Why Spiritual Communities Turn Into Cults

The purpose of this post is to issue a word of warning. There are comm­unities with the express purpose of bringing people to higher subjective states: spirit­ual communities. I am not primarily thinking of the medieval monastic trad­itions (to which we return in the next book, when we dis­cuss “exist­ential politics”). Monastic life also had many other roles, and such a central place in European society, that it was far from a purely spiritual congregation. The closest thing to truly contemplative comm­unities has historically been the Buddhist monasteries and the Vedic yoga traditions, although these too have had many other societal roles to play.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on higher subjective states called “Reaching Higher”; a chapter that discusses the nature of high psychological states of positive emotions.

“A striking pattern in these communities is the prevalence of abuses of power – financial or sexual exploitation, physical and emotional violence, clear uses of brainwashing strategies, con-artist yogi miracle-makers, or at the very least false claims and endless intrigues and lawsuits.”

In its pure form, however, I would claim that spiritual con­gregation is actually a modern phenomenon, showing up in the 19th and 20th cen­tur­ies – where people freely devote themselves to a guru, master or teacher who is believed to be enlightened. You may have come across one or more such spirit­ual commun­ities, often populated by hippies and New Age ideas (or New Thought, or variations of theosophy, or contemporary inter­­­­pretations of East­ern tradi­tions, or mysticism from any religion).

A striking pattern in these communities is the prevalence of abuses of power – financial or sexual exploitation, physical and emotional violence (some­­times even directed outside of the community), clear uses of brain­washing strategies, con-artist yogi miracle-makers, or at the very least false claims and endless intrigues and lawsuits. Looking at teachers like Sri Auro­bindo, Osho, Adi Da (Da Free John), Andrew Cohen, Amma (“the hugging mother”) and Chögyam Trungpa – even Jiddu Krishnamurti, who didn’t even found any organization – their comm­unities have all dev­olved into abusive or at least commercialized and dysfunctional rela­tion­ships. Whereas some of these nasty stories may perhaps be expl­ain­ed by deliberate manipulations on behalf of the teachers, the freq­ue­ncy with which these communities show cult-like and deeply oppress­ive tend­encies must have a more general, socio­logical and structural explanation.

My take on such an explanation is this. Whenever a community is built, there is a hier­archy. Hierarchies of some kind are necessary for peo­ple to successfully cooperate, evaluate the efforts of one another: who puts in the most effort, who is reliable, and so forth. Spiritual commun­ities like these are built primarily around a hierarchy of “subjective state”. The leader is taken to be one of higher subjective state than other mem­bers of the community, which is why people want to follow him or her. To advance within this hierarchy, one should also be able to rest for longer periods in higher subjective states.

”In spiritual communities, social pressure arises to present oneself as being in as high states as possible. So people begin to subtly lie to themselves and to one another about how lightly and profoundly they experience the world at any given moment. ”

The Fallacy of Turning Subjective States into Social Hirarchies

The main problem is that subjective state is not something that can easily be measured, and that it changes from moment to moment. Scien­tific results, athletic achievements, even a dollar bottom line – all these are things that can be intersubjectively confirmed or falsified, which means that you can relatively easily see who is a qualified scientist, athlete or business­woman. The spiritual commun­ities build a social hierarchy upon something that can only be personally experi­enced and imagined. Sure, for a brief mom­ent you can check some­one’s brainwaves with the right equipment, but then again, you never know if someone’s subjective state is quite what they say it is, and you can’t measure it all the time. You try to build an inter­subjective comm­unity upon a subjective thing. It’s a just a no-go. It’s an illogically con­structed social structure, and this poor const­ruction leads to some very bad social con­sequ­en­­ces.

It’s often not even easy to recognize what subjective state we are in our­selves; it often takes great effort just to notice. Ever heard a person shouting about how they’re “not angry”? This is just one example out of many of when we fail to recognize an obvious inner state or emotion within ourselves. If each person can hardly know her own state, how can we be expected to build a reliable community upon not only our own state, but the states of a whole group of people?

In spiritual communities, social pressure arises to present one­self as being in as high states as possible (both by personal prestige and because people want to hear that you are doing well in order to validate the spirit­ual enter­prise as a whole). So people begin to subtly lie to themselves and to one anoth­er about how lightly and profoundly they experience the world at any given moment. Ever noticed that strange hysterical happ­i­ness that sect people display? That’s what I’m talking about: they insist upon displaying behaviors that indicate high inner states; hence that stran­ge stare. This applies not least to the guru: if he or she is in a bad mood, the students will still interpret them as acting from a very high state.

So there is a social-psych­ological “spin” on the whole thing, making peo­­ple pretend to be something they’re not. This becomes a closely guard­ed, dirty secret for almost everyone and people are likely to react quite aggress­ively when­ever it risks surfacing. This is a central reason for why they turn so oppressive and aggressive when the image of harmony is challenged by all the conflicts and issues that necessarily show up in any community.

And all of this is aggravated by the fact that subjective states are deeply personal and emotional phenomena. If a community is built around achiev­ing higher subjective states, it must by necessity involve people sharing a lot of their inner lives. This leaves little or no personal sphere, no hiding away – which means that people get closely tied up to one another in situations that are full of smoke-screens, lies and self-deceit. It couldn’t get much more veno­mous.

