What Is a Metameme?

A metameme is a collection of interconnected, mutual dependent, non-arbitrary memes. “Metameme” is thus an overarching term for groups of other memes that helps us understanding the relation of one meme to another. (With “meme”, I’m not referring to the illustrated jokes kids pass around on social media these days, but rather the original idea proposed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene from 1976.) One of my major theses in The 6 Hidden Patterns of History: A Metamodern Guide to World History is that memes come bundled in non-randomly ordered collections of developmentally determined “umbrella” memes constituting overarching stages. It’s these umbrella memes that I have chosen to dub “metamemes”.

The following is work-in-progress and is based on a few loose notes from Hanzi Freinacht’s work on his upcoming book ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’. This is the third book in Hanzi’s metamodern guides series. It takes on a developmental approach to world history and does so through the lens of six overarching developmentally derived patterns that Hanzi refers to as “metamemes”. Thanks to our monthly donators we can buy time to work on the book, so if you have a couple of bucks to spare each month, we would be very grateful if you could donate to Hanzi: https://donorbox.org/metamoderna.

Many memes often come bundled together so as to make up larger and more complex memes such as industrialism or Christianity. Both contain minor constituents, for instance the “corporation-meme” or the “God-meme” (which again can be torn apart into even smaller constituent memes if one wishes). But neither capitalism nor Christianity, vast and complex as they are, make up the most comprehensive collections of memes imaginable. On a higher level of abstraction, industrialism together with other memes such as capitalism (in its state- or free-market variant) and human rights are part of what has been known as “modernity”, or in my language, “the modern metameme”; and Christianity, or any other similar traditional religion, together with memes such as divine law (in one form or another) and the notion of a holy text are mere constituents of the “pre-modern”, or postfaustian, metameme. A “metameme”, such as modernity, is thus one of the largest collections of memes conceptually possible—it is the final step before ordering all memes into some vague undifferentiated notion of the “human mega-meme”.

For example, democracy and the scientific method are two memes that show up under the umbrella of the modern metameme; they walk hand in hand, just as other memes such as queer-feminism and environmentalism do within the postmodern metameme. The workings of this will be explained in detail in The 6 Hidden Patterns of History. The subject of this book is ultimately the emergence and development of these metamemes: large collections of complex hierarchical ordered memes that manifest themselves in human consciousness as cultural, scientific and political expressions throughout history.

Modernity and postmodernity are well-known examples of meta­memes that have been described in academic literature. But if we go further back in history, we’ll see that there has been several other metamemes, that it does not suffice to put everything before the modern era under the concept of “pre-modernity”—and, that in today’s supposedly modern world, the older metamemes are still alive and kicking.

It’s crucial to understand that a metameme is not a temporal entity, but a qualitative one. Modernity is, as pointed out by Adorno, not just a historical period. We may in the historical sciences say that the world entered the modern era about 250 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that the world back then became modern in the qualitative meaning of the word. Many parts of the world are yet to become modern, and many issues in the world today revolve around the troubles of putting the pre-modern way of living and thinking behind us and embracing modernity. At the same time, some of the so-called modern societies are struggling with a painful transition from a modern to a postmodern way of thinking and behaving. Consequently, when we dispose of our temporal notions of pre-modernity, modernity and postmodernity, a much clearer and nuanced picture appears that takes the ambiguity and messy reality of the present world into account. It makes us capable of differentiating between the many aspects of society, the various memes, which tend to be aligned with different and opposing metamemes.

It is important to stress that memes do not arbitrarily appear throughout history. The sequence of which memes emerge is developmentally determined. For technical reasons, it’s obvious that the meme of a functional automobile doesn’t emerge in a culture that hasn’t invented the wheel yet. Likewise, for societal reasons, the meme “queer-feminism” doesn’t appear in a traditional agrarian culture. Even though women and gay people may have thought one thing or the other about the apparent oppression they experienced in 13th century Romania, no one ever started to question the heteronormative and male chauvinistic discourses of society. Contrary the technical difficulties of assembling an automobile in a pre-industrial society, nothing physically stopped anyone from developing a message about how women and gay people should be given equal status and how the dominant norms of society are skewed in favor of male, heterosexual privilege.[i] Yet no one uttered anything with a mere resemblance to these words until the modern era. How come? It didn’t appear because a meme like this requires other memes in order to be conceptually and culturally possible. To explain feminism to an oppressed farmer’s wife in ancient Egypt would have been a daunting task—to expect that meme to spontaneously emerge anywhere in a strictly religious agrarian and authoritarian society: impossible, not in a thousand years, literally. Not even Cleopatra, with all the privilege and time endowed to a woman of her status, came remotely close to developing a few lines of feminist scholarship.[ii]

Similarly, you don’t see the functional meme of an “airplane” emerge in a context that lacks the memes “combustion engine” and “aero-dynamics”, and the latter two memes won’t show up in a culture that hasn’t got the meme “scientific method”, which won’t emerge without the meme “nature is governed by universal laws or principles”, something that requires the notion of an almighty “god” or “universal force”, which again depends on the idea of a “spirit world” etc. ad infinitum. Likewise, feminism won’t emerge without memes such as “equal rights”, which won’t appear before the “rule of law” meme and so on.

Not only does this line of thinking assist us in explaining the logic of the chronological order in which different memes have appeared over time, why some memes emerge before others; it also helps us understand why some memes tend to be “allied” with other memes (i.e. democracy with human rights), while others tend to contradict, be opposed to or even right out hostile towards each other (i.e. divine right vs. science). This is because memes are also non-randomly ordered. They do not only emerge in developmentally dependent ordered sequences, but in equally developmentally dependent ordered sequences of sets; in short consistent and logical coherent groups of—you guessed it—metamemes!

What defines a metameme is that the memes within it together make up a coherent functional whole, one in which the various memes don’t contradict each other—too much that is. Any line of thought is incom­plete, and there are always minor inconsistencies that don’t add up to the whole picture. Usually, such disturbances are swept under the carpet in order to keep everything tidy. This is often appropriate when work is to be focused on completing the larger framework and a single incongruity here and there is of little concern. But, as Kuhn pointed out in his theory on paradigms, the many inconsistencies eventually come together and wreck the whole endeavor.

Initially, the contradiction between the idea of a free will, divine law and the prevailing political situation in feudal Europe was of little concern to medieval thinkers. In an agrarian economy, the political freedom of illiterate serfs was not an issue, and a social order in which kings determined the fate of their subjects didn’t appear to be in conflict with neither free will nor divine law. But as the economic conditions of non-nobles improved and thinkers started to explore the ultimate consequences of these ideas further, people began to question why free will didn’t entail political freedom and whether the kings ruled in accordance with any divine law at all. And if humans were given a free will, why didn’t that also entail the freedom to use one’s own reason to deduct the universal laws bestowed onto humankind?

Suddenly, the many contradictions of the old regime began to add up, and many of the new memes that emerged from this situation increasingly departed from the coherent structure of the existing metameme. A new metameme thus emerged from the logical contradictions of the former, but in accordance to its own logics. If no one stood above the divine law, why did only certain individuals have the right to interpret it? And if a divine law was supposed to be universal, why didn’t it apply everywhere, and how come it didn’t correspond to even more universal principles than the prevailing ones? The pre-modern metameme suddenly started to slip and fall on its own arguments when exposed to modernity’s more logical consistent principles. Yet, only because the pre-modern metameme consisted of memes such as “universality” and “equality before God” could even more universal principles such as “scientific truth” and “equality before the law” be deducted. That means that the political consequences deducted from the notion that “all men are created equal” (inherent in i.e. Christianity and Islam), such as democracy and human rights, could never have emerged in, say ancient Egypt, which explicitly had at its core that all men are not created equal, but that the rulers of society are gods, and that everyone else are their subjects. Only in a culture subscribing to the religious idea that all humans, including the rulers, are subject to God’s will, or any other divine principle, could an idea of political equality emerge. Similarly, only in a culture declaring that all men (and later women) are legally equal does the idea emerge that everyone should have the right to define their own gender and sexual orientation, and that hidden discourses discriminating against minorities, despite their legally equal status, were inherently unfair and had to be changed.

Hence, in a way, social justice is just a further-development of the established ideas in liberal democracies that anyone should have the freedom to live their lives the way they want (as long as they don’t hurt others) and everyone should be given equal legal status. However, the contes­tants of queer-feminism are in their critique of society simultaneously questioning the very core of modernity such as the belief that equal legal status automatically fosters equal social status, and the idea that gender is a cultural and social constant. As such: From the logic of one metameme, taken to its full conclusion, a new metameme emerges to expose the inconsistencies and inadequacies of its predecessor.

