simple shift—and one that highlights the biases that have hitherto been imbedded in how we have all been educated—involves a change of wording. “The third world” and “the developing world” both imply some kind of hierarchy; the Global South emphasizes the fundamentally equality of nations and cultures. It is this sense of worthiness and equality that must reshape not only how education is organized, but also how “the great story of the world” is told and taught. The story of the world, the global narrative, cannot be a hierarchical one—if our shared goal is a rich, sustainable, peaceful, and equal world.

Reformers of global education are thus faced with a two-pronged momentous task:

  • To extend the systems of education so that its access becomes virtually universal, and
  • to change the narrative (the story told or implied) about human communities and their relationship to one another, from a Western-centric, to a world-centric

In this article, I focus primarily on the second part of this equation. Naturally, the two depend upon one another. Just as there should be no people—except perhaps indigenous cultures that do not take part of the global market—who are deprived of education, there should be no people who are taught, implicitly or otherwise, that their culture and heritage are less worthy, inferior, or in submission to other cultures. Such implied hierarchies cause collective trauma and collective shame, which ultimately make global peace and collaboration more difficult. Nor should the members of any culture—and this may be yet more controversial and difficult to deal with—be taught a story of the world that emphasizes, implicitly or otherwise, their own superiority and right to supremacy. If we are to avoid a future in which pompous national pride impedes human solidarity and cooperation, we must deal with issues of collective shame and the many belittlements present in everyday life. Because shame and (exaggerated) pride are sisters.

hat we suggest here is a transnational alliance between countries to reshape the narratives of the world—guiding us from more hierarchical and ethnocentric views of the world, to more equal and cosmopolitan outlooks that rhyme with the rise of Global South. This is doable, we believe, but it requires that countries escape a kind of “prisoner’s dilemma”; if the populations of country A are taught more ethnocentric views, it becomes more difficult for country B to uphold a more cosmopolitan narrative; the solidarity becomes lopsided. How can, for instance, Japanese and Chinese readings of modern history be reconciled, wounds healed, and perspectives bridged?

And mutual solidarity on a transnational level is necessary for a thriving and peaceful world.

This is not to say that populations have no use for a sense of roots, heritage and history of their own countries, traditions, and ethnicities. Yes, heritage and proud histories count. But if each person’s unique life story belongs in part to the history of their country and people, so is the history of each country and people ultimately a contribution to the history of the world and of humanity as a whole—connecting in turn to an ecological belongingness to the larger biosphere, which can itself be understood through many different lenses of the world’s cultures and religions.

And thus these histories of humanity must be balanced and brought into a harmonious whole: even the difficult parts, with histories of oppression, discrimination and violence. These are undeniably difficult—but equally vital—questions.

The rise of the Global South thus implies an entry into a truly global age—and the educational systems must adapt to this reality. This pathway can only be walked, however, hand in hand. As we argued in the Human-to-Systems Relations chapter, changing education is also about changing other systems altogether; in this case, it is equally a matter of sensitive diplomacy. What brave leaders and social innovators will rise to the task—and use the development of global education to literally rewrite world history?

Breaking the Colonial Heritage

The above outlined task would be easier if the history of the world, and many of its current realities, were not so gruesome. But they are. The global community is not only faced with a history of wars and exploitation—but also, notably, a history of colonialism. This history heaps shame on some populations and blame on others, and the response to both is often an irrational, exaggerated pride that hinders cosmopolitan reconciliation. And the blame is sometimes transmuted into a misplaced “savior complex” which inadvertently insults the dignity of those it purports to help, further feeding the cycle of shame, pride, and prejudice.

To this day, this colonial heritage continues in the form of many social and economic inequalities which are viscerally felt by people around the world, what is sometimes called the neocolonial order. It continues not only between countries (where new powers still feel that they must prioritize geopolitical security to never again be mistreated by foreign powers), but also within countries, as ethnic migrant minorities feel discriminated against and not as fully worthy citizens of their new home countries.

Our suggestion for one way out of this gridlock is to give the countries of the Global South a stake and a say in how history and social sciences are taught in the countries of the Global North—and perhaps, to some extent, vice versa (although Global South populations are already very influenced by and aware of the Global North). If Global North countries pledge to shape a part of their curricula in accordance with the guidelines of a commission including many Global South countries, the Global South can rebalance the way that history is taught, how they are seen and understood, and how they wish to be related to. They can speak directly to the whole populations of the Global North in and through the North’s own educational systems, balancing out biases and emphasizing their contributions to world history. The pledges do not have to be unrealistically comprehensive; perhaps 40 hours of taught material throughout the schooling years, including perhaps such issues as decolonialization and the histories of African, Asian and pre-Columbian civilizations, plus some general guidelines for how the specifics of the curricula are shaped. It is not an unaffordable measure.

Could such an endeavor begin to heal the wounds of the colonial heritage, creating a more equitable and multifaceted global perspective on social reality? After all, matters of healing are often matters of recognition—and to gain influence over how one is recognized. Could it help avoiding viewing some cultures as victimized, and others to blame—emphasizing instead the rich tapestry of tragic and beautiful human experience?

Big History as a Pedagogical Backbone

There is a discipline of research and history writing that has been developed by authors such as David Christian, Cynthia Stokes, Fred Speier, and Yuval Harari: Big History. It aims not only to tell the history of humanity-as-a-whole, but also the history of the cosmological universe, ecological history, and the geological history of the planet—marrying thus not only the Global South and North, East and West, tribes and civilizations, but also the natural sciences and humanities. This approach has recently gained prominence as it was endorsed and funded by Bill Gates.

There are obvious advantages to centering education as a whole around such a perspective, since it offers a holistic and unifying backbone for all that is being taught and learned within the social and natural sciences, helping young minds to parse the pieces together into a meaningful story, making the subjects more relevant and interconnected. The world, after all, does not consist of separated subjects in a curriculum.

But why am I bringing up the teaching of Big History in the context of the rise of the Global South? Well, to create a truly functional global society—and thriving members of such a society—the issue is not only to bridge and balance South and North; it is equally an issue of creating shared global narratives that help to navigate the global world itself. And here is our claim:

  • The countries that invest more in a Big History education, to which global perspectives are intrinsic, will likely be at a competitive advantage over others in the global market of goods, services, and ideas.

So the reckoning with the rise of the Global South does not only entail an expansion of the reach of education combined with a balancing of South and North perspectives; it also entails, to a significant extent, a transcending of such dualities in the first place—placing a larger part of the narrative every human is equipped with on the global level.