”Uncritical praise of people in high subjective states is a recipe for being ruled and fooled, for being abused and for very sudden and disappointing dissolutions of formerly very tightly knit communities. ”

High Spiritual States Doesn’t Necessarily Make You Smart

But the troubles don’t stop there. Traditional monasteries of earlier centur­ies were not purely spiritual communities; they were also, perhaps primarily, built around work, theo­logy, philosophy and so on. Thus hier­archies could be constructed around things that people could relate to and evaluate inter­subject­ively. Modern spiritual communes are different. If you build a comm­un­­ity around the idea that “this guy”, let’s say the US guru Adi Da, is “enligh­tened”, not only can you never get any proof of it, but you overlook all of the other devel­opmental dimensions.

In other words, even if your guru really does frequent high subjective states; he or she can still be low MHC stage (for an introduction to Hirarchical Complexity, read this post), work from defunct cultural codes, and have all manner of psychological issues and problems.

Just listen to a person like Eckhart Tolle, the author of the book The Power of Now, who has been featured on Oprah Winfrey and gained great traction. He obviously has high states. But his answers on any social or societal issues, and the theories propounded in his books, are of average complexity (MHC stage 11 Formal, more precisely). He just doesn’t have the answers. Which is okay. The only problem is that he makes all sorts of analyses of society, from politics to mental health to gender and sexual­ity – and many people listen. It should be made perfectly clear that this man, while being both kind and wise, is poorly educated and, truth be told, not very clever. Nothing wrong with it, but it should be recognized.

The same goes for pretty much all the gurus. They have high state perspec­tives – the ones that are authentic gurus, that is – but they mistake these exist­en­tial perspectives for authority on all sorts of other issues. As do their foll­ow­ers.

An issue that we haven’t really ventured to discuss here, but that should also briefly be mentioned, is high state pathologies. Low state path­ologies are pretty obvious – you feel like utter crap and this can make you dysfunct­ional, make you have destructive behaviors and want to lash out against the world. But higher states can also bring all sorts of complic­ations. If you, for instance, suddenly feel extremely enlarged and filled with cosmic love, this can easily translate to grandiose ideas about your­self and your place in the world. To megalomania and unsustainable opti­m­­ism. And in moments where you feel that everything is intimately inter­connect­ed and that all things are one, you are also likely to draw rather quest­ionable conclusions about how things are causally inter­related. It has even been shown that people who have just done mind­fulness are more like­ly to have imagined and false memories and that they are somewhat more gull­ible. For all the good things I have to say about high states, I can hardly overemphasize just how seductive and danger­ous they are. In my book The Listening Society I discuss the dang­ers of magic beliefs – as these show up in a lot of high state people.

Uncritical praise of people in high subjective states is a recipe for being ruled and fooled, for being abused and for very sudden and disappointing dis­sol­utions of form­erly very tightly knit communities. This is true even if some of the gurus turn out to be nice (which seems to be the case with only a min­or­ity of them, e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Rupert Spira, and perhaps the Jamaican guru Mooji) – indeed, even if they turn out to be intelligent as well (like Shinzen Young). But nice and intelligent teachers don’t make the struct­ur­al issues I brought up go away: you simply can’t build a good community with hierar­chies derived from subjective states. It doesn’t make sense. Bec­au­se, mon ami, commun­ities and their hierarchies are inter­subjective and relat­ive­ly dur­able structures; inner states are sub­jective and very transient.

”A possible antidote to this social-psychological malady might be to democratize spirituality; to make it more participatory, transparent and based on measurable results.”

Spirituality. Yes. But Let’s Make it More Well-informed and Democratic

This is not to say that all spiritual communities are a bad thing. Indeed, the places in which people make a common, concentrated and guided effort to develop higher states often have positive effects on people’s lives – and that may positively affect other aspects of society. It’s just that the endeavor comes with certain risks that have to do with the social-psychological territory; and these risks are pretty big, like all communities which elicit very deep commitment and fervor.

A possible antidote to this social-psychological malady might be to demo­cratize spirituality; to make it more participatory, transparent and based on measurable results. Such attempts are being made in and around the Burning Man festival culture, and notably in the Syntheist (“religious atheist”) move­ment which recently emerged in Stockholm – and some interesting pro­spects along these lines have been brought up by public intellectuals like Sam Harris (in his 2014 book Waking Up, Harris, a renowned critic of all things religious, makes his case for a scientifically supported exploration of spirit­uality). However, these are difficult matt­ers; thus far, almost all spiritual com­m­­unities have taken a long walk down Cult Avenue, so it is quite pro­bable that these movements will do likewise. We’ll see.

To conclude: Yes, the subjective state of organisms is the most impor­tant thing in the world, and yes, it should therefore be made a central goal of society. And yes, it has great significance for the overall development of people and societies. But no, having higher state does not give you all the answers. And no, we should not build a society that creates hierarchies based upon vague and unverifiable phenomena such as subjective state. And YES, more research is needed.

But we must try to optimize subjective states, as a society as well as single organisms. We are all always-already in some kind of subjective state. It is an inescapable, merciless fact that the universe has us eternally by the balls.

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.

What Is The Model of Hierarchical Complexity?