So as to return to the previous example of why feminism never took root in ancient Egypt: The main reason is not that people didn’t suffer from gender inequality and oppression, or that a fully feminist society would have been very difficult to achieve in an agrarian economy (we thus far have been unable to achieve one in an industrial economy), but that all the things feminism teaches, from equality to gender discourses, contradict everything the farmer wife—and her husband—knew and was capable of understanding.[iii] In fact, you could might as well have asked her to develop a jet-engine.

This is because memes are developmentally determined, and that goes for all memes from the pure technical to the more ideological. That means that not any kind of meme can emerge, or take root, at a given time and place, but that the possible memes that can emerge and prosper are limited by which other memes currently exist. More specifically, the kinds of memes that may emerge in a given context depend on the overall developmental level of that cultural context’s other memes. In short, modern memes only emerge in modern societies, or, societies approaching modernity. Or to turn it around, the memes that do emerge only do so because they are in alignment with the overall structure and logic of all the other memes currently available, or, as a response to the current limitations and contradictions of that overall logic and structure. This is how we identify a specific meme as belonging to one metameme or another. And the memes that can emerge and function within a given metameme are only a limited type of memes that correspond with the overall developmental level of the metameme as a whole.

A metameme is thus a non-randomly ordered collection of memes in which the memes that don’t fit in with the other memes simple cannot emerge or co-exist without breaking the very logic of what holds the metameme together. Each metameme builds on its predecessor, but it is by definition not merely a further development of it. Not only is a metameme the overall context in which all other memes are ordered, non-randomly, but also the basis of which they are rejected if they don’t fit the overall logic and structure. So what differentiates one metameme from another is that they are always in direct opposition to one another. Just like modernity was in direct opposition to the ancien régime that came before, the postmodern metameme is in direct opposition to modernity. And with that opposition follows the threat of replacing its predecessor. Scary stuff. This dynamic explains much more of history than what it’s usually given credit to.

Why It’s Useful to Know about Metamemes

Different metamemes sure don’t like each other. The idea of a universal god initially didn’t fare well as it directly challenged and opposed the notion that the ruler was God; the idea that “nature is governed by universal laws or principles” which can be deducted via the scientific method wasn’t very welcome among conservative Christian thinkers as it challenged the very authority of God (and their own); and in our day, good-ol’ fashioned material-reductionist scientists are rarely too enthusiastic about fuzzy postmodern notions about the illusions of objectivity.

Have you ever wondered why intelligent and capable people, just like yourself, tend to be stuck in old thought patterns and don’t seem to accept the facts when presented to them? Why some people, despite being kind and outstanding citizens, have a hard time understanding basic science, or accept that it’s ok for gay people to live together? Why whole societies at one time or the other, despite the many advantages of implementing democracy and equality before the law, reject such ideas completely, or, when they accept them hardly seem to comprehend what the terms imply.

Power relations and the interests of those in charge tend to play an important role, but too often it’s the people of such nations who actually prefer authoritarian and religious ideas. It’s obvious that the population of Russia, for instance, has chosen a more traditional path. Pre-modern memes like tsar-like leadership and the Orthodox Church seem closer to the average Russian’s heart than modern ones like liberal democracy and pluralism. But even among the populaces of democratic Western nations, pre-modern notions remain widespread today. Although the meme “democracy” is well-rooted in this part of the world, many don’t seem to fully comprehend what it actually entails. Basic modern democratic memes such as the Montesquieuan principle of power division, respect of the individual and religious freedom seems rather absent in many people’s line of thinking, or if valued, often contradicted by other illiberal ideas.

It always seems to be a question of either or. You rarely have people who think abortion should be legal—because it’s every woman’s free choice—but who simultaneously believe homosexuality is a mortal sin. Never met a person like that. Likewise, you rarely find a person who’s concerned about global-warming, who also think evolution is a scam and that creationism should be taught in school. People tend to subscribe to the “whole package”. Feminists are usually also environmentalists and anti-capitalists; libertarians usually tend to put their faith in objective hard science and material progress; and conservative religious people are usually more romantically nationalistic inclined and staunch supporters of “traditional family values”.

So why is that? The former are all different kinds of memes, but not any kind of memes. Memes tend to be neatly packaged into larger overarching structures in which an entire coherent worldview rest. These are metamemes. Individuals usually tend to subscribe to one metameme or another, but also entire societies tend to subscribe to a single one, or more accurately, has one metameme as its memetic center of gravity; that is, has the ideas, norms and structures inherent to a metameme as its societal foundation. Most societies though have multiple centers of memetic gravity at the same time, pulling society in different directions, and when more than one center has a strong enough pull it appears as society is torn apart. Today we are living in a particular multi-centered time where the gravitational shredding of society is particular noticeable. Somehow the old conflict between left and right (in economic terms) has diminished in importance compared to the rifts felt by the conflict between the pre-modern, modern and postmodern metamemes—something that has been amplified by today’s globalized and multicultural society.

The modern metameme, which has reigned superior since at least the end of the second world war, has started to crumble because of its inherent developmental limits. The many problems that have arisen from this has resulted in a situation where some of its legitimacy has been brought into question and a choice has emerged whether society should return to more “traditional” values and ideas, or embrace a more progressive postmodern path.

It may hurt a lot of feelings when confronted with the idea that this choice is not one between “equals”; that any choice isn’t as good as the other and simply a matter of preference. But the different metamemes have a highly developmental dimension. One metameme is simply, develop­mentally speaking, more in tune with contemporary society than another. One path is more correct than the other. One causes more suffering than another. One is more “developed” than the other. Ouch.

The conservatively inclined may not like that they are considered less “developed” than others. Neither of course is the modern main­stream person, who’d prefer everything to stay the same more or less. But the world doesn’t revolve around what you “feel”. What’s important is not what you like, but what is “right”. In The 6 Hidden Patterns of History I will argue that development is an obvious fact of history—and that it matters if we want to make the world a better place to live in, for all of us.

The developmental importance of metamemes is not to be neglected; in fact, it’s at the very core of this book. With a developmental understanding of metamemes, we not only get to understand why no tribal culture ever produced empirical science, we’ll also with clarity see why democratic organization doesn’t work very well in traditional societies or why notions of gender equality never occurred to people before the industrial era. Metamemes will help us understand why some societies don’t succeed in adopting obvious superior ways of organizing themselves, despite having all the necessary information available to them, and why some people rigorously, and sometimes even violently, oppose novel ideas that if put into effect would benefit their lives. Metamemes will help us understand why “progress” is never a straight path forward, but always a bumpy mess of a ride littered with casualties.

We need to note, however, that a metameme is not a spirit with a will or purpose of its own. Memes are rightfully agents of change, but there is no overarching intelligence that governs their actions, only blind logic—Darwinian logic to be more precise.

You might think that all this sounds rather uncontroversial, common sense that doesn’t need to be elaborated further. That history evolves through different stages as society changes and new opportunities and problems emerge. The educated reader might also point out that the whole story on modernity, postmodernity and what came before has already been discussed ad nauseam (and that it’s an altogether way too simple way of putting history together). But behold dear reader, there is much you have missed.

Firstly, the matter has not been thoroughly elaborated despite the hotly debated discourse in academia. Secondly, the various metamemes have not been adequately differentiated, and most of them haven’t even been identified. This is likely the result of metamemes being rather difficult to spot and keep apart. Because they are much more abstract and generalized phenomena than epochs, archeological remains, geographical regions, state formations, events, ideologies and religious traditions, to which they are usually mixed up, they tend to overlap and make the proper identification harder to conduct. Usually, discussions on modernity and postmodernity are clouded by the sheer fact that modern and postmodern features, or memes to be more precise, are present simultaneously along with all the remains and residuals of pre-modernity. Again, even if Adorno was wise enough to inform us that modernity is not a temporal entity, people have had a hard time taking the full consequences of this insight into consideration. When talking about these large overarching entities, you need to know exactly what you are dealing with in order to understand them properly. You need to see the logic of each metameme and filter out all the noise surrounding them in our everchanging, fuzzy reality.

In The 6 Hidden Patterns of History we will tease out the different aspects of these metamemes so that you will know how to recognize them. As history “progresses” through these metamemes, human life becomes increasingly memetic. It becomes ruled by, and saturated by memes. In our day and age, we are approaching the memetic reorganization of biology, the eco-systems and genetics itself. Memes have governed genes for some time, now the memes will become creators of genes.

Dawkins had it all wrong: It’s not the “selfish gene” that rules our actions, it’s the memes stupid! The memes are in charge now—have been for a while—ultimately deciding the fate of genes by changing, tweaking and selecting the most desirable traits whether it’s immunity to disease, fat sprouts in grains, docileness in animals, and soon, probably also human intelligence.