Even if there is good reason to believe, as we will come back to on the following page, that learning Big History may put populations at a competitive advantage, a certain reluctance to reshape how history is taught is to be expected among almost all countries: the national and ethnic histories are dearly held building blocks of national cohesion, identity, and sense-making. It may feel wrong to put such sacred stories within a larger narrative of the global, the ecological, and the cosmic.

For this reason, such reformations of education can and should also be made hand-in-hand; countries could mutually pledge to shift parts of their curricula to Big History. After all, the national and ethnic stories we live by may perhaps be at least somewhat compromised with when knowing that other countries are adopting narratives that view one’s own culture and history more charitably and as an important part of a larger whole. Hence, this issue also requires strategic alliances and diplomacy at the highest level. The result could be a world population which understands itself as layered in global, transnational, national, civil society, organizational, group, and individual levels, easier cooperating across all of these. These levels or layers of social organization are illustrated in the following model:

The “7 layers of social emergence”. Please note that these don’t need to be presented as a pyramid or hierarchy, and could just as easily be viewed increasingly wide-reaching organic wholes. The top level “Global” can also be called “Planetary”.

As human beings, we are all socialized, not least through education, into these different layers: we are granted a complex individual identity; we are part of groups, such as families and movements; we learn about the existence of incorporated groups such as firms and NGOs, perhaps working for some of them; we take part of platforms and commons, such as the media landscape; we are citizens (or not) of nation states; we learn about the transnational relations between states; and we are granted some understanding of the planet and humanity-as-a-whole, the global/planetary level.

My point here is that education can help each person to identify, understand, and feel comfortable with each of these layers. As of today the transnational and global layers are still emerging. The countries that have populations who feel a native and meaningful relationship to these two layers are likely to be able to shape them in their emerging forms the most. The global layer does not only exist at summits with leaders of countries; it pervades all of the other layers. Individuals can act and think more transnationally and globally; as can movements, companies and media landscapes.

It is not difficult to see how equipping larger populations with a native sense of the transnational and global would not only make people feel more at home in an otherwise confusing world—it could also leave them better equipped to shape those emerging realities, including global governance, and make the best of their potentials.

And who is best suited to take up the most global perspectives? Is it the populations of the Global North? Perhaps not. Given the high dynamism and inventiveness of the educational sector in the Global South, and given that education is, to a greater extent, being introduced from scratch there, and given that the Global South perhaps has an even stronger thirst for new stories about reality—these countries may be best poised to take the lead as truly global natives.

Leapfrogging into the Future

An instructive example is offered by the history of education of Scandinavia, described in Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman’s 2017 book, The Nordic Secret. Today the Scandinavian countries are known to be well “developed” by most internationally recognized measures, such as the Human Development Index, low corruption, and measures of public happiness. But a little more than a century ago, this was not the case: they were among the poorest countries in Europe (a large portion of the Swedish population migrated to America around this time due to starvation and hard times).

Educational reformers made it into an explicit goal of these countries to support the “spiritual development” of their wider populations, inviting young adults to “folk high schools”, based around the German Romantic idea of Bildung; i.e. the growth and flourishing of the whole personality by learning and experimenting with life. Such learning facilities were established around Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The authors claim that this spurred a general development of the population—including the peasant population—and that this has been the basis of how well these countries transitioned into modern life and industrialization.

In effect, the Scandinavian countries leapfrogged into a leading position in the modern world. This was a kind of “developmental” leapfrogging. They didn’t follow the paths of Britain, Germany, and France step by step. They learned from them and jumped right to a later developmental stage of their societies, cultures, and economies—creating societies that were in many ways preferable to those in continental Europe.

At the present moment in history, a similar opportunity may be presenting itself to countries that never fully entered into the modern, industrial world on fair and equal terms. As global society shifts from industrial to postindustrial, automatized, and digitized economies, it is not inconceivable that those countries that educate their populations more along the lines of these new life-conditions, emphasizing global perspectives, the quality of relationships, and inner personal growth, can perhaps leapfrog into strong positions in the world economy and its multifaceted, global culture.

The rise of the Global South may very well take place through such a leapfrogging by means of forward-looking and timely reformations of educational systems. After all, in the industrial age, you needed significant financial capital to start a factory. Today, you need a laptop, an Internet connection, an inventive mind, some new perspectives, a global outlook, a good network of collaborators, and an ability to maintain intrinsic motivation and good relationships—to create a successful startup. In many ways, this is a more democratic form of economic competition, and one where education can make an even greater difference.

When the great challenge of expanding education to deprived populations around the world is tackled, perhaps they can be granted, in that education, the tools to truly participate and lead the way into a more global and digitized society. It is thus not a question of “walking in the steps” of “developed countries”—it is about forging a new path for a new moment in history.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Protopian Education Six: Honing the Meta-Skills

“Learning is life’s most important skill.”

—Tony Buzan

The Inner Development Goals of Education

Ithas been emphasized, in my studies and elsewhere, in more ways than we can give justice to, that conventional education is too cerebral; too much focused on mental and cognitive capacities, and that it is often blind to learning goals that go beyond “left brain thinking”: the intuitive, the sense of wholeness and meaning, the creative, the playful, the experiential—the aspects associated with the “right hemisphere” of the brain (let us disregard for a moment the debate around the debate around the neurological appropriateness of this division and use it only metaphorically to get at the point).

The complexity of the modern world disconnects us, also as learners, from certain “lost ways of knowing”, ways of knowing that go beyond conceptual knowledge and have more in common with crafts and art.

So education may need a proper reintegration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain; and, in some ways, this reflects a reintegration of (presumably more reductive) Western education with the (presumably more holistic) Eastern traditions.

But if this critique is so prevalent, one is compelled to ask—in parallel to our earlier discussions—why the cerebral and dry nature of education persists with such apparent tenacity, and why it is so often disconnected from the intrinsic will to play?

A simple explanation would be that engaging the full person in a learning experience is more difficult. Once certain goals have been set, and once “what is measured” is defined, teachers and learners alike naturally retract to the lowest common denominator: what needs to be taught, what will come on the test, and how does one pass the course?

Factual knowledge can be taught and learned relatively directly—but meta-skills which involve the whole person and their experience of life, can only be taught and learned indirectly; by creating favorable conditions for the spontaneous and transformative to occur as a welcome surprise.