The theory that is today the Model of Hierarchical Complexity was first pres­ented by Michael Lamport Commons and Francis Asbury Richards in the early 1980s. It builds directly upon the Piagetian model and the work of Kohlberg and can be consider­ed as neo-Piagetian (although some call it “post-Piagetian”), bec­ause it large­ly suppo­ses that the Piagetian model (with cogni­tive stages) is corr­ect, but that there are sev­eral stages above what a normal human adult achieves, high­er stages that only a minority of the adult popula­tion reach. According to the neo-Piagetians the study of these stages can ex­plain a lot about humanity and society.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on cognitive development; a chapter that introduces the reader to the Model of Hierarchical complexity and the creator of this theory Michael Commons.

Commons first formulated the theory after having taken a year off from work to study mathematics, where the language of abstract algebra helped him to describe the formal relationships between the different stages.

Once this formal relationship was in place, the different stages could be described with generalizable orders of complexity. The order of complex­ity is the complexity of a certain task (such as getting three green balls, a task in which you must coordinate the shape, number and color with the verb “get” – this is stage 5, Sentential, in the model below). The MHC research program is based on task analysis and is thereby depen­dent on the inventions of tasks and dilemmas to test people – it is a branch of experimental psychology. But once you know the stages well enough, you begin to be able to understand at which stage people operate when they do things in everyday life as well (and, yes, you also begin to be able to see which stages your fellow researchers operate at and what order of com­plex­ity their work is).

All the other theorists had built their theories by observing the devel­op­­ment of children or adults. Com­m­ons and Richards mapped the stages math­ematically – and then found that the data mapped their theory much more elegantly and precisely than any of the other theories. Besides, you could use the same models for animals. Clearly, they were on to some­thing important.

Initially, Commons and Richards themselves failed to see the wider impli­cations of their theory. They had primarily devised it as a response to critic­ism of Kohlberg, as some scholars did not believe in there being higher stages than what a normal adult human being reaches at ages 11-14 (the formal-operational stage). But Commons and Richards’ model, in all its reductionist crudeness, took on a life of its own, and impressive results started appearing: people – and their behaviors – mapped onto the diff­erent stages with an almost frightening prec­ision and consistency.

I am not going to discuss the evolution of the model, but just skip to the la­test version of it, now in 2017. The model covers everything from germs and amoeba right up to Einstein. But it does not, as we will see, descr­­ibe exist­ential depth, i.e. it doesn’t account for the Buddha or Kierke­gaard.

The Stages of the MHC

So – sixteen stages, let’s go baby (we’ll revisit the four most relevant ones, stages 10-13, in the next chapter; in this list I have underlined them):

0. Calculatory Stage (molecules)

  • Can distinguish between 0 and 1 (something versus no­thing), much like a digital computer.
  • Can only react to stimuli without any distinguishing for strength of react­ion; “organisms at the edge of life”, like DNA itself.
  • Humans pass this stage long before we are born; indeed, before we are even conceived.

1. Automatic Stage (cells)

  • Can react to stimuli depending on different quantities, but only by automatic response and never through learning.
  • No coordination of different stimuli, there is just a single stimulus-response.
  • Single cell organisms; humans pass the stage before we are born.

2. Sensory or Motor Stage (amoeba)

  • Can react in different ways to different stimuli, and can co­ordi­n­ate two stimuli responses (but not invent new respon­ses). Move body parts.
  • For instance a leech, if you both shine on it with a lamp and shock it with electricity several times, you can get it to respond to just the lamp as if there was an electric shock.
  • Amoeba, slugs, mollusks, early human fetus.

3. Circular Sensory-Motor Stage (insect, fish, newborn human)

  • Can reach, touch, grab, shake objects, babble, make single sou­nds (phonemes).
  • Can move body parts after having perceived objects and can recog­nize things.
  • Most predatory fish, insects, newborn humans. (Note that cogn­itive stage can be the same even if brain size, cogni­tive speed and perhaps the degree of “sentience” vary greatly. Counter-intuitive but true!)

4. Sensory-Motor Stage (rat, small baby)

  • Can do a series of movements that are calibrated after one an­other and build upon one another to achieve something.
  • This includes putting several sounds together so that you can form a morpheme, at least in the language-prone spec­ies of hum­ans (you can use combinations of sounds to “ex­press something” but not yet use a full word consistently).
  • Rats, young baby humans.

5. Nominal Stage (pigeon, one-year-old toddlers)

  • Can find relations among concept and make them into words: single words, exclamations, knowing the meaning of a word. “Nom­inal” because you can name stuff.
  • Can begin to understand what other organisms “mean”.
  • Laboratory pigeons, one-year-old toddlers.

6. Sentential Stage (two/three years old)

  • Can put words together into sentences, and see a series of simple tasks that need to be coord­inated, imitate a sequ­ence.
  • This allows for the use of pronouns like I, mine, you, yours it, etc.—these being more abstract than names of things.
  • Parrots (as famously described by Irene Pepperberg; train­ed parr­ots can go up to this stage), cats, toddlers around two to three.