It’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

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

[i] A message like this may have encountered a very physical response in the form of violence, as it sometimes is today, but it’s highly unlikely that the mere fear of violence alone made people reluctant throughout all of pre-modernity in articulating a queer-feministic program, evident by the fact that history is full of other dangerous ideas and political demands that could be expected to be forcefully dealt with.

[ii] And no, being a powerful woman doesn’t make you a feminist, as it is sometimes mistaken by powerful bourgeois business women in the West.

[iii] The farmer wife, as many farmer wives in pre-modern cultures today, would probably agree that her husband should stop beating her and that she should be allowed more freedom, but feminism (as a scientific discipline and political agenda) is much more than the teaching that men should stop being dicks. For further information on feminism, please look it up, google (or any other comparable search engine) is your friend.

Is Democracy a Done Deal? – Why We Need Democratization Politics

Is democracy a done deal? Is the form of governance prevailing in the West today the most democratic there is ever going to be? We norm­ally think of democracy and dictator­ship as a binary question: either a country is a democracy or it is not. Yet this black-and-white conception of demo­cracy has been challenged, for instance by Freedom House’s graded scale or the 2014 Princeton study which argued the US is more accurately des­cribed as a civil oligarchy than a democracy per se.[i] To be, or not to be democratic—that isn’t really the question. No, the intelligent question is the extent to which a society manages to include its citizens into the political processes; not whether a society is a democracy, but how democratic it has become.

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

So how do we determine just that? How do we define democracy and how do we measure a society’s degree of democracy?

The mainstream account of democratic governance still goes along the lines of what the political scientist Robert Dahl described in the 1950s and onwards. According to Dahl, democracy shows up as a power balance between diff­er­ent interest groups. Such balance forces the parties into a situation in which the following five criteria must be true (this particular definition is from a 1989 book):[ii]

  1. Effective participation: Citizens must have adequate and equal opport­unities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express rea­sons for one outcome over the other.
  2. Voting equality at the decisive stage: Each citizen must be assured their judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
  3. Enlightened understanding: Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opp­ortunities for discov­ering and affirming which choices best serve their interests.
  4. Control of the agenda: “The people” must have the opportunity to dec­ide what should be actual political matters and which should be brought up for deliberation.
  5. Inclusiveness: Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has a leg­itimate stake within the political process.

It should be noted that all the states commonly held as democratic fail to truly fulfill these ideals, and that it would be more or less impossible to actually do so. Dahl’s definition of democratic gover­n­ance, despite being rather conventional, serves to illustrate how much democracy is more of an ideal than an actual state of affairs; that democracy remains an imposs­ible goal worth striving towards.

Just like the socialist Eastern Bloc didn’t actually consider their socie­ties communist, but rather saw communism as the end-goal that the “actually existing socialism” was in the process of creating, true democra­cy remains the unrealized promise of liberal society; the equally distant utopia that the “actually existing liberalism” should be in the process of creating.

Sadly, the idea of democracy as an ongoing process—a fight for equa­lity and liberty that never ends—has waned in favor of the belief we have already reached the end-goal of a fully democratic society. As a result, faith in democracy has eroded in recent years. Without the prospect of further democratization, those who feel disenfranchised in modern socie­ty have become more inclined to abandon democracy altogether.

As a remedy, I propose we update democracy; that we abandon the not­i­on of democracy as a done deal and renegotiate its terms—that demo­cracy, as it is currently realized, can only ever be a proto-synthesis; that it, by necessity, remains provisional and always subject to future revision.

Updating Democracy Itself

I thus believe we have ample reason to challenge the relative self-content­ment of the world’s “most democratic” soc­ieties by asking how they could be­come more demo­cratic? Could the gov­ernance of societies like Swe­den or the US be transformed and im­proved upon, even beyond what Dahl envisioned? Could there be future, deep­er forms of “democracy” which are not only improvements upon the pre­sent systems, but gen­ui­nely and qualitatively different in clearly pre­ferable ways?

From such an ima­gined future vantage point, could today’s taken-for-granted state of affairs in contemporary “democratic” societies even be viewed as terribly undemo­cratic, prim­itive and oppressive? Are we medie­val?

It is often claimed that today’s democracy is under threat; that it is de­cay­ing, that it might be losing its grip or otherwise is becoming increa­s­ingly dysfunctional.[iii] But such diagnoses can also be understood as a mal­ady of modern­ity aging, of the modern institutions, founded a cen­tury ago or more, having become un­able to effect­ively tackle the complexities of meta­modern (post­industrial, trans­national, digitized, etc.) society—a soci­ety in which the key self-organizational flows occur on a much higher order of complexity.

Thus, we are not only talking about restoring, revita­lizing or “sav­ing” democracy, but about fundam­entally updating democracy and re­imagining its institutions. Hence, we are asking a more radical and dan­ger­ous question: How do we reinvent democracy? What kind of demo­cracy comes after democracy?

T­his is an idea echoed not only in the work of Habermas, but also in the experi­mental political philosophy of the legal theorist Roberto Ung­er. Habermas points us towards a deeper form of post-liberal demo­cracy and Unger opens the door to taking an experimental stance towards the dem­ocratic institutions—that they can and should be experimented upon under controlled and reasonable forms.

If our present political systems are in a state of relative decay, can they really be mended and saved with the currently adopted tools of demo­cratic governance? Isn’t it more realistic to ima­gine a path forward to­wards a democratic syst­em more up to speed with today’s globalized and digitized world? If our democratic institutions are working poorly due to being designed to govern a modern, industrial nation state of yester­year—doesn’t it make sense to take the issue of updating and reinven­ting these institu­tions more seriously?

The fundamental starting point of Democratization Politics is thus a negative: There is simply no conceivable reason to believe our current forms of govern­ance in modern democratic societies would be the only possi­ble and best forms of governance for all posterity. If all other forms of gover­nance have emerged in historical time, have had beginnings and end­ings, is it really a feasible supposition that liberal parliamentary demo­cracy is an exception?

No, democracy is not a done deal. Why would it be? It is a develop­men­tal process like everything else, just one that stabilizes around rela­tively fixed equilibria (or “local maxima”) because institutional chan­ges require such great investments and create path dependencies. With “path depen­dency” I mean that, basically, once a society has opted for a certain form of govern­ance, it is very “expensive” and difficult to change the stru­cture.

The fact that liberal democracy has been stably operational for a good while, that is has outcompeted its modern alternatives, such as commu­nism and fascism, and that it remains very difficult to change—even to imagine a credible alternative—can create the illusion that democracy in its current form is “the natural order of things”. But of course, it isn’t.

Luckily there are hacks; there are ways to get around this bottleneck and to open developmental paths that lie beyond liberal democracy.

First of all, a society can expend resources, time and effort in smaller settings to experiment with potentially better forms of governance, e.g. in “exp­eri­men­tal zones”, as proposed by Roberto Ung­er. Secondly, a society can orchestrate a large number of dem­o­cratic technologies and innova­tions in governance which seek to enhan­ce demo­cracy incre­me­ntally. If enough incremental change has occurred, eventu­ally the syst­em itself will have shifted from one stage to another.

And here’s another way of seeing it: Given the sacred status of demo­cracy, isn’t it strange that no late modern economies are mak­ing serious, concerted and patient efforts to develop it and im­prove upon its quality? By treating democracy as a given, are we not fail­ing to take our own democratic values seriously?

The True North: Collective Intelligence

Let’s begin by plunging into this question by identifying a few general his­t­orical trends. What does it mean for democracy to develop? How did it emerge, and why? And what were the attractors that brought democracy into being?

I’d like to sugg­est that there are some deep and sturdy historical patt­erns which—again—don’t determine where things are going, but certainly hint us to­wards some long-term attractor points, i.e. the direction towards which things poten­tially can go.

If democracy is not a binary variable, not a question of either-or, but a developmental matter, a direction—can we then know and recognize its “true north”? Can we know when democracy becomes deeper, retains higher qual­ity, becomes truer to its own principles and ideals?

And if we go far enough in this direction, will democracy inevitably look like “more of the same”, or will there be qualitative shifts from one stage to another that will make democracy look like something completely differ­ent, perhaps event warranting a new word? What if liberal parlia­mentary democracy isn’t “demo­cratic enough” for governing meta­mod­ern society?

To traverse the dangerous territory such quest­ions lead us towards, we’d better have a good sense of a “true north” lest we can get lost and end up inventing new forms of oppression, tyranny, or political dis­integration and collapse. Let’s look for such a true north.

One un­deniable trend is the increasing dispersion of leadership and decision-making. If we go back in history it becomes perfectly clear that pre-modern and early modern monarchical leadership was more con­cen­trated, more arbitrarily wielded and relying more upon the good nature and talent of specific rulers than what is the case in present-day par­lia­mentary democracies. Today, more people partake in decision-making at all levels of society, and wider groups of citizens can be elected.