Meta-skills involve those qualities that cannot be pinned down to any specific set of facts or professional capacities; they involve issues of how one relates to the world, to oneself, and to other people. Meta-skills are the larger frameworks within which we use our skills, capacities, and talents; as such, they are closer to traits or properties of the person, than to knowledge.

The Oak Island (or in Swedish, Ekskäret) Foundation have proposed five such meta-skills—or what they call “transformative capabilities”—which they endeavor to support, especially in business leaders and international leaders:

  • openness,
  • perspective seeking, (not just perspective taking)
  • sensemaking,
  • inner compass, and
  • compassion.

Each of these qualities can, in fact, be developed according to research cited in the Oak Island’s report. This framework was later develop into what is today the Inner Development Goals that were recently officially adopted by Costa Rica, to be implemented across their public sector.

Would the world look differently if there was a conscious and deliberate effort to help all people to develop such meta-skills via the systems of education?

And it certainly seems relevant to ask: If our environments are changing more rapidly, and economies evolve through transitions, does it not make sense to direct greater resources to cultivating meta-skills, which are useful no matter what specific skills we may need to acquire, hone, and use during our lifetimes? If meta-skills are the frameworks within which our talents are brought together and used, are they not a form of learning more likely to matter?

Traits Last Longer

The set of “transformative capacities” suggested by the Oak Island Foundation refers to meta-skills that are worthy goals, but perhaps not the most basic and fundamental ones from a strictly educational/schooling perspective. Qualities that make each person function and thrive may include:

  • Good learning capacity (needs continuous training and drilling)
  • Good social skills (as reflected in the Inner Development Goals)
  • Self-knowledge (this can be informed, for instance, by the psychological flexibility theory—it later found its way into the Inner Development Goals)
  • Positive emotions
  • Strong physiology
  • Good relationships
  • Good health habits

All of these present viable alternatives as goals of education. Some of it has already discussed in prior articles in this series.

But I am presenting this list to make an argument: It is traits like these that are likely to be the strongest predictors of a good life. More so, perhaps, even than traits like openness and compassion (which are, naturally, also very important). It is, all things considered, possible to imagine a person that is not very open, and not very compassionate, but who still lives a happy and productive life, good for themselves, and good for others. It is more difficult to imagine a person with poor learning capacity, poor social skills, no self-knowledge to speak of, no positive emotions, a weak health and tense body, poor relationships, and poor health habits—who still thrives and is good for others. Or, vice versa, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a person who has all of these qualities, but still lives an unhappy life.

And it is not difficult to make the case that almost any subject learned in conventional schooling—save perhaps for reading, writing, and basic arithmetic in a modern society—would have a greater impact on the likelihood of a life well lived.

I do not claim that this list is final. What we seek to underscore is the way of thinking, the perspective: The traits that are undeniably useful to all people, in all walks of life, that make up the most basic building blocks of a good life should be identified—and invested in through education. Such qualities may not sound as lofty and exciting, but that does not make them any less important. They have exceedingly high likelihood of producing good results—and avoiding bad results—over the lifespan. Even the gifted poet or scientist can collapse under the weight of the difficulties of life, and while society of course depends upon there being good poets and scientists, it also depends on the general resilience of those same people.

And these basic qualities are, unsurprisingly, interrelated: strong physiology affects emotions, which affect relationships, which affect social skills, which affects self-knowledge, which affects good health and learning habits—and so on. Each of the qualities can, in turn, be cultivated and trained, not least by designing the educational systems to this end. Perhaps, then, these qualities should be made the top priority of the whole educational system. It should likely improve results on other learning goals as well, be it within arts, chemistry, or languages.

With such a stronger foundation within each person—and within the networks of people, since the quality of their relationships is included, and since the health, habits, and emotions of one affects another—the “loftier” meta-skills may also come within reach. Meta-skills are transformative; which is to say that they are demanding—they require serious inner work. A first step can and should be to create a resilient foundation for such work to be fruitful and meaningful.

Just how difficult are the meta-skills to cultivate? How can education truly entail meetings that “touch the soul” and transform our perspectives? If we are to believe one of my interviewees, John Vervaeke (professor of cognitive science) present-day cultures around the world are subject to a severe “meaning-crisis”; a collective, existential crisis pertaining to the lack of sense-making capacities in the populations. According to Vervaeke, many of the maladies that societies around the world experience are somehow related to this meaning-crisis. Religions used to offer a whole package of viewpoints and techniques to foster self-knowledge and sense-making, but today they find it difficult to fill this role. Vervaeke suggests, much in line with the Oak Island Foundation, that new structures must be invented and put into place, building on the best interdisciplinary science possible, to help people construct their own sense of meaning and direction in life.

Such work includes, as we have seen in a previous chapter, facing one’s own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and finding ways to integrate and embody them. How could we, for instance, be compassionate and curious for new perspectives, if our inner lives are still wounded, clenched and confused?

Briefly stated, yes, cultivating meta-skills is a difficult task, and it may require some resilience, energy and effort on the parts of everyone involved. Meta-skills require transformational work, and that often includes periods of confusion and even painful work. And yet—without meta-skills like compassion and openness—how could we hope to have the capacities to not only live productive lives, but to collectively tackle the global issues of climate change and technological disruptions?

This view of education—that its main aim is to foster basic resilience, happiness, and meta-skills—of course partly contradicts the focus on making learners employable on the job market. Yet, there is reason to believe that the nature of job markets would itself be transformed if such meta-skills were successfully cultivated throughout society, and thus pervading the economy. Highly functional people with good relationships are, in the long run, also less likely to end up unemployed, burned out, or on sick-leave.

Simply: traits last longer than specific skills. So the priority should be: first, the building blocks of basic resilience; second, the meta-skills; and third, skills and knowledge. That has the highest likelihood of educating people in ways that are genuinely useful. We may even end up with more useful and specific skills and knowledge for it, as people take better charge of their lives and steer it with an inner compass. This is core to the new paradigm of education.

Learning to Learn

The odd man out in the list above is the “learning how to learn” part. It deserves a brief discussion of its own, not least because the argument here is somewhat counter-intuitive and may seem to run counter to our other arguments.

Granted that times change and job markets evolve, we must all become better at quickly and easily learning new skills. But also our ability to make sense of the world is, arguably, limited by our sheer capacity to take in, process, and organize information meaningfully. What holds people back from doing and trying new things, and thus from growing and living a full life, is often simply how daunting it is to learn an entirely new field or topic.