7. Pre-Operational Stage (three to five year olds)

  • Can make simple deductions (but not spot contradictions), follow lists of sequential acts, and tell short stories (by coord­inating sev­eral sent­ences).
  • Can use connectives (in humans): if, then, as, when, etc. Puts toge­­ther several sentences into a “paragraph”.
  • Dogs and small children, three to five years old.

8. Primary Stage (five to seven years old)

  • Can do logical deduction and use empirical rules; adds, sub­tracts, divides, multiplies, proves, does series of tasks on its own.
  • Can relate to times, places, can count acts and relate to separate actors. Can construct relatively coherent narra­ti­ves (“groups of para­graphs”); these create accounts and ideas about what’s going on.
  • Chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys; in humans, five to sev­en year olds.

9. Concrete Stage (seven to eleven)

  • Can do long division, follow complex social rules, takes on roles and coordinates self with others.
  • Can create meaningful, concrete stories and keep the same story intact and consequential over time. Puts together groups of para­gra­phs into a story. Can thus keep track of inter­relations (which is the best tool, and how would you test it, etc.), social events, what happ­ened among others, reasonable deals, history, geography.
  • Normal in humans at ages seven to eleven, but also a signi­ficant portion of the adult population. In the famous bonobo chim­pan­zee stud­ies of Frans de Waal, there are ex­amples of concrete stage behav­iors, such as testing sev­eral tools to determine which is the best one.

10. Abstract Stage (ages eleven to fourteen)

  • Can form abstract ideas and thoughts: single, generalized varia­bles that fall beyond the concrete sequences of events in a story—can make and quantify abstract propositions.
  • Relates to categories and uses “cases of events” to incre­mentally im­prove the understanding of these categories.
  • Humans eleven and older, a significant part of the adult pop­­ulation, about 30%. No known non-human animals.

11. Formal Stage (ages fourteen to eighteen, if at all)

  • Can identify relations between abstract variables and re­flect upon these relations, devise ways to test them, etc. Solves problems using algebra with one unknown, uses logic and empiricism.
  • Can speak a full, rich language with self-reflection, uses logical seq­uen­ces of connectives: if this, then that, in all cases.
  • Fourteen years and onwards. The most common stage in adult hum­an beings, about 40% of the adult population—only a mino­rity go bey­ond this stage.

12. Systematic Stage (eighteen and above, if at all)

  • Can identify patterns among linear relationships, thus for­m­­ing syst­ems of relations among abstract variables and how these inter­act. Can thereby also solve equations with sev­eral unknowns. The first “post­formal” stage, i.e. it was not described by Piaget, but imp­licated in Kohl­berg’s work.
  • Begins to discuss legal systems, social structures, eco­systems, eco­n­o­mic systems and the like.
  • Can ­be found in about 20% of adult humans, usually after age eight­een.

13. Metasystematic Stage (early twenties and above, if at all)

  • Can compare and synthesize several systems with differing logics, put together “metasystems” or conclusions that hold true across diff­er­ent system, reflect upon and name general proper­ties of syst­ems.
  • Understands that things can be “homomorphic”, “isomor­ph­ic”, etc. This means that you can see how one system can be changed in corr­espond­ing or differing ways to an­other system.
  • Can be found in about 1.5% of the adult population, usu­ally only after early twenties.

14. Paradigmatic Stage (mid-twenties and above, if at all)

  • Can deal with several very abstract metasystems to cre­ate new ways of thinking of the world, new paradigms, new sciences or bran­ch­es within sciences.
  • Has a fractal way of thinking, so that the universal princ­iples found are applicable to many different levels of analysis and ph­enomena.
  • Prevalence unknown, but if the pattern holds and every stage seems to increase with about a standard deviation, it should be a little more than one adult in a thous­and in a normal population, mostly at ages 25+. This makes it rare, but still some three million people in the wor­ld (one thou­sandth of the functional adults above 25). Although the stage is theo­re­tically formulated, there is no reliable test for it.

15. Crossparadigmatic Stage (late twenties and above, if at all)

  • Can deal with several paradigms to create new fields.
  • Examples are: Newton’s reformulation of physics, Dar­win’s the­ory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the invention of quant­um physics, the invention of chaos ma­th­e­matics and com­plexity, the invention of computing, the invention of postmodern philosophy, the invention of the holistic “integral theory” of Ken Wilber, the inven­tion of string theory, the invention of the MHC theory.
  • Prevalence unknown, found only in adults older than twen­ty and who have privileged circumstances. It most often shows up ar­ound 30. No reliable test for this stage.

What you get here is a model of cognitive complexity that places hum­ans and other animals on the same scale. This kind of thinking leads us towards quest­ioning some of the “speciesist” assumptions of our day and age: that there would be anything “special” about humans.

Admittedly, there are some things unique to humans, such as our pro­pen­­sity for language use – which appears to be a certain genetic property; in 2009, researchers transplanted such genes to mice and heard them make more intere­sting squeaks. This is also in line with what Noam Chomsky’s lin­guistic theory would suggest; that we should view lang­uage as a biological pro­perty of hum­ans.