But even nowadays, the world-system, as a whole, places incredible res­pon­sibility and power in e.g. the US President, which must be viewed as a very high-risk strategy for governance. If this one person has significant flaws—as we all do—this leads to great costs for people all around the world. As such, there still remain pockets of irrationally and inefficiently con­cen­trated power in contemporary democracies.

Another undeniable trend has to do with the increased total volume of active decision-making, i.e. the sheer volume of inform­ation pro­cessed by organs of governance, and the complexity of the processes deliberately shaped by governance.

When viewed as a very long historical trend, it becomes obvious that govern­ance has become “more powerful” over the cen­turies. Govern­ments simply have much greater capacities to inter­fere in the lives of citi­zens than in the past. I have already pointed out that the taxation capaci­ties of modern societies, even while limited in practice due to corruption and the flight of trans­national corporate capital, are stagg­ering compared to any­thing that came before. Strong states levy high taxes, and they penetrate society more thoroughly in a variety of ways. As we have discus­s­ed, Fou­cault pointed out that modern “free” society requi­res many addi­tional lay­ers of control.

Naturally, it is not that a system with greater total power is more demo­cratic in itself, as it is easy to name totalitarian states with high degrees of organization. But there certainly is a correlation between the quantity of self-organization and the growth of democratic forms of governance around the world. And even if libertarianism is a strong current in many present-day demo­cracies (seeking to minimize state pow­er), even the most libertarian ones in the world today are highly org­anized by historical standards.

Thus, as democracy has progressed, it has begun to organize greater am­ounts of money in the public sphere and otherwise regulating ex­changes on the market. Money, of course, isn’t a concrete “thing” “the state” can “take” and then “spend”. That would just be a childish way of seeing things. No, money is a measure of people’s coordinated efforts to extract resources from the environment as well as their degree of coord­ination of agency with one another.

The point, then, is that democratic governance has come to dom­inate both greater material or natural resources, and it has begun to coordinate more human actions: longer stretches of time of people’s lives (in terms of time, effort and attention), in more minute details, playing parts in more abstract patterns of information, for more abstract shared goals. This means many more decisions must be made, much greater amounts of infor­mation organized. Hence, there is a move towards bureaucratization and digitiz­ation—anything that can cost-eff­ect­­­ively monitor and control larger quant­ities of more varied (and specialized) human agen­cy.

A third long-term trend is that democracy has evolved more checks and balances against arbitrary uses of power; hence there has been an increased account­ability of decision-making.

This one is difficult to spot in recent decades, as democratic develop­ment has stagnated and come to a halt. But if we look over the centuries of modern history, the pattern is obvious. There are more laws restricting the use of power, the power of office is decoupled from the office-holder—legally, if not socially—and there are greater demands for transparency and motivation of decisions made. Moreover, there are more institutions —state-run as well as in the media and civil sphere—which actively seek to uncover failures of governments, elected officials, the bureaucracy, the courts and the legal system at large. There is even an increasing number of critical soc­ial scientists who spend years laying bare problems in just one sub-section of governance, be it concentration of power in informal net­works of elites, shady conflicts of interest, or structural malfunctions that elude cas­ual obser­vers.

These many forms of checks and balances increase the inter-subjective verification of legitimacy, or indeed, the inter-subjective falsification of claims to power. This does not mean that democracy functions by the same premises as does modern science, which also ideally works by inter-sub­jective verification/falsification—far from—but it suggests a vague, ten­tative approximation of the scientific ideals.

This, in turn, entails that the self-organization of society gradually beg­ins to rest upon a deeper and more intricate web of verifications and fals­ifications. And even these verifications and falsifications are themselves subjected to increased scrutiny as more voices join the fray.

We may sometimes nostalgically look back at the times of Athenian democracy, of English coffee houses (17th and 18th centuries), of French salons (18th and 19th centuries), of worker socialist collectives (19th and early 20th centuries), or even the youthful energy of 1968. “Ah, those were the days”, we say, “when people cared, when everyone engaged in the pol­itical, in the public, in the civil sphere. Back then, folks were citizens, not merely idle con­sumers”. But we often forget that these expressions of poli­t­ical en­fran­ch­ise­ment only reached small cliques of the overall population: Athen­ian demo­cracy exclu­d­ed all women, slaves and non-Athenians; English coffee hous­es cate­red to urban well-to-do citizens; French salons were meeting places for the upper bourgeoisie and the radical­ized parts of the nobility; more compre­hensive worker colle­c­tives showed up during key moments and events rather than being a permanent state of affairs; and even in 1968 (with the hopeful, radical students) we must remem­ber that university and coll­ege admissions were consider­ably small­er than to­day. It is true that there have been beautiful and inspiring nex­uses in his­torical space-time, and it is true that such beauties have waxed and waned —but this should not blind us to the obvious macro-historical pro­cess: that checks and balan­ces have increased over time as democracy has grown into its current var­iety of forms.

This leads us to a fourth long-term directionality; namely that demo­cra­tic participation has thickened and deepened. Even if the younger gene­ration of today appears to have a lower level of interest in public life (at least conventional politics), and even if many democratic institutions and practices have become sub­jected to diff­er­ent degrees of market logic (where voters are viewed as “customers” or “cli­ents”), largely due to the impact of the so scorned cul­tural and political currents of “neoliberalism” and “new public manage­ment” in recent dec­ades—it still remains true that today’s citizens have more venues of participation than in the past.

Not only do larger groups of people have greater access to media and more time and resources to inform themselves. People also have more concrete channels of participation: in advisory boards and citizens’ coun­cils, feed­back channels for public institutions such as schools and hos­pitals, direct links by email to elected officials and a higher number of represent­atives. And then there’s a dramatic increase in the number of interest groups and civil society agents who defend the interests of many groups—from the ethnic minorities to the sports’ clubs to the animal rights activ­ists to the people suffering from sclerosis and, increasingly, metamodern groups (yay!) who seek to enhance the quality of public dialogue, and so on.

Seen as a totality—and if we put the partly negative trend of neoliberal watering-down of public enfran­chisement of recent decades into a greater historical context—there can be little doubt that public enfranchisement has increased dramatically. This does not have to mean that more citizens spend their time doing things public and political; it simply means that there are many venues and that many and diverse interests crop up and organize.

Lastly, a fifth long-term trend has to do with the growth of democratic culture and values. Yes, Sweden was indeed a democracy even in the 1920s and the 1950s if we consider its institutions. But in the 1920s, a hus­band could still legally rape his wife, it was considered inappropriate to speak too openly against religion, people talked to one another different­ly depending on social status and title, and so forth. Up until the early 1960s, you could beat children, not only at home but also in schools. In short, culture was considerably more authoritarian, less toler­ant, less multi-per­spectival, less egalitarian and overall less dem­o­cratic than today. If you go back to the late 1800s the issue becomes even clearer, with a ma­jority of the constituency being against not only women’s suffrage, but also against racial equality, equality of different social classes (or “estates”) and free speech.

Earlier in this book we discussed that values evolve in recognizable patterns as societies develop, and in Book One I mentioned the re­search of the huge World Values Survey (WVS) which indicates that the Nordic countries have the “most progressive” values in the world. As Chris­tian Welzel, the boss of WVS, notes, it is clear these values play well together with the development and maintenance of democratic inst­itu­tions. When “pro­gressive” values decrease—for reasons of eco­n­omic tur­moil or other­wise—it often leads to direct attacks on demo­cratic institu­tions, as has recently been the case in Turkey, Russia and the Philippines.

What I am getting at here is that democracy in itself is not only a mat­ter of institutional frameworks, but also of cultural develop­ment where the values, sentiments and behaviors of people can be more or less in line with democratic ideals and their collective democratic func­tion­ality.

The recent rise of co-development ideals in the most progressive coun­tries bears witness to this tendency. Co-develop­ment is the process of improving the quality of de­bate, dialogue and delib­eration throughout all of society and across the political spectrum. It works from the supposition that we can’t possibly be right about “everything” and hen­ce always need to learn from one another, friend or foe; if nothing else just to see where they’re coming from. This, of course, is a deeper demo­cratic ideal and an early sign of a further deep­ening of democracy.

All changes of institutional and constitutional frameworks must ultim­ately rest upon the values and cultural realities of real people. It is within this cultural realm that challenges to the existing equilibrium stage of gov­ern­ance (“liberal democracy”) can grow.

Thus, I have suggested five dimensions of what a deeper democracy may entail:

  1. increased dispersion of leadership;
  2. increased volume, complexity and efficiency of information processing;
  3. increased accountability and balancing of powers, putting greater demands upon the verifiability of decision-making;
  4. a deepening and thickening of de jure and de facto participation and popular support in pro­cesses of decision-making and opinion formation; and
  5. the growth of democratic, egalitarian and multi-perspectival culture and values.