In conventional schooling, there is little or no emphasis on this quality or trait after the first few years. As children are socialized into the schooling system and culture they learn, of course, to read, to take notes, to sit and listen, and to do home assignments. But after this initial period, they are left to their own devices, never again actively practicing their reading speed and apprehension, their note-taking techniques, their memory techniques, their structuring capacities, and their studying techniques (how many repetitions, and so on).

Training this capacity, the capacity to learn, is not necessarily something that occurs spontaneously. In especially conscientious and diligent students, yes, but in most children and youth, never. The result is that very many struggle with getting themselves to actually do schoolwork and home assignments over the years—simply because it is draining and elicits more negative than positive emotions.

“Learning capacity” could become a school subject throughout the years, actively and deliberately drilling and repeating tasks that pertain to learning how to learn. It is, naturally, hard to imagine a more boring subject: repeating speed-reading techniques, practicing memory, going through notes, structuring work plans. The very word “drilling” makes chills go up spines—and it sounds as though all has been forgotten about making education embrace more of the intuitive and playful.

But drilling the capacity to learn may very well be a sound investment that ultimately pays off even in terms of fun and playfulness: if children are supported to do their assignments more efficiently, more time is left for play and relaxation—without a lingering guilty conscience.

However, the “learning how to learn” argument goes deeper yet. If people are empowered to learn more quickly and easily, their learning autonomy increases, i.e., learners gain more power over what they wish to learn, and learning is one of the most empowering and rewarding experiences of all. If all grow up in an information society, it almost seems callous to leave all children after age 10 on to their own devices when it comes to this core capacity. It is even a question of personal freedom or emancipation within an information society, since each person can free themselves more from what others teach or assign then, and learn from their own hearts.

This connects, in turn, to the issue of lifelong learning. If the average person has been diligently trained for years in the art of learning, they will have a higher capacity and lower resistance to learning new things and subject matters throughout their life—which, by the way, serves the meta-skills of openness, perspective seeking, and sense-making.

And then there’s the job-market argument. If job markets do indeed become more complex and volatile, it makes sense to properly equip populations with the highest possible learning capacity.

School cannot always be fun. Even if education is ultimately play, playing can need some scaffolding from time to time. A good game, or playing the piano, may also require some excruciating practice. So education should invest its “necessarily probably boring hours” judiciously. One of the best ways to invest them is, arguably, to drill student repeatedly in how to study easily and efficiently. Therefore, this capacity deserves a place as a basic building block, or meta-skill, of education.

Gender Equality, Sex, and Romance

Gender equality informs many of the Sustainable Development Goals and is an issue that pervades education, too. For girls and women, it is often about increasing the access to education, thus empowering women, combatting structural gender inequalities, stabilizing economies, serving ecological sustainability and improving chances for peace. For boys and men, educational gender equality is more about making the educational systems more adapted to their needs, as boys generally fare less well in conventional schooling than do girls, at least in terms of test scores and immediate learning results.

Here, we would like to consider another take gender equality: that it is, in many ways, a collective capacity or meta-skill of the population, and that it can be developed through education.

The most gender-equal countries in the world also have comparatively extensive programs of sexual education, which of course does not imply a causal relation in either direction. However, considering that the new paradigm of education, we have argued, can and should focus on issues of vulnerability and inner work for the sake of mental health and personal development, the closely related issues of gender, sex, and romance can hardly be avoided.

It is well established in developmental psychology that youths are in the process of establishing identities as sexual and gendered beings, and that this often includes a considerable challenge during this developmental phase—affecting how the person as a whole develops. Budding romantic relationships, or hopes of such, occupy young minds and cut into the core of what many of them are struggling with.

If the goal is for young people to establish positive gender and sexual identities, and to establish pro-social behaviors in the sexual and romantic realms, and if the goal is to create a solid basis for good relations between the genders throughout society and over the life course (which, in turn, affects the quality of family relations, the psychological basis of society)—then issues of gender, sex, and romance should also be supported through education, simply because there is no other place that reaches such a large part of the population.

Basic sexual education involves issues of biological procreation, birth prevention and basic norms concerning the autonomy of one’s own body, desires, boundaries, and sexual consent. Imparting such knowledge to young men and women help to clear confusion and establish that each person has freedom to make informed choices.

But such practices can be expanded. Insecurities and difficulties to take the perspective of the opposite sex (or other genders) can cause gender relations in whole societies to be wrought with conflict, with control of female sexuality, and with emotional wounds that play out over the lifespan, affecting the most important relationships in people’s lives.

In line with the rest of this report, it may thus be argued that a secure sexual and gender identity should be a learning goal—as well as the capacity to take the perspectives of other genders. Such knowledge is, perhaps, not best taught in class or discussed directly in the presence of classmates. But professional sexologists can and should lead workshops in safe settings, perhaps away from schools, maybe mixing students from different schools, and delve into the more difficult and sensitive matters that are otherwise left untouched—but where there is nevertheless much expertise and knowledge that the young simply never acquire.

If gender equality is to be achieved at a more real and deeper level, it must also pervade the realm of sex and courtship, as this is a major interface between the genders. A simple thought experiment underscores the importance of this point: Would we rather want that our sons and daughters live in an environment where others have confusions, insecurities, and frustrations around such issues, or in a setting in which such issues have been made visible and dealt with to the greatest possible extent?

In conclusion, even meta-skills like compassion and openness may not go deeply enough. People’s real emotions, and their personalities, are shaped by their relations, their desires, their hopes and dreams, and by their identities. Gender equality, and what it means to be masculine and feminine, is thus at the heart of the transformations of inner life. There are strong arguments for equipping young people around the world with the means to relate to an deal with such issues—sensitive as the topic may be.

What this entails is an expanded view of gender equality. It cannot be viewed in isolation from issues of gender identity, sex, romance, and family formation—and hence the goal of gender equality leads to these deeper human territories, which, incidentally, also offer pathways for improving mental health and offer a basic building block of human happiness: the art of love.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

Protopian Education Five: Shift the Human-to-System Relations

“Can we go from f*ck the system, to love the system? In China, the latter is being explored. The problem there, of course, is that it’s a system even less worthy of our love. For a system to be loved, it must merit our love. And a social system—educational systems included—merits our love by being generative of inner thriving and dignified relationships between us, the members of the public.”

— Hanzi Freinacht (who sometimes makes up his own introductory quotes if he can’t find a suitable one)

Breaking Away from the Industrial Education System

In the previous article I discussed how human relationships can be transformed in the world of education. But all human relationships occur within larger social systems—educational relations included. How, then, could human relationships be transformed in a desirable direction without the direct involvement of the systems within which we meet, are defined, and live out our lives?