Commons’ theory naturally focus­es on language (words, sentences, in­crea­singly complex grammar, narratives, concepts…) because it is mostly used to study humans. But the MHC stages or “orders of complex­ity” are per­fectly possible to describe in non-linguistic terms, such as abstract alge­­bra, which is what Commons initially did. So even animals that don’t speak (like the pig­eon at stage 5 Nominal) can display behaviors at equal or higher orders of complexity than e.g. young hum­an chi­ldren, even if kids talk and pigeons don’t. Speech is a useful tool when it comes to accomplishing complex tasks, but it is not in itself necessary for cognitive complexity (or sentience, for that matter: having subjective experience, feelings, etc.). This should insulate us against ling­uistically based species­ism, where humanity’s “special­ness” is legitimized by the fact that we have language use.

Before we go on, let’s just note again that cognitive stage according to MHC is not a moral order – we have noticed for instance that human new­borns can be described at the same stage as an insect (stage 3 Circular Sensory-Motor), but we’d hardly ascribe the same moral value to the two. Moreover, you can see variations of MHC stage in animals of the same species. This goes for newly born cubs ver­sus fully developed adult dogs, as well as indiv­idual differences where some dogs out-stage their fellow canines. Irene Pepp­er­berg’s parrot was trained, after years of hard work, to go up one stage from 5 Nom­inal – where it could get a ball (out of several options, with cubes, rings, etc.) in order to claim a reward – to 6 Sentential, where it could get “two yellow balls”, etc. The parrot just had to think for a very long time to fig­ure it out, its brain being much smaller than a human one. This means that a human at the same stage, but having a far “higher IQ”, would reach the same conclusion as the parrot, just at a much faster pace.

So we are not taking anything away from the fact that members of two diff­­erent species, who are at the same stage, can still be very different from one another. Just consider the fact that some species have mate selection by means of bloody tournaments, like baboons (and a relatively short-lived rock n’ roll lifestyle alpha male gets all the punani and offspring, be­fore he is violently dethroned), and others through pair-bonding, like bonobo chimps (most of the population procreates and guys help out with the kids) – with humans being somewhere in between, judging from our phy­siological traits such as moderately larger males than females and med­ium sperm com­petition (as implied by testicle size, and, uhm, I guess by our sexual behavior). These species (bab­oons, bon­obo chimps and humans) are behaviorally and psych­ologically quite diff­erent from one another even if their cognitive stages partly overlap.

Of cou­rse, such species-specific traits shape behavior, and of course there is plenty of evolutionary psychology to account for much of what goes on in humans and other animals. But still, the complexity of those behav­iors can be descri­bed with the help of our new friend – the MHC – and that puts all animals on the same scale, a scale on which adult human beings, surprisingly perhaps, differ vastly from one another.

This last part is both counter-intuitive and con­troversial. So let’s examine it closer.

Stage 10 Abstract

Who? Emerges at ages 11-14. Observed only in humans.

How many? About 30% of a normal adult population in modern coun­tries reach and stay at this stage throughout their lifetime.


To “be at this stage” means to display only behaviors and cognitive opera­tions of this order of complexity or below – i.e. that you produce original thoughts, reasoning and behaviors which are maximally this complex. However, of course, your development doesn’t stop at age 14 just because your MHC stage does. You still learn, develop and change in other ways throughout your lifetime.


Remember: in terms of language use, stage 9 Concrete means that you can put together many different paragraphs into one overarching narrative and name that narrative: the Iliad, etc. But whereas Homer’s Iliad con­tains a lot of succinct and interesting human understanding, you don’t find it abstracting variables and defining them.

The pre-Socratic natural philosophers, however, did exactly that: the essence of the world is water, suggested Thales; Heraclitus held that only change is constant, and so on. The ancient Greeks obviously could per­form many actions that were of stage 10 Abstract or beyond: ship build­ing, plann­ing trade and conquests, administration, navigation and so forth. But philoso­phy that corresponds to stage 10 Abstract was not yet present in early litera­ture and drama, and only showed up with the pre-Socratics (about 6th century BCE).

I chose the example with Greek literature and drama and the birth of West­ern philosophy simply because you here have a clear shift from expli­citly expressed thoughts at stage 9 Concrete to stage 10 Abstract ideas or variables. Of course, this shift is possible in many other non-explicit and non-linguistic forms.


At stage 10 Abstract, we can invent our own abstractions: not just chairs and tables, but furniture; not just furniture and domestic appliances, but “all movable objects you put in a home”; not just home and office but all indoors environment – and so forth.

This is not just mimicking words like “furniture” used by others, but act­ually creating novel abstract concepts or variables themselves.

The stage 10 Abstract thinker can then use quantification of these var­ia­­bles: some of the furniture, some of the time. This can refine the varia­bles, make new distinctions and let the abstract concepts acquire new meanings.

The abstractions are taken from stories about concrete things, people and events. These abstractions – furniture, love, justice, animosity, weight, vol­ume – take on meanings that go beyond the particular story they are a part of.


Let’s invent a variable to try this out: the ruggedness of mountain cliffs. We can have more or less of it, relate it to time, say that this variable causes mountains to be difficult to climb, etc. We can name the variable a new word: blefuscity (it’s a made up word).

Unlike the word “ruggedness”, blefuscity only denotes ruggedness in the way that mountains are rugged – not the way that a person can have a rugged look. “High blefuscity” means that the cliff range has many sharp edges and “low blefuscity” means it has fewer such edges and that it is smoother.