If you like, you can call these five dimensions a way of increasing the collective intelligence of a given society; a means to “deepen” democratic participation.

In this regard, a deeper democracy is one that lets solutions of higher orders of complexity emerge and gain legi­timacy, thereby allowing for more com­plex forms of society to exist and thrive.

If more real problems are solved, if public support of and consent to decisions are better, if the decision processes run more smoothly, if there are fewer unwanted and unexpected consequences of decisions made—and so on—then we can say that democracy has been developed, that it has been deepened.

These five dimensions give us a kind of “true north” of democratic development, a map that can guide us towards a more democratic demo­cracy. Today’s democratic institut­ions are better than their historical pre­decessors not because they in-and-of-themselves are a God-given “corr­ect” form of governance, but simply because they fulfill these five criteria more adequately as compared to earlier forms of gover­nance.

False Defenders of Democracy

When we “defend democracy”, this can mean two very different things: We can either defend the progression and development of these democra­tic ideals and their manifestation in society (which is good)—or we may be defending the current, increasingly outdated institutional form of mod­ern “liberal demo­cracy” from the metamodern currents of renewal and refine­ment. In the latter case, we may think of ourselves as heroic defend­ers of democracy, but we are in fact waging a war against the core values of democratic develop­ment bec­ause we mistake the current forms of govern­ance for a sacred entity—for instance, by being overly defensive about “the constitution”. The latter is as enlightened as holding sharia laws to be the only true and God-given way of organizing society. It makes us medieval.

Because democracy in its current form is seldom regarded with a sober and secular gaze, and often as a kind of sacred value-in-itself, the majority of the population may in effect be on the anti-democratic side of the develop­mental tide—much like when most folks in the past were against women’s suffrage and gay rights. Habits, outdated norms and investments in the status quo all work to uphold social inertia, an immunity to change. In this case, we end up fighting off necessary developments of govern­ance and thus of our collect­ive intelligence. The majority posi­tion, then, is that of the false defen­ders of democracy.

The majority is wrong. Always were. Then again, what else should we expect? The point with democracy isn’t that the majority is always right. The point is that there is a process of free and sufficiently systematized truth-seek­ing and dialogue going on for small groups to be able to pro­ve the rest of us wrong, again and again, so that values, opinions and laws can evolve and adapt. That’s how demo­cracy works—you can’t “vote” about the truth; the idea is that the truth offers a powerful attractor point so that, in the long run, more truth than falsehood will win out, and that this, on average, will have better con­seq­uen­ces.

The true north of democratic development can and will lead us bey­ond the institutional forms of modern society. We are, of course, still struggling with the taboo of asking such questions, about what might lie beyond liberal democracy (with a capitalist market), because the two major alter­natives of the 20th cen­tu­ry—communism and fascism—turned out to be such terrible mis­takes.

However, this compass could actually help us steer clear of new treats of total­itar­ianism that may show up in new, seductive, postindustrial, digital-age guises. With a good compass, and with a critical sensitivity towards the directionality of historical development (seeing the stages of development and how these constitute historical attractor points), we may be nearing a point in history in which we are compelled not to take any form of gover­n­ance for grant­ed—and in which we must begin to dream dangerous dreams of future forms of governance.

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

[i]. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (2014, Princeton).

[ii]. Dahl, R.A., 1983. Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press, p. 221.

[iii]. Francis Fukuyama has claimed that the US system of governance has been in a steady decline for decades due to its outdated system of checks and balances, which he claims has reduced the quality of governance and led the country to become a de facto “vetocracy”, where interest groups and courts (and courts influenced by the former) hinder decisive government action by an effective “veto”, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of the public institutions, which in turn makes governance and taxation more difficult. This vicious cycle may hold great explanatory power in terms of the ailments of today’s US.

Many other contemporary political scientists share the general picture of a US democracy in institutional decay.

Fukuyama, F., 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Astrology Precariat, The Yoga Bourgeoisie and The Integralists: Spirituality as a Class Magnifier

The main issue is that the classical delineations of class, as one’s rela­tion to financial capital under the industrial mode of production, no lon­ger act as a satisfying way to understand the stratifications of our cur­rent society. Rath­er, we should understand class as a complex amalgamate of different forms of capital: financial, cultural, social, emotional, physiolo­gical (inclu­d­ing sex­ual) and informational. More on this new landscape of class in this endnote.[i] To this sketchy picture I would like to add one important detail: the inter­actions of “class” with spirituality and self-improvement.

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

There has been great confusion, especially among observers on the pol­i­tical Left and other progressives, as to which role spirituality and related forms of self-improvement play in postindustrial society. The most common understanding is perhaps still that spirituality, esp­eci­ally of the New Age kind, is a dangerous distraction from “real” societal issues and social engagement—and that self-improve­ment courses offer an “ind­ividual­ization” of societal ills and injustices. Such practices are often seen as allies to neo-liberal capitalism as “the individual” only has herself to blame and her own mind to work on: “don’t protest, just go home and meditate”. I should especially address the issue as my own work —which focuses much on the inner development of the population—can be subject to similar reac­tions.

I would suggest another understanding of the relation between spiritu­ality and class, one that will need to remain on the hypothetical level until we can study it with relev­ant data: namely that spirituality and self-improvement are in eff­ect ma­­g­nifying glasses of class distinctions.

Here’s what I mean. If you are already in a position of financial sec­urity, good access to information and cultural sensitivity to frauds and trends, you can partake in high quality meditation courses and self-devel­opment programs that are scie­ntifically supported and help you learn new things about yourself. This will generally improve your life quality further and make you more socially, emotionally and econ­om­ically pro­ficient.

But if you are on the opposite end of this class spectrum—and you have little money, little access to good information, little ability to critically eva­luate wild claims and promises, and generally find yourself in a more des­perate situa­tion (in a “scarcity mindset”)—you are likely to be sold inef­fective magic gems, expensive diet supplements, fortune teller ser­vices, astrological consulting and all manner of harmful bogus ideas (like “The Secret”, the idea that you can “materialize” wealth by thinking of money, thro­ugh “quantum mechanics”). All of this makes you waste valuable time, money, atten­tion and resources on stuff that further impoverishes your life. Your spiritual beliefs simply make you vulnerable to crude ex­ploi­tation.

So you have a scale of class—understood in its widest sense—that is magn­ified by the growth of spiritual practices and self-improvement in soc­iety. Far from all people have a rich spiritual life, but in the minority who does adopt spiritual worldviews, class differences are increased.


At the top of this scale you find what I call integralists (after the follo­wers of Ken Wilber’s elaborate “integral spirituality”). These folks are the relatively privileged ones who adopt difficult and esoteric teachings and subtle body practices, and drill them arduo­usly for years—and who man­age to keep a scientific worldview (uhm, relatively) intact in the process. Their thinking and life experience are enriched and they develop greater exist­ential depth and higher subjective states, even to the point where they themselves can sell these services at favorable prices. They are enriched across the scale.


The middle segment we can call the yoga bourgeoisie. These might dabb­le in a little astrology and quick-fix “life-changing” courses and eat some silly supplements, but by and large they are still energized by their spiritual practices and are comfortable enough economically to do so with good conscience. They might believe in a little magic here and there, but they generally understand that they should keep such discussions to themselves and don’t spoil their professional lives in the process.


And then, on the low end of the scale, we have what I call the astrology precariat.[ii] Here the magic beliefs of desperate people result in a height­ened vulner­ability, which leads to a cruel commer­cial­ization of the hum­an soul.

In a capitalist society, made hyper-commercialized with the advent of the in­ter­net, disempowered people are made to believe in the worst ima­gin­able non­sense, and there really is no end to the venues of exploitation: conspi­racy theories, aliens, ghosts, past lives, heal­ing crystals, alter­natives to vaccine, Scientology, divination—the list goes on, and there is no end to the supply side and the inhuman cynicism with which it is tooted, pack­aged and sold.

But the hopes and aspirations of the astrology precariat are betrayed as no quick-fixes materialize beyond some initial placebo. And then you just spent the last year paying healers to help you when what you really needed was to get your life and finances more organized. And you end up even more desperate and gullible. People in the astrology precariat very often suffer from severe mental illness and distress—and often end up in psych­iatric care (psychiatrists can attest to the prevalence of people with bord­er­line syndrome who have been exploited by quacks and con artists).


It is tempting, from a classical Left perspective, to think spirituality and self-improvement are simply nonsense and offer no path towards dee­per equality. Yet I would hold that they, in fact, are keys to transforming soc­iety, even bey­ond equality, taking us closer to equivalence and equani­mity. How­ever, I would be wary of any attempt to center the trans­form­ation of soci­ety on spirituality and self-improvement alone. This would only lead to an exacerbation of inequality in its most profound and veno­mous sense.