In this chapter, we bring up that age-old critique of education: that it locks down the lonely individual in an impersonal, mechanical “prison” of sorts, mutilating their personality and extinguishing their creative spark and will to learn by playing.

Naturally, there is more to education than this grim image: schools, colleges, teachers, and professors around the world all do their best to make learning engaging and driven by intrinsic motivation. And in many cases, to a certain extent, they succeed.

And yet—the resistance and critique persist, not least on a systemic level. In the following, we bring up ideas and perspectives that aim to transform these systems. One of the major challenges here is that there can be no “one solution” or one “ideal system”, given that education occurs in so varied contexts and cultures. So if I cannot conjure a solution, at least I can discuss some promising and thought-provoking ideas that may serve as general guidelines for reforming the educational systems from the old paradigm to the new.

Because we are social beings, the systems we live in don’t just shape our social environments; they shape who we are and how we act, even how we think, feel, and perceive. To transform social systems is also to transform our minds and our capacities for empathy and productive relationships. To tackle this issue, we must begin by looking at what the “systems of education” truly entail.

Education Is Not (Only) about Education

The first point here is that transforming education may not even be about education (its practices and content) primarily, but all the more about the many other systems within which it is layered: politics, democracy, public administration, business, accounting regulations, wealth redistribution, the media landscape, the tech industries, and healthcare. A similar case was made by Brent Cooper (political sociologist) when I interviewed him. He maintains that the main issues of access to quality education have to do with the economic system and how it plays out politically—and that reformers of education should look primarily to how the funding of education is organized in society. Transforming education is just as much about transforming society.

In other words, education is not an isolated system; it exists, naturally, within the larger structures of society, such as the state and its institutions, the market, and so on. It is wise not to stare solely at what education looks like to get the whole picture—but to lift one’s gaze and try to see the larger society that surrounds and affects it.

Understanding education as a system often entails issues such as financing and creating enough transnational stability and agreement to sustain it. The Education Commission, under the leadership of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, published a report in 2016, titled The Learning Generation, focusing on the importance and viability of financing education globally, making certain that countries around the world are equipped to face the disruptions of job markets that automation can bring about, bringing education to deprived populations, the importance of focusing on educating girls, and giving suggestions on budgeting—among other things.

Such issues are indeed vital, and the educational systems ultimately do remain dependent upon the efforts of international leadership and public funding. At the same time, however, it can be argued that such great, global efforts to fund and expand global education simultaneously present a perfect opportunity to reform it—so that the countless billions of dollars that are invested, are also skillfully directed towards transitioning (through eight interrelated pathways, as discussed throughout this article series) from the old paradigm of education to the new one, hopefully better suited for the demands and potentials of the Internet age.

Shared sense-making of what such systemic shifts can and should look like is a vital component of such a bold transition between the old and new paradigms. Hence the need for the present endeavor to offer a complex map of the territory, which stakeholders from across the fields may use to understand their mutual efforts, and to coordinate strategically across sectors, regions, and nations.

It is well understood by most key agents, we believe, that ensuring the future of education is both a matter of quantity (making certain there is enough of it and that it reaches all who stand to benefit) and quality (making certain the teachers are qualified, classes well equipped, and so forth). But there is less unanimity around the issue of the qualitative shift of global education: how the very nature and goals of education may need to change to best serve the world’s populations. It is only if enough key stakeholders from across the board share such a map of the territory (as I am trying to sketch a suggestion for in this ten-part series of articles), if enough of the right people in the right places, partake in this “mind-shift”, that real and sustain systemic transformation is possible.

The alternative, we should stress, may be bleak: Even if the world invests generously in the quality and quantity of global education, there may be a great rift between the reality that people are educated for and the reality that they actually come to face. If the educational systems are not sufficiently geared towards accommodating the new life conditions, issues of destabilization, ecological degradation, mental illness, and technological disruption may persist. Furthermore, if the many heartening attempts to reform education are not coordinated, they may fail due to systemic challenges and lacking understanding of other key agents.

This lands us in a position of both-and. Education must both be transformed as a part of larger, institutional and transnational shifts of society, and it must be transformed from the inside-out, even down to the quality of each personal teacher-student relationship—supported by a strategic use of technology and necessary shifts of perspectives about what education is, and what its purpose is in the first place. If global education is to be rescued from its position of mounting future shock, and if the spark of playfulness is to be saved from too mechanical pedagogy, the systems of education must be redesigned by many brave co-creators.

Skin in the Game

My second point builds upon the first one, and it has been much emphasized during the interviews that were made in preparation for this article series: If education’s future ultimately depends upon the surrounding systems, the practices of education must become better connected to these same systems—to better harmonize with them, to pick up on their changing nature and be influenced and adapted, and simply to improve learning outcomes.

It is an unfortunate effect of the conventional educational systems that they seldom—sometimes never—entail “real work”; i.e. tasks in which there are at least a minimum of external stakeholders who care about the results of any given assignment: not about the grading of the assessment. Many students go through their whole educational experience without ever quite “learning by doing”, as all school work is and remains within the boundaries of a great “as if”. This, if anything, can foster alienation in schools, and it can arguably undermine the sense of self-worth and self-efficacy of students who graduate from a long education but yet have no real world experience to show for it.

“Skin in the game” is a term that has recently gained popularity with the publishing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2018 book with the same title. Accountability, Taleb argues, is difficult if not impossible to achieve as long as people have no skin in the game, if they don’t stand to lose directly from the consequences of their own decisions and contributions. Likewise, in education, learning to gain confidence and being held accountable, is difficult to achieve without working with real-world projects.

But within the confines of the classroom, it is almost inconceivable to see how students could do projects that are directly relevant to other stakeholders. Hence, education may increasingly need to break out of the classroom, and branch off into other fields of society: industries, healthcare, social services, environmental projects, and so forth. Chuck Pezeshki (complexity scientist, engineer) argues that his engineering students are only able to work in real companies with real stakeholders (and, often, real results for the companies) because of his own long personal history of building up the relationships with those same companies. His work highlights what may be a future professional role within education: establishing contacts to the outside world with as many and as varied agents as possible—so that learners can engage in real projects, with real stakes.