Now blefuscity takes on a life of its own, beyond the singular, concrete story. But in the next story we tell (let’s say it’s a story about mountain­eering), we notice that the cliffs are hard to climb but undeniably have “low blefuscity”. The mountain slope was steep and smooth. So we make a dist­inction between “blefuscity” and “steepness”. We have thus refin­ed the mean­ing of “blefuscity”, but it can always be further refined or challenged.

And so – the world we live in soon becomes a world of abstractions, a world of abstract concepts that have definitions and quantifiable proper­ties. When we conceptualize reality at this stage, narratives still matter (this and that happened, I am from that place, etc.), but they are hinged on abst­r­ac­tions: “a story about love”, etc.

Whoa. So that’s pretty good. And the only creature that has ever been observed to do this is Homo sapiens (but we can probably count in the Neanderthals and other hominids). We can name, relate to and quantify a world of abstract things.

Shakespeare would have said: “Oh, wonder! How many goodly creat­ures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world. That has such people in ‘t! MIRANDA. How amazing!”


What the stage 10 Abstract cannot do, however, is to describe regular rela­tions between different such abstract ideas.

We can still, however, by means of a shared language, take part of the ideas that other people produce at higher orders of complexity. (We can also, if guided through the sequences of actions, perform tasks that are up to two stages above; we’ll get back to that).

By definition, if we never ourselves have displayed original behaviors high­­er than this stage, we are said to “be at” stage 10 Abstract.

Let’s return to our example with steepness and the invented abstract variable “blefuscity”. For instance, very high steepness tends to create an even slope, which then means low blefuscity (few sharp edges) – which still makes for a very difficult climb (whereas our stage 10 Abstract thinking would have us believe that low blefuscity should make the climb easy).

This means that we easily land in false conclusions because we alternate between using steepness and blefuscity in our thinking, but fail to clearly and distinctively formulate the even more abstract rule which guides how we should use the two variables. We fail to see the formal relationship between the different abstract variables.

Why is this a problem? Because, as it turns out, the world around us – and inside us – behaves in ways that are so often not sufficiently and pro­ductively described by a single abstract variable. This means that, as stage 10 Abstract thinkers, we will very often respond to the world around us in simplified manners: in black-and-white, either-or ways. In everyday life that may be more than sufficient. But unfortunately modern people, at least as a collective, have to deal with much more complex issues than creating, choosing and quantifying single variables.


As mentioned earlier, the MHC research is based on “task analysis”, i.e. the idea that every task has an “order of complexity” that can be analyzed: getting through a maze is more complex than walking down a road and so forth. The order of complexity is not the same as “difficulty”, which is much more context bound. Now let’s look at some tasks in everyday life that would require stage 10 Abstract thinking. We will get back to a corres­ponding list of tasks when we discuss the higher stages.

  • Writing a conclusion in an essay that ties the whole thing together.
  • Pointing out the common denominator in a few different stories (love story, story about deceit and revenge, the same moral of the story).
  • Inventing new words for things that are not concretely present.
  • Driving a bus (following traffic rules and keeping in mind the length of the bus and other factors that are out of your sight).
  • Simple nursing (categorizations of patient behavior and reporting back to doctor, quantifying several medical variables, relating to these rather abstract variables, etc.)
  • Non-investigative journalism: reporting events and abstracting what “the story” is.
  • Accurately drawing 2D objects (without conceptualizing new styles or art forms).
  • Artisanship or building that requires a planned idea (but no engin­eer­ing or physics calculation).
  • Creating a map, or reading one without assistance.
  • Teaching kids to read and write.


Our stage of hierarchical complexity also affects how we think about poli­tics and society. Regardless of political persuasion, we can think more or less complexly about political issues. Let’s look at some stage 10 Abstract argu­ments of different political hues.

  • Anti-racist argument: Racism is bad: it is a self-contained and self-expla­n­atory essence that spreads by itself unless you stop it, causing discrim­ination and possibly tyranny and war.
  • Conservative argument: The Arabicness inherent to Arabs gives them traits that are irreconcilable with Western civilization.
  • Feminist argument: Feminism means to stand up for women and crush patriarchy.
  • Libertarian argument: The less state control, the better.
  • Green argument: Human greed causes crises and destroys the envi­ron­ment.
  • Day-to-day politics: I am frustrated both by high taxes and low spend­ing; by both high unemployment and low starting wages.


As stage 10 Abstract thinkers, we cannot see the general rules that govern when our abstractions should apply, when they can be expected to have cer­tain properties and so forth. This means that we will tend to focus on one single variable and want to either increase or decrease its quantitative value: less immigration, lower taxes, more love, more dialogue, less greed etc.

If confronted with a counter-argument (e.g. that more dialogue also means more time-consuming squabble, which in turn may not serve the pur­pose) the stage 10 Abstract thinker will simply insist upon having both: more dialogue and less time-consuming squabble. This is the less complex form of both-and thinking: not accounting for a produc­tive tens­ion between both sides, but simply denying that one’s argument has trade-offs or downsides.