Spirituality and inner self-improvement are heavy drugs; they are inde­ed a double-edged sword. Today, they have become a magnifying glass for in­eq­ual­ity and class stratification; tomorrow, inshallah, they can be­come uni­versal tools of em­pow­­er­ment, emancipation and universal sol­idarity.

Would it be so strange if, at the enigmatically silent depths of our hum­an (or posthuman) hearts and minds, we will find deeper equality?

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

[i]. At the top of postindustrial society you have groups emerging who are rich in all of these forms of capital put together. The Swedish philosophers Alex­ander Bard and Jan Söderqvist have suggested the new “masters of the internet” should be called netocrats. These are the small groups who are most proficient at benefitting from the World Wide Web and thus constantly gain an upper hand in the informational economy; not neces­sarily be­cause they have the best tech­nical skills, but because they under­stand the social and cultural logic of the internet most intimately. In The Listening Society I proposed that the growing triple-H populations (hackers, hip­s­ters and hippies) are gaining influence across the board and increasingly are becoming im­portant agents in the new economy. You might also call them the crea­tive class, with a broader, more est­ablished (and more scor­ned) term. Franco Berardi, of the Italian Marxist “autonomist” school, has suggested the term cognitariat—the class distinguished by its relation to abstract symbols.

At the bottom of postindustrial society you don’t really find a wide “proletariat” any longer. You find people who are just disenfranchised in a general manner; who are in an economically, socially and otherwise pre­car­ious situation. They are perhaps best denominated with a term made famous (but not invented) by the economist Guy Standing: the pre­cariat. However, on the low end of informational and cultural capital you also find a lot of people who are relatively economically comfortable, but never really get to participate meaningfully in the postindustrial soc­iety of social media spec­t­acles and exciting events. These growing groups are contin­uously redu­ced to a position of consuming the ideas, ima­ges and spectac­les produced by others, hence Bard and Söderqvist call them the consum­tariat.

Regarding the “regressive” voters of present-day USA (who voted for Donald Trump), there has been much discussion whether they constitute an economically disempowered segment of the population. Is this a revolt of the lower classes, or is it the bigotry of the privileged?

The answer is clear: They are not all economically poor, but they have lower cultural and informational capital than “progressive” voters. Trump voters largely belong to the consumtariat, the relative underclass of a post­industrial int­er­net society.

Hence it is clear that the class struggles of our day and age have already shifted. It’s not that financial capital and economic class no longer matter —it’s just that it’s no longer the only game in town and that other forms of class distinctions are growing in importance. Rightwing pop­ulists can help these groups take back the spectacle, the center stage of society—at least for a while—and thus reaffirming the sense of meaning and em­pow­erment that flows from it.

[ii]. The term “precariat” is discussed in the endnote above.

Equality, Equivalence, Equanimity: Towards Deeper Forms of Equality

What are the farther reaches of equality? How can the overall “cym­atics of equality” progress? What would a “deeper resonance” be like? The general idea would be that deeper equality is not only an issue of distri­bution, but also—and perhaps ultimately—a question of transformati­ons of the eye of the beholder. Inequality is always caused by an act of me­asur­ement, by a beholder who judges the beheld as inferior, be it our “self” or one another. The deepest forms of equality must resonate not only in soc­ial structures, but also in the hearts and minds of all partic­i­pant-observers.

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

Credit goes to the talented Berlin-based artist Sina Goge for the artwork used in the thumbnail picture.

There’s a clear link to ideas of quantum physics, entanglement and en­act­ment here: The “object” of inequality is non-local and interdepend­ent with the observer. But let’s not delve deeper into it at this point. It suffices to mention that the observer herself must be part of the equation of any deeper and more radical equality.

Instead, I would like to propose a simple stage model to address this issue. Not that the farther stages of equal­ity are any­where within reach in the present world, but just to understand where we might be heading long-term, insh­allah.


Equality, stage one, is the struggle to make people more equal, to even out the real, visceral differences between us: the rich and the poor, the pri­v­ileged and the underprivileged, the powerful and the dis­empow­ered, the enfranchised and the disenfranchised, the respected and the despised.

The six dimensions of equality all play into this struggle. There is an al­most infinite amount of work to be done as obviously unjust inequali­ties saturate every aspect of our lives. The greatest inequality is of course the global divide between rich and poor—and thus, this must be our first and fore­most focus.

In practical terms, we are so far from any form of global equality that we must also strive towards more local forms of equality; rela­tive equality within the borders of countries. This is in order to curb the des­truct­ive effects of inequality upon each society so that these may deve­lop in stable manners that serve the emergence of a transnat­ional, global order which is fairer and more adaptive than our current morass of global governance (or lack thereof).

We need to let some societies—nations, city hubs and local commu­nities—become nodes in the network that is the intermeshed trans­national, metamodern, world order. Of course, this cannot happen un­less people in these societies develop postmodern and metamodern val­ues, and that can only happen if there isn’t rampant inequality across all six dimen­sions.

Equality means making people more equal—in a sense, more alike. This is the classical understanding of equality within social­ism and all mod­ern ideologies. It is the kind of underlying assumption that still drives almost all the research into inequality—and all the practical policies to­wards the same end.


Equivalence goes deeper than that. It is the struggle for people to truly feel as equals, that we are of equal value or worth. After all, the very notion of equality is ridden with paradoxes. Ulti­mately, we cannot be equal since we are not alike. In fact, we are so very different from one another that even a theoretical state of “perfect equality of opportunity”, a perfect me­ritocracy, (and the even yet more impossible “equality of inform­ation”) would serve to highlight our differences and legitimize our inequa­lities.

Is there a way out of this paradox? There might be. What if equality could run so deeply that we genuinely feel as equals, in the sense that we are all world citizens and sentient beings? This is equivalence, the genu­ine sense of equal worth. Such an embodied sense would protect us not only from many exploitations and injustices, but also from many venues of self-blame and inferiority.

Such equivalence has already, to a certain extent, become reality thro­ugh one of the great modern projects: liberal democracy, in which we are equal before the law, cast equally valid votes and so forth. Equivalence is also, in extension, the utopian or spiritual goal of socialism.

Modernity holds that people are endowed with sacred and inviolable, natural rights—unfortun­ately yet to be extended to other animals—and as such endowed with some kind of basic dignity.[i] We are “all humans”, “all individual citizens of the state”, “all workers of the people’s republic”, and so forth.

But in reality, the disempowered, disenfranchised, disdained and emo­tionally impoverished find little solace in this “formal” or legal idea of equi­val­ence. It goes some way to make us feel like equals, but in pract­ice, we hardly feel like dignified equals of one another.

If there could be a deeper form of equivalence, one that is felt and em­bodied by many more of us, this would work against the paradoxes of equ­ality. If we genuinely felt the equal value of ourselves and others, many of the corrosive effects of inequality would certainly be mitigated. We could accept our differences and still feel as dignified equals.

Can we awaken in ourselves and one another a profound sense of dig­nity inherent to every human? This must be a goal that lies beyond for­mal, legal and material equality. Hence, equivalence is a higher stage than simple equality.


Equanimity goes deeper still. It is the spiritual and psychological strug­g­le to give up our deeply seated tendency to judge and evaluate our­selves and others in the first place. You could say it’s about tran­scending “the spectrum of judgment” (the scale of negative emotions) al­together, or to become less enthralled by the need to possess a com­paratively positive self-image—an ego.

I snatched the term from Buddhist teachings in which “equa­nimity” is practiced as a mental stance of accepting our mental and bodily states as well as our life situations and ongoing events. As such it is linked to high­er sub­jec­tive and spiritual inner states and can only be achieved in a soci­ety in which the average inner state is much higher and the social logics of everyday life are governed as little as possible by the underlying negative emotions of the spectrum of judg­ment.

Equanimity doesn’t mean that we give up discernment; we still need to evaluate the behaviors, ideas and efforts of one another. It just means there is a fundamental sense of “okay-ness”, of acceptance—that our diff­erences and inequalities no longer remain such a big deal.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that we no longer care about inequalities and injustices—which Buddhism is often accused of by the Left.

In practice, true equanimity would only be conceivable in a state of profound material, emotional, social and existential abundance. So it’s not really a conceivable goal for society anytime soon. It would be a society in which we obviously are not equals, but where that still—and strangely—is okay; where everyone “is okay”, where people are not only tolerated but acc­epted.

Acceptance, in this sense, is the negative side of love. When we love someone fully, it is not only that we cherish their strengths and potentials, but that we accept their weaknesses and struggles. Such love can be found in some of the best families and long-lasting marr­iages.