There may be other pedagogical gains from the development of such an approach: That education gains ongoing vital influences from other fields has already been mentioned, but it may also be emphasized that motivation to learn can increase. If students need specific knowledge to successfully finish their real-world projects, this can indeed place teachers in the more privileged position of being a cherished mentor for coveted skills. In short, reconnecting education to society can foster a sense of agency and initiative, rather than passive learning.

Shapes and Forms: From Class to Community Network

The third point connects, in turn, to the second one. If schools and educational settings are less organized as classrooms, and more as nodes that connect to partaking in society through projects—perhaps the schools themselves should be created with another core image or image in mind: the network.

In industrial society perhaps the underlying image of the factory, “mass producing education”, was a suitable alternative for schooling. In a network society, in which education in increasingly tech-driven and project-based, this image may need to be challenged and replaced, at least to a significant part.

The first years of education would naturally still require the networks that form to be locally based: creating schools that are, in effect, little villages with their own vibrant face-to-face communities, so vital to acquiring a sense of trust and safety. Bonnitta Roy (philosopher, background in neuroscience) goes as far as to suggest that such villages would have their own currencies, so that children could buy lunch and resources for their projects and play.  Brad Kershner has organized a “village school” in North Carolina (albeit without its own currency) and claims that—comparing with many school systems he has worked with—this is indeed a superior model for fostering healthy relationships.

But as children age and learn, they may be invited to creating more self-organized and self-governing networks of learning, based around tasks, projects, and interests—while keeping exposure to and connection with a larger schooling community.

Such networked structures of schooling may in turn harmonize well with another topic that our interviewees have brought up, among them Elke Fein (political scientist): sociocratic self-governance.

In so-called “sociocracy”, people are organized into small circles, each with their own tasks, and may decide upon how tasks should be performed through discussion until each member has given consent, “good enough for now, safe enough to try”. Such practices can disperse leadership and authority, but still lead to good management—sociocratically organized schools already exist in Austria (albeit without the network structure) where both teachers and pupils are organized in sociocratic circles. Sociocracy in schools may also offer hands-on learning for life-long participation in democratic societies: listening to others, finding common ground, discussing pros and cons, taking decisions for the common good.

What Is Being Measured?

The conventional system of measuring and grading educational results seems to have few friends among my interviewees and forward-thinking commentators. And indeed, a system can only truly be calibrated to manage that which it somehow measures. What is being left out?

One point that has been brought up is that conventional grading works opposite to the rewarding principles of “gamification”: making learning more like an entertaining game. If a video game starts with zero points, and then you work your way through treasure chests, fruits, and bonus levels, you feel enriched and that you are making progress. But grading starts with an “A” (or whichever the highest grade is) and then your work your way downwards by making mistakes or not knowing answers, and your efforts are marked with a red ink pen in the process. There are certainly issues of simple motivation-boosting techniques that could help learners to feel more motivated and positive about the experience, for instance, by simply turning grading on its head.

But the critique we hear in our interviews goes far beyond that. Zak Stein (Zachary Stein, philosopher of education) maintains that the measuring systems are themselves defunct, in effect measuring skills and capacities in too limited, and ultimately unscientific, ways. This view comes not least from his own experience, going from a underachieving dyslectic interested mainly in music, to a Harvard-educated researcher. He calls for a reformation of the measuring systems so that more just and holistic method comes to the fore: seeing how complex and intricate the independent tasks performed by the students are.

Brad Kershner agrees, through his experience working with children, that the sole focus on test results hinders the design of a truly nurturing education, because it ignores the main piece of the puzzle: the quality of relationships between teachers and pupils.

This view is echoed in related manner by Gregg Henriques (clinical psychologist, professor). He notes that the measures of qualitative variables like wellbeing, relationships, self-development, emotional maturity, and perspective-taking skills are entirely lacking: and yet, they may very well constitute the most important part of what is means to grow and learn. Introducing such measures into educational systems may require a host of measuring devices—but these are in fact already available within the discipline of psycho-metrics, and may be ready to use after some adjustments.

How would education be guided differently in its design, if the measuring systems were both more holistic, had better prediction of real-life outcomes, and included more variables pertaining to human happiness and flourishing? The mere existence of such measurements might change how agents within the educational systems view themselves and how they understand and enact their work.

Said differently, the measuring systems of education may be one of the major flaws in the current paradigm: they force teachers and students into an impersonal and distance machine of quantification. But this does not mean that grading should be abolished altogether; rather, our interviewees seem to hold, it should be reformed in a more holistic, sensitive, accurate, and relevant direction. This arguably present a great task for reformers of education.

How Silos and Egos Prevent Reform

On a last, darker, note about systems change, the interviewees that I have spoken to from the world of developing international education—working in governments and large organizations—bring up the need for greater fluidity and shared understanding among themselves. It is thus not only children and teachers who may need to reorganize and find new ways to self-govern and measure result.

Too often, our interviewees claim, sometimes with frustration, the different organizations and governments are too siloed, too isolated from one another, and they have too divergent organizational and professional interests. It could even be argued—controversial as the matter may be—that “egos” get in the way of long-term, productive cooperation. Instead, agents of change often feel gridlocked by the agents of other, but related and interconnected, fields. Even on the level of international leadership, sensing and caring human beings are trapped in the system, in the wrong human-to-system relations.

Hence, the systems of education may need not only to be reorganized from the bottom up (in the schools and universities themselves), nor only vertically (reconnecting education to other fields of society), but also from the top down: how the leadership of global education is organized and how its different branches relate to one another.

Real change to the systems of education cannot be achieved unless such siloes are broken, interests aligned, and lines of communication clearly established. This requires its own practice and strategic work at the top international level—and resources and attention can and should be directed to this end, for the benefit of all parties and for the sake of future education. A good place to start may be to discuss the overall map of shifting global education from the old paradigm to the new—and forming project-based strategic networks while working out differences by facilitated meetings until consent is granted by all participants to move ahead.

Changing the future of education is thereby—again—not about education itself, but just as much about developing the systems around (and above) the field of education itself.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

 

Protopian Education Four: Humanizing Pedagogical Relationships

“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground”.
— Stephen Covey

Grounding Education in Human Interaction

In a very general sense, education is a social undertaking; it is fundamentally about humans that interact in a manner that helps people to grow and to learn, building on the human capacity to play.

Every time we meet and interact with another person, there is at least some aspect of play, and through that, we change. Each change is usually small; but over time, the interactions shape our inner worlds—until we come out as citizens, as members of society, as doctors, programmers, yoga teachers, or philosophers. And some rare meetings transform us profoundly.