As stage 10 Abstract thinkers we can sometimes insist upon doing things that to others is apparently counter-productive. For instance, the management department at a (modern, computerized) hospital can dec­ide to cut the budget and make a decision to close down many of the prin­ters. In effect, this may cause the nurses to walk much longer stretches to the printers farther away, in effect costing much higher wages if seen per hour and reducing efficiency – just to save some ink. In this case (which is taken from real life) the management uses the singular variable (“saving costs”) but fails to coordinate it with other variables (“cost per effective hour of work”) and in effect make budget cuts that are directly wasteful.

Have you ever been in an argument where you patiently and politely add­ress the inconsistencies of your counterpart’s argument, but they seem to repeat the same phrase or concept as if it were an answer in itself? This is probably a stage 10 Abstract thinker. At this stage we can spot obvious factual inconsistencies, but we cannot spot inconsistencies in how we apply abstract variables: for instance, lower taxes and higher welfare, please! And if you point out that there may be a trade-off, the stage 10 Abstract thinker will think that you are being vague and just playing with words.

Thinkers of each stage have this kind of complexity bias. Complexity bias means that we intuitively prefer forms of reasoning that correspond to our own stage of complexity. Explanations of lower complexity seem crude and simplistic to us, whereas higher stage explanations seem vague or counter-intuitive.

Stage 11 Formal

Who? Adolescent and adult humans. Emerges, if at all, at ages 14 and older.

How many? About 40% of adult humans in a normal, modern popul­ation.


This is the most common adult human stage and where Inhelder and Pia­get’s original model ended (this is somewhat of a simplification, but never mind). That someone is at this stage means that they perform tasks of this order of complexity – original behaviors not guided by others. Again, we don’t know what this means in terms of the organism internally, but we can certainly observe behaviors at this stage.

Even if this stage emerges in adolescence and relatively few people grow beyond it, people of course continue to change and develop in other ways throughout their lifespan.


In the history of science, understanding Newton’s three laws of motion is an example of stage 11 Formal thinking. To successfully coordinate the three laws, however, requires the next stage (stage 12 Systematic) – not to mention inventing these laws in a time before natural science was clearly established (which requires a much higher stage).

This is just to give a clear example of stage 11 Formal when formalized in scientific theory. Of course, outside of science, a lot of people were per­for­m­ing stage 11 Formal tasks: coordinating prices with demand, invest­­ments with risks and rewards, setting up rules and legal systems, building advanced structures, handling relationships between people with different interests by means of fair rules, creating ways to compare different meas­ure units and currencies, and so forth.


We can now invent our own rules or principles that describe or guide the relationship between several abstract variables. The relationships can be linear or not, but they make us see some kind of plotted line.

This means that our thinking and our actions become guided by such rules or principles: if this, under these circumstances, then that.

It also means that, because we know the rules guiding the relationships between different abstract variables, we can guess the value of an abstract variable simply by knowing the values of the other related variables. We can “see around corners” and think ahead in ways that children cannot.


Let us return to the invented variables blefuscity (the ruggedness of cliffs) and steepness. We concluded that blefuscity and steepness both cause the climb to be more difficult.

But let’s assume that, on a very steep cliff, you can only climb it if it also has high blefuscity: otherwise there is simply nothing to hold on to.

If you only study blefuscity, you don’t notice this: all steep cliffs with high blefuscity are difficult to climb, as are all not-so-steep cliffs with high blefu­scity. It is only when you compare different steep cliffs, that you not­ice that high blefuscity makes for an easier climb.

So what we assumed was a property, an essence, inherent to the varia­ble, was in fact only true under some circumstances. We have gone from a think­ing with “blefuscity and steepness” to one where we relate to “blefus­city and/or/if steepness”. And our whole view of the situation changes.

We have invented a rule that describes the relationship between three var­ia­bles: blefuscity causes greater difficulty under low steepness and lower difficulty under high steepness. We call it “the general rule of ble­fus­city”. An elegant rule of the universe. And the stars glisten.


What we cannot do as stage 11 Formal thinkers, and what most adult people actually never quite do during our lifetimes, is to relate several such formalized rules to one another and form one coherent system of thought.

This is partly where the MHC theory becomes so counter-intuitive that it loses many adherents: it just seems implausible. The simplest systems are such things as a “catch-22” or a feedback cycle, or a balance of two simul­taneous processes. Could it really be that almost 80% of all adult humans never think such thoughts or perform the corresponding actions? I will dis­cuss this in a section after the four major stages have been pres­ented. Suffice to note, at this point, that we are speaking of the ability to create original thoughts and behaviors of that stage. This means that, in a civilization that is global and has many, many millions of people inven­ting behaviors and concepts above stage 11 Formal, there will simply be so many higher stage actions and concepts around, which can be taught and performed with help, or simply misunderstood. So we tend to not notice that a minority of people are actually doing most of the more complex inventing.

If recognizing the “catch-22” as a concept is so easy, how come there wasn’t even a word for it before John Heller’s 1953 novel with that title? You may have read or heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, which points out the great significance that unusual, exceptionally talent­ed people called “outliers” have in society’s development – although he qui­ck­ly and fam­ously points out that such people always have good cir­cum­stances, that they put in 10 000 hours of practice, and always rely upon some help of their friends.

Or you may know of Clay Shirky’s 2008 book on the participatory pot­entials of the internet Here Comes Everybody, where he points out that, after all, only a small minority of the users of e.g. Wikipedia actually create the content. This may also be because relatively few people have complex enough understandings of many of the topics.

I agree with Michael Commons: it appears as though most people never construct complex systems of thought or behavior. But then again, most tasks in everyday life can be successfully managed with stage 10 Abstract and stage 11 Formal behaviors or below.

The challenge to stage 11 Formal thinking comes primarily when we deal with systematic issues of society, ecology, economy, organizations, social psychology and the like. For instance, we may have problems with seeing how the messiness in the college kitchen dorm is a result of syste­mic pro­perties of sharing a kitchen, rather than as someone’s breach of the rules. We tend to think that a single rule, or breach thereof, explains issues that indeed require us to consider the system as a whole.

Paul Haggis’ 2004 movie Crash focuses on issues of race and class in Los Angeles. It’s the darling film of sociologists, even with direct referen­ces to sociological research (the lines from the opening scene are directly taken from the American sociologist Jack Katz’s ethnography on road rage). The movie shows how the many characters are by themselves rel­at­ively innocent, each being a victim of their respective circumstan­ces – but the collective result of all the characters’ perceptions and actions crea­te a tense, racist and violent society.

Let’s just say that if the script writers were at stage 11 Formal, this mov­ie would have looked quite differ­ently, with a much more linear plotline and single-cause explanation of racism.


  • Writing a conclusion in an essay that ties the whole thing together and fruitfully compares it to other texts.
  • Pointing out the patterns of how plotlines evolve in stories of different gen­res and explaining the logic to why this is so.
  • Inventing new words or expressions for processes, rules or general prin­ci­ples.
  • Driving a large truck with multiple trailers (meaning, you have to con­sider how the trailers affect one another when you drive back­wards out of a garage, etc.).
  • Medical work with independent decision making (qualifying diagnosis, weighing, choosing and applying one or several treat­ments, etc.).
  • Economic journalism: how businesses are affected by changes in the eco­no­my, etc.
  • Accurately drawing 3D objects (without designing novel styles or art forms).
  • Artisanship or building that requires a planned idea and engineering or ph­ysics calculations.
  • Creating a map, and providing correct instructions on how to read it.
  • Teaching kids to read and write, using different methods for depen­ding on the characteristics of the children.


  • Anti-racist argument: Racism results from economic and social ineq­ua­l­­ities in society and causes further inequality and discrimina­tion.
  • Conservative argument: Some cultural norms followed by Arabs may be irreconcilable with Western civilization.
  • Feminist argument: Feminism is to apply the principles of gender equa­l­­ity and to make these principles prevalent throughout society.
  • Libertarian argument: The less state control, the better, except that main­­tain­­ing law and order is necessary. To establish law and order may temp­orarily require increased state control in “failed state” areas.
  • Green argument: The lacking proportionality between our em­phasis on human interests, especially those of rich people, and the interests of ani­mals and ecosystems, is what causes crises and destroys the en­vironment.
  • Day-to-day politics: I see a trade-off between high taxes and high spend­­ing, between low unemployment and high starting wages.


Generally, because of cognitive bias, stage 11 Formal thinkers will tend to like to stick with certain principles. Of course, sometimes finding the sim­ple principle or rule that guides the apparent messiness of reality can be a mark of much higher cognitive stages (think Newton). But if people like to stick with rules and principles not invented by themselves and they tend to make linear plans about the future and tend to focus on single if-this-then-that principles, you are probably dealing with stage 11 Formal thinking.

In politics, stage 11 Formal thinkers generally have a penchant for clear ideologies or doctrines: socialism, libertarianism and the like. They are likely to repeat one common wisdom, e.g. the conservative idea that things often go wrong when you try to be utopian or the radical idea that most social change has come through struggle.

Remember, this is the most common stage. Adult middle class people in a modern society will very often be of this stage of cognitive complex­ity. At this stage we don’t really produce our own theories or solutions, simply foll­owing the rules and habits set out by others. We can of course still be intell­igent (high IQ), artistic, imaginative, skilled and so forth.

Stage 12 Systematic

Who? Adult humans, or late adolescents.

How many? About 20% of a normal adult population in modern count­ries.

Intuitive example from science? Darwin’s theory of evolution (Darwin him­self was higher stage, of course).


As stage 12 Systematic thinkers we can coordinate several formal rules or simple equations (not necessarily in formalized, mathematical language, of course) to see how they form a larger system.

We can hence solve equations with several unknowns. You may rem­ember equation systems from high school math. This is a simple form of system, where we relate two linear equations to one another and thereby solve them (or determine that they cannot be solved or have different possible solutions).

But most people can pass these tests? Yes, of course: under the circum­stances where someone is walking us through the steps. But does our brain spontaneously and repeatedly create thoughts that relate to such syst­ems? In about 20% of us, it does. In most of us, it doesn’t.

If you look around at how our politicians and the electorate reason on various issues, or indeed even how much, if not most, of academic research is conducted, you notice that it does not really reason beyond stage 11 Formal models.


So we had the thing with blefuscity (ruggedness of cliffs), steepness and the difficulty of the climb: “the general rule of blefuscity”. Now let’s add another rule: the climber’s characteristics. The climber can be tall or short (with cor­re­sponding length of arms) and she