Dare we ask of our­selves, for the future of humanity, to aspire for such an accept­ance of all creatures under the sun? Here we return to the core of Christianity and other world religions. In a state of genuine non-hierar­chical non-judgment, our ineq­ua­lities can be treated more product­ively as differ­ences—and nothing more.

Of course, equanimity of this kind would mean the end of that para­doxical phan­tom still haunting us: envy. When we no longer judge our­selves, we are no longer obsessed with the strengths and weaknesses of one another. And what lies beyond a life of fear, guilt, shame and Sklaven­moral; beyond hatred, judgment, disdain and envy?

There it is again, waiting for us, the crazy Nietzschean moustache: the Über­mensch, the attractor point that draws us beyond the category of hum­anity and its limitations.

Perhaps, in the future, we can stumble upon it. Inshallah. And, as with freedom, we can begin to see that the higher goal of societal development is not so much to achieve “perfect equality”, but rather to render the very struggle for equality obsolete.

Equality, equivalence and equanimity—there is the progression, from leveling the unfair differences between us, to adopting a more profo­und sense of value for all, to letting go of our strange human ob­session with impossible comparisons, ultimately rendering equality itself obso­lete.

But if the latter two are so dis­tant, are they not merely a distraction from humanity’s struggle for a more realistic equality? They can be. Why, then, have I presented them here?

Because they can still show up momentarily, in limited settings, for shor­t­er periods of time, in small incubators within our personal relation­ships and some of the metamodern internet tribes out there. They might not stabilize or spread, but only flicker past us during our lives. But as such they can remind us of the deeper meaning of equal­ity, and thus subtly steer the dev­elopment of the world-system.

In such settings, where equanimity reigns, creativity must be held high­er than equality. The long­ing for equality must not get in the way of creat­ive processes that can help us achieve human flourishing in the first place. We must become lovers of the will to power—the power of our­selves and one another to create and to transcend.

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

[i]. In embryonic forms, this was alrea­dy the case within traditional religions such as Christianity and Buddh­ism. “We are all children of God with unique souls”, “We are all born into a perfect human rebirth”, etc.

Informational Inequality in a Nutshell

The sixth and last form of inequality is one we cannot miss in the Internet Age: informational inequality, the divide between the haves and have-nots of information and knowledge. There has been much written about the “digital div­ide” which privileges younger generations over older ones, digitized econ­omies with good broadband infrastructure over poor devel­oping countries, and so forth.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the final post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

The digital divide is, however, not always a straightforward issue of “inter­net access”. For instance, white US children spend on average 8.5 hours daily in front of a screen, while Hispanic and black children spend about 13 hours (wat­ching more TV, playing video games, social media etc.), with obvious negative effects upon physical and mental health as well as psycho-social development. The relationship to inform­ation and IT also reinforces inequalities.  Those stuck at the bottom of the “attentio­nalist econ­omy” are perpetually dist­racted from projects of self-empower­ment. The quality of their inform­ation flows and resulting world­views de­terio­rates, which feeds into economic and social capital: time is “wasted” and the ability to recognize emotional cues in facial ex­pression shrinks with ex­cessive screen-time. Too much screen-time also seems to increase the likeli­hood of developing ADHD, which in itself makes it diff­icult for you to economize that cardinal resource: your atte­ntion.[i]

At a more fundamental level, access to useful and reliable information is one of the greatest consequences of economic inequality. Financially strong actors will know the markets, prices, tax evasion strategies and so forth to a much greater extent than the weaker ones.

The well-positioned can buy expertise and process much larger flows of information, which plays out against the weak in favor of the strong. In its most salient form, this is true of the large internet com­panies, who own and manage vast quantities of personal informa­tion about people—incre­asingly knowing not only the markets, but the beha­viors of citizens and consumers, often much better than we know ourselves. Tinder can have literally 800 pages worth of very sen­sitive personal information if you’ve been on it for a few years.

Hence, informational inequality works through many different mech­an­isms. One such mechanism revolves around the powers of producers and large companies over consumers, with the latter by necessity having lesser access to relevant information, thus being easily manipulated in a myriad of ways.

And this dissymmetry of informational access plays out in a corres­pon­ding manner within the political arena as wealthy groups gain dispropor­tionally large political influence and misuse state institutions to pro­tect their interests, shaping media landscapes and curtailing the trans­parency of decision-making and bureaucracies.

And beyond that you have the general pattern that some people thrive in the information age, being able to critically evaluate and access vast am­ounts of information and creating vibrant networks of highly skilled coop­erators, whereas the less complex thinkers and less tech­nically apt fall prey to fake news, misinformation and waste their attention, time and money on things that don’t accumulate good results in their lives. This mechanism exacerbates the other forms of inequality, where the less edu­cated and more emotionally desperate are more easily exploited.

It is difficult to see how this rampant informational inequality can be curbed, but it certainly plays a part through its interactions with the other forms. We could imagine a future where internet access is readily avail­able and free around the globe and where basic education would equip us with at least some basic informational savvy, networking skills and critical judg­ment. We may also envision the growth of transnationally enforced infor­m­ational rights of world citizens.

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

[i]. Rideout, V. J, Foehr, U. G., Roberts, D. F., 2010. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” Kaiser Family Foundation.

About deteriorating emotional intelligence, see: Yalda, T. U. et al., 2014. Five Days at Outdoor Education Camp Without Screens Improves Preteen Skills with Non­verbal Emotion Cues. Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 30, pp. 387-92.

About ADHD, see: Swing, E. L, et al, 2010. Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems. Pediatrics, vol. 126:2, pp. 214-21.

Ecological Inequality in a Nutshell

Ecological inequality includes such things as access to fresh air, clean water, lush vegetation, beautiful scenery, healthy and non-toxic food, clean living spaces—even sunlight. In many large Chinese cities, a lot of people hardly see the sun, and millions die as a result of air pollu­tion. Many people around the world work in noisy, physically dan­gerous, dirty and toxic en­vironments, like children in West Africa working on huge piles of waste from electronics, slowly poisoning themselves to re­trie­ve valuable metals and minerals. The brunt of harm caused by environmen­tal de­gradation is carried very unevenly by popul­ations. You see this in every­thing from poor climate migrants, to subsist­ence farming dam­aged by glo­bal warming, to cognitive growth stunted cau­sed by pois­oned water­ways.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the fifth post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

Of course, this kind of inequality is closely tied to the global economic order. The rich can choose to live in nicer and cleaner envir­on­ments, buy heathier products, go on hikes or health resorts, and so on. This, natu­rally, translates into other stratifications, such as race and ethnicity; for instance, in the US, in California, it has been shown that blacks and Lati­nos on average breathe in 40% more air pollution than whites—which naturally affects physiological equality and thus all the rest of it.[i]

And the rich parts of the world generally transpose the most environ­mentally destructive production processes and industries to the poorer parts. Citizens living in poor areas of urban India have fewer choi­ces in terms of healthy food and environments. This of course in turn affects all other aspects of inequality: economic, social, phy­siological and emotional.

Even if the expansion of “rights” is far from always the best and most practical way of protecting people’s interests, we should at least discuss the possibility of introducing ecological rights of citizens and/or commu­nities. Rights can lead to rather rigid forms of governance and they are difficult to relate to in terms of cost/benefit analysis, but some­thing along these lines may offer productive venues for future global poli­cies.

As it is relatively easy to see and understand this aspect of inequality, I will not dwell further upon it; suffice to say it is a crucial part of equa­lity, that it is an issue that divides the rich world from the poor, and that it interacts with differences of socio-economic class. And even if a new glo­bal order is needed for this to be seriously addressed, there is of course much that can be done at the local level.

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

[i]. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2019. “Air Pollution from Vehicles in California”. Downloaded from www.ucsusa.org on Feb 22nd 2019.

Emotional Inequality in a Nutshell

It has been shown in a growing body of recent research that social exclu­sion and rejection activate similar patterns in the brain as physical pain. Social exclusion is like a slap in your face. This is a real thing: You sub­ject someone even to a small slight or rejec­tion, and not only do they exp­er­ience pain, they also become more vul­nerable to such pain in the future, and their emotional state is pushed towards vengefulness and envy—even increasing the propensity towards physical aggression.[i]

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the fourth post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

If we zoom in yet another step on the intimate and embodied pro­cesses of inequality, we find that human lives are lived in profoundly un­equal emo­tional surroundings.

Some of us wake up relatively carefree many mornings and experience positive rewards as the results of our actions, while others live out their lives in considerably more painful and impov­erished inner land­scapes. This is a form of inequality: emotional inequality.

And, as the network sociologists Fowler and Christakis have fam­ously shown, such emotions are collective goods, as for instance happ­iness and life satisfaction cluster in networks of peo­ple.[ii] If your friend is happ­ier, so are you more likely to be.