The question thus naturally presents itself: How can human beings meet in educational settings in ways where motivation is spurred, curiosity nurtured, participation encouraged, and emotions and needs respected and developed? To be realistic, most meetings, in most settings, don’t truly “touch us”; we are left largely unchanged. Some meetings even feel detrimental to our health and development, and some feel overly draining. Can impoverished educational interactions become fewer, and the productive ones become more commonplace? How can we make education, as it were, touch the souls of learners? To answer this, we must venture into the realm of psychology—and into the realm of inner experience, of emotions, of what development means in terms of real, felt, and embodied human relations.

But can anything new really be said on this topic? Whereas technology has changed considerably over time, inviting us to new analyses for our times, the nature of human relationships is arguably more universal and consistent across time. So if people have studied this issue already for centuries, and if every teacher has their own lifetime of experience, can we truly expect to say anything new about it?

There are indeed precursors for all of the arguments that I will make in this article. But there do indeed appear to be new “social innovations” that deserve attention and to be tried out in new contexts which today are not part and parcel of our conventional educational systems.

And it goes farther than that; our educational systems seem to perpetually have difficulties with including “the whole person” into the process. There appear to be ways in which we think, feel, and act around education that stem from habits that pertain to the “old paradigm” of education (the industrial)—and these habits can be made conscious, be challenged, and, to an extent, be replaced with habits and perspectives that would serve education better in the new emerging life conditions. It makes sense to say, thus, that there are indeed revolutions waiting to happen in the realm of educational relationships.

In the following I present a few themes that have come up in studies and interviews concerning the nature of pedagogical relationships. Each of them offers some ideas and perspectives on how education could travel the path towards becoming more listening, more human, serving the whole person.

Make Mental Health a Learning Goal

It should be an uncontroversial statement that human happiness and flourishing are key goals of all societies in the world. And nothing is more antithetical to this goal than mental health problems. WHO estimates that globally, 16% of people aged 10–19 suffer from mental health issues that significantly affect their lives. Half of all mental health problems start by age 14, most cases remaining undetected and untreated, depression being the leading problem.

Given that education is the main activity of youth, also in low- and middle-income countries where more than 80% of the world’s youth currently live, could educational systems be consciously and deliberately geared to foster mental health? Could mental health become a global learning goal? This question mirrors, in many ways, the recent trend in transnational work with development goals to emphasize IDGs—the Inner Development Goals that are now being pioneered by Costa Rica’s President, with other countries following suit.

Such an endeavor would not only aim to prevent the “damage” and “costs” (human and economic) of mental illness; it would aim to improve the conditions for mental health across the board, also going from okay to good, and from good to great, in the lives of as many people as possible.

Indeed, if education is to be humanized and centered upon the flourishing of each person, what could be a more viable goal of education than mental health? This would require active and deliberate training in skills and traits that are conducive to that end. The long-term payback of such investments could be manifold, since mental illness is associated with numerous costs and squandered potentials, whereas positive emotions and peace of mind give dividends in terms of creativity and a greater capability to cooperate—on a personal, professional, and political (or civic) level. Prevailing mental health can be understood not only to serve the individual, but to stabilize behaviors on a collective level, levelling out public overreactions to political and economic disruptions in changing times.

What could such educational interventions for mental health look like? A couple of empirical examples may be useful to illustrate:

  1. One meta-study that reviews research on preventive and treatment-based programs in low- and middle income countries shows that schools can offer effective interventions, even for children in areas with armed conflict, with successful results. This includes peer support groups and training teachers in how to impart qualities of emotional resilience to youth and children; the strongest evidence is for preventive programs that target everyone, and that last longer and are consistent over time. Results include lowered levels of PTSD, depression, bullying, violence, and school dropouts. Similar results are available for socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods in high income countries.
  2. Simple forms of preventive group therapy can make a difference. When ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and other empirically validated methods were universally applied in the northern Swedish municipality of Haparanda following 2013, depression rates among 16-year-olds went down from 9.5% to 1.5% in two years.
  3. Meditation (and related practices) in schools can improve the lives of students and teachers alike, improving overall learning outcomes. Here is a summary report of results in The Atlantic: “Schools have also begun experimenting with the practice and discovering that its techniques can help its students. When a school in New Haven, Connecticut, required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for its incoming freshman, studies found that after each class, students had significantly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies. In San Francisco, schools that participated in Quiet Time, a Transcendental Meditation program, had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test than in similar schools where the program didn’t exist. Visitacion Valley Middle School specifically reduced suspensions by 45 percent during the program’s first year. Attendance 24 rates climbed to 98 percent, grade point averages improved, and the school recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco on the annual California Healthy Kids Survey. Other studies have shown that mindfulness education programs improved students’ self-control, attentiveness and respect for other classmates, enhanced the school climate, and improved teachers’ moods.”
  4. Emotional intelligence can be learned, even with brief programs, and studies in physicians have shown that higher emotional intelligence are associated with lower incidence of burnout, longer careers, more positive patient-physician interactions, increased empathy, and improved communication skills.
  5. Physical exercise. Just 20–30 minutes of medium intensity cardio workout per day (or even every second day) will cure and prevent depressionto an extent that equals pharmaceutical antidepressants, after six weeks. It also prevents anxiety, improves concentration, working memory, and increases the number of new connections made in the brain, hence also serving learning outcomes.

In other words, there are in fact affordable interventions that can be incorporated into educational systems that would, in tandem with each other, likely have dramatically positive effects on global mental health—and they are not only conceivable in rich countries.

Could the educational system be designed, wholesale, with the express purpose of improving mental health, using all of these interventions (or corresponding ones that prove better) and more?

Decentering the Individual and Putting Relations First

Naturally, the quality of human relationships in one’s life is a predictor of mental health (and happiness)—and mental health is, in turn, a predictor of the quality of human relationships. Hence, to truly center upon the wellbeing, thriving, and inner development of each individual, educational systems must be geared to decenter the individual, and view each learner more in terms of their relations—a global turn towards a relational pedagogy, including at least five dimensions:

  • Student/pupil peer-to-peer relations(as these are instrumental to mental health across the developmental phases of childhood, youth, and young adulthood);
  • teacher-student relations(as the quality of these relationships determine much of the quality of teaching and learning);
  • teacher peer-to-peer relations(as the quality of these affect the teacher’s resilience and emotional foundations for empathy and motivation);
  • person to nature relations(as discussed earlier, this can affect mental health), and,
  • overall culture or atmosphere of schools(as the qualities of the local culture of each school can affect the prevalence of aggressive behaviors and transgressions.)