This is probably because of different mechanisms: that happy people make others happier, that people who are doing better generally are hap­pier and have the luxury of choos­ing friends and partners who are also doing well (while subtly excluding the less fortunate), and that other life factors make people clus­ter together into happy and unhappy seg­ments of soc­iety.

In The Listening Society, I labored to show that people—and other living creat­u­res—are in different subjective “states” at every moment of our lives. To be alive is to feel like something: stable wellbeing, or nagging discomfort, or nightmarish valleys, or even spiritual and blissful heights of subjective exp­erience. Such states are very volatile; they can change from moment to moment, but some people certainly live in higher states than others.

The totality of our experience is never quite “neutral”. Imagine the great difference, in terms of real-life outcomes, between people who live their lives in lower states and people who live in higher ones.

Would such emotional workings not be the very foundation of equa­lity and inequality? Is not the aim of all struggles for equality, after all, to guarantee that people can live rich and wonderful inner lives, rather than impoverished and suffocating ones?

What could be a greater priv­ilege than having a fundamental sense of “okay-ness”, even a sense of meaning, enchantment and wonder, through­out one’s life? And what could be a greater injustice done to us than hav­ing our lives filled with embitterment, resentment, self-hatred—or even sheer existential terror?

I also argued in The Listening Society that “subjective states” are more fundamen­tal than emotions. But this, of course, doesn’t mean emotions don’t mat­ter. In an earlier post I argued that freedom is always related to emotions, consciously felt or lying dormant in the back­ground but still steering our everyday actions and interactions. Society, in this view, is a vast, inter­connected fabric of suffering and bliss, pulsating and reverbe­rating with multitudes upon multitudes of lived experiences. Can this fabric be con­sciously and actively developed? Yes, it can.[iii]

It is the goal of political metamodernism to extend compassion, or at least solidarity, to this whole fabric of hurt and bliss, to society in its com­plex entirety, to the co-emergent inner worlds of countless millions.

Let’s take a look at how emotions are unevenly and unfairly distributed among human organisms (and non-human animals). If a person is happ­ier and more energetic, this plays out in every aspect of her life. The happy person has an easier time getting things done since the reward feed­back loops are more functional. This means she will be able to produce better results for herself as well as others, which means she will be more respec­ted and gain greater recognition, attain a better self-image and there­­by boosting her sense of meaning and happiness.

Conversely, the sad and depressed person doesn’t get emotional re­w­ards for perfor­ming tasks, which wrecks the positive behavioral feed­back loops. In fact, she gets emotional punishment for most of the things she does, which makes it so much harder to make an effort to change her situ­ation.

This very easily leads to anxiety, fear, shame, embarrassment and self-hatred—which paralyzes her and makes her strivings seem futile. And she is less fun to be around, which in turn makes her lonelier.

These proposed mechanisms are of course simplifications, but they are firmly established in behavioral science. You also have lots of folks who are very active and productive but still struggle with feelings of anxiety and lacking meaning; consider the many empty treadmills that bourgeois life can put us through.

But the point is that emotional hurt and lower states do have great costs over a lifespan. It has been shown, for instance, that bad parenting can knock 20 years off your life expectancy.[iv]

Here’s another example. In an influential 2013 book called Scarcity, the behavioral economists Mullainathan and Shafir presented ample evi­dence of a “scarcity mindset”. Poverty taxes cognitive resources and caus­­es self-con­trol failure. We literally become dumber and make more short-sighted decisions when we are poor or under economic stress: we eat less healthy, invest less intelligently and we even score lower on IQ tests. When we feel like crap, we get stuck in a scarcity mindset. This is a form of emotional inequality.

On the flipside, you can see how affluent popul­ations tend to develop higher value memes and post­materialist (non-con­sumerist, environment­alist, etc.) values over time, as has been the case in e.g. the Nordic coun­tries. You feel good, you space out, you have the time to contemplate life, and so forth.

There is good reason to believe this prin­ciple of a scarcity mindset ex­tends well beyond economic decision-making and that it is equally valid in other areas of life: love, dating (where dating coaches also warn of a dest­ructive scar­city mindset, using the exact same term), social recog­ni­tion, mak­ing one’s opinions and values heard, and so forth. So inequal­ity of any kind likely produces emotions and general mindsets that steer our many dec­isions and hence our lives. Inner states and emotions are at the center of how in­equality is reproduced across all of its dimensions.

Our streams of thought, our very streams of consciousness, look very different from each other, often steered by emotions. How evenly is sha­me distributed in the population? What about fear and self-hatred? Frust­ration and bitterness?

Even if all of us exper­ience these emotions, there are large segments of the population whose very lives are run by these. And how many of us get to feel satisfied, proud and stimulated on a daily basis? And when the insecure, the nervous and the grief-stricken encounter the laid-back, the com­fortable, the happy—what are all other, more superficial, forms of equality ultimately worth? How much easier is it not to dominate, exploit and manipulate the emo­tionally impoverished? On the other hand, what is more empow­er­ing than peace of mind? More empowering than a heart in love with life itself?

Whereas all of these emotions of course emerge in larger contexts, in our living conditions and social-psychological circumstances as well as in our personal biological and genetic constitutions, it is not impossible to directly influence and steer the emotional development of human beings.

Even if our emotions are products of economic, social and physio­log­ical inequal­ities, there are, roughly speaking, two forms of services that can be offered: 1) the elic­iting and boosting of positive emotions and 2) the support towards succ­essfully coping with, integrating and transmu­ting negative emotions.

In a listening society, the deeper welfare of the future, we can and should create institutions and structures that work against emotional in­equality—not, of course, by making the happy miserable to even out the playing field, but by strengthening our psyches so as to deal with diffi­cult emotions. We should offer good emotional sup­p­ort, training and ser­vi­ces to all citizens from the day they are born until their dying breath. If you care about the real, fundamental equality and dignity of humans, no other conclusion is possible or justi­fiable.

Some of the possible political measures that have been mentioned abo­ve, under social and physiological inequality, feed into the struggle for emo­tional equality. For instance, again, we can affect emotions by dev­elo­ping body postures and body language, by training social and emotional intell­igence, by making sure good meditation practices are taught, and by making healthy food more available—for instance, intake of vegetables has been shown to protect against depression, as has phy­sical exercise.

But emotions can be targeted even more directly. For example, all chil­dren could be offered simple forms of counseling during their school years, which would help many of them from being taken over by destruc­tive emotions during their early lives and onwards. Schools could use ex­ercises of “posi­tive psychology”, and the general framework of schooling could be desig­n­ed to elicit more positive emotions. We could have greater poss­ibilities for adults to take a year off and work on their emo­tional issues and con­cerns, with places of rest and recluse. And people could be trained to bet­ter man­age conflicts and rejections, which severely affect our emo­tional wellbeing and development. At the national level, we could start measur­ing the pre­valence of different emotions and present public stat­istics to guide public discourse.

The issue here is not to pan out all the solutions—thousands are poss­ible, with so many social technologies that must be inven­ted, implemen­ted, evaluated and refined; and the sky is the limit. The issue here is only to raise awareness of the question of emotional ineq­uality so that the poli­tical discussion can begin, and so that it can enter the poli­tical agenda.

Even if all emotions are, in some cosmic last instance, “okay”, we really shouldn’t wish for ourselves or our fellow citizens to be trapped by fear, shame, guilt, aggression and envy. Such emotions exacerbate inequalities and suffering in more ways than we could hope to name or think of.

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

[i]. Weir, K., 2012. “The Pain of Social Rejection”. American Psychological Asso­ci­ation: Monitor of Psychology, vol. 43(4).

[ii]. See Fowler, J. H., Christakis, N. A., 2008. Dynamic spread of happ­iness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Fra­mingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal—a study in which 4739 individuals were followed from 1983 to 2003.

[iii]. An important aspect of this—which I leave out in this discussion—has to do with using technology to develop the states of human beings. Consider the following quote from a report on an “Effective Altruism” event in San Francisco:

“I got to talk to people from the Qualia Research Institute, who point out that everyone else is missing something big: the hedonic treadmill. People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is—unpack what we’re looking for when we des­cribe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others—and then add that on to every other mental state directly. This isn’t quite the dreaded wire­heading, the widely-feared technology that will make everyone so doped up on techno-super-heroin (or direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers) that they never do anything else. It’s a rewiring of the brain that creates a ‘perpetual but varied bliss’ that ‘reengineers the network of transition probabilities between emotions’ while retaining the capability to do economically useful work.”

See: Alexander, S., 2017. “Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017”, published online 16th of August at Slate Star Codex. (www.slatestarcodex.com)

[iv]. There is even a documentary film, produced by James Redford, Resilience (2017) which lays all of this out in detail.

Physiological Inequality in a Nutshell

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

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the third post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Inequality in a Nutshell

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

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the second post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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