Taken together, education must create the best possible conditions for each person to establish nurturing relationships within and beyond the educational setting. In turn, as is well established in social psychology, these relationships contribute to each person’s evolving relation to the self.

Ultimately, a person’s sense of self determines who they feel themselves to be and how they view their place in the world. Mental illness, in turn, very often revolves around a wounded or confused sense of self, which is both constituted by, and reflected in, their relationships. Good relationships have also been shown to be a major protective factor against drug use and addiction.

It is only by reaching into this deeper psychological layer of what it means to be human that education can be truly transformative; hence it only is at this relational level that mental health can be achieved as a societal goal. And the means to do so is primarily by increasing the chances of enriching relationships in each person’s life.

To serve global mental health through education thus means to put in clear focus the relational nature of each learning and growing human being—developing the whole emotional and relational atmosphere within which each person plays, learns, and grows. This requires a reorientation of the educational systems towards fostering positive relationships; not least by interventions that target the inner development of all children and teachers, so that these, in turn, provide emotionally nurturing environments for one another.

Trauma and Communities of Embodiment

Many of my interviewees have emphasized—in subtle and sensitive ways that don’t easily translate into report writing—the importance of the quality of how each human being is met, heard, and recognized in the learning environment.

My interviewees have drawn on many examples: From how one becomes fully present to another person by means of cultivating one’s own inner qualities, to cultivating emotional authenticity as a teacher, to spiritual aspects of finding a purpose to learning, to using examples of community life from indigenous cultures, to co-creating local “mythologies” in which everyone has a role and all are connected to a greater whole (like nature), to establishing teacherly authority by means of showing skills and qualities that the learners wish to acquire, to cultivating the love of children as a motivating force of teaching—the list goes on.

What many of these discussions come back to is the impulse to somehow include a larger part of the person, the human being, into the process of learning, to somehow “touch the soul” of the learner. It appears, briefly put, that education is incomplete if it does not touch upon the difficult, contradicting, and vulnerable parts inside each of us. Education can teach us new skills and knowledge without delving into the deeply vulnerable (and how it manifests as tensions in our bodies), but it appears to be limited in its capacity to guide us through positive personal transformations, so that we can experience healthy and profound shifts of perspective and sense of self.

A challenge thus presents itself: To create spaces within educational life that are safe enough for at least some shared therapeutic work to occur in the learning community.

Roughly speaking, because life is difficult and wrought with contradictions, we all experience at least some level of trauma, some level of psychological wounds that fester within us. Such trauma affect our own development and negatively impact our relationships, often working from outside of our own conscious awareness.

The issue is to bring as much of this into each person’s own awareness as possible—and from there on, working with body, mind, and emotions, to integrate that trauma, healing the wounds, and turning inner insecurities and weaknesses into transformational growth; i.e. growth not of a specific kind of knowledge, but of our personality and sense of self.

However sensitive and difficult the task may be, the rewards of successfully creating practices in which trauma is recognized and integrated into the conscious personality may be great for individuals, communities, and societies around the world. Given that much expertise has already been developed in this field, could it somehow be applied within education, as a part of the goal of improving global mental health?

Educational systems may have the possibility of creating communities of embodiment, meaning that they create settings in which students practice getting in touch with the direct experience of their bodies, and work through issues and tensions that are brought about by social and emotional difficulties. This is the process of “embodiment”. This would require especially brave researchers, practitioners, and educational innovators to collaborate—because it is about including the most vulnerable, and thus the most difficult, parts of what it means to be a human: the raw, the hidden-away, the disowned, and the disembodied.

There are risks and difficulties, no doubt, in dealing with such inner work. And yet, if education is truly to serve the flowering of each person—how can these issues be avoided? If carefully coordinated with the other pathways suggested in this series of articles, I believe, however, that it may be workable—and invaluable. For one thing, it could produce more emotionally and socially balanced leaders throughout society.

Cultivating Trust: the Hard Currency of Education

What is the hardest currency of an educational relationship? Innovation anthropologist Erika Tanos suggests that it is trust, or the level of trust between teachers and students—as well as the level of trust between students, trust in the schooling environment and curriculum, the trust between personnel, and so on.

It is not difficult to see that high levels of trust are necessary for a “community of embodiment” (as suggested above) to successfully emerge. But beyond that, every learning situation builds on trust: Does the student trust that the teacher will know what is relevant for them to know? Do they trust that the home assignments they are given make sense? Do they trust they can try and fail but still be well-regarded? Do they trust the friendship and support of their peers—or must they expend much energy to avoid being scorned or excluded?

A richer environment of trust can be said to affect almost every aspect of the pedagogical relationships through which learning outcomes can be achieved. And the greater the mutual trust, the lower the costs that go into surveillance and control (which always come with psychologically detrimental side-effects, thus undermining the learning goal of good mental health). It is perhaps not an exaggeration to claim that trust is thus “the hard currency” of education; the more you have of it, the greater the leeway is to produce more deep and complex learning outcomes. Without it, learning outcomes can only be relatively superficial—and, again, often at the expense of mental health.

But trust, incidentally, cannot be artificially created: It can only be earned in and through relationships. In turn, the prevalence of trust in educational settings feeds into the overall trust between members of society, thus affecting how well society functions at large, as has been shown by political scientists.

Trust has at least four dimension: trusting in the competence of one another, the reliability of one another, the goodwill of one another, and that one’s interests are aligned. Cultivating trust in educational settings must engage in explicit practices to foster each of these four dimensions.

A possibility could be to shape teacher educations so that they include knowledge of the science of trust—and how it is cultivated and maintained. Trust has many direct and practical uses. For instance, a good teacher can invoke confidence by putting greater faith (and trust) in a student than the student had in themselves, spurring them to achieve beyond their previously self-assessed capacity—thus stimulating growth in their sense of self.

Trust, in turn, may be seen as a prerequisite for creating a greater sense of safety in learning environments. As levels of anxiety and social stress go down, when “fight or flight” modes in the brain are tuned down, the willingness to play—and thus to learn—increases.

An investment in trust is an investment in safety, is an investment in play, is an investment in growth. Trust requires efforts and thus resources. Could we imagine a global alliance for increasing the levels of trust in education?

Through my studies, I have come to believe that it is indeed meaningful and useful to consider how human-to-human relations can be transformed in the world of education, in turn transforming the emotional and deeply personal qualities of all members of our global, interconnected society.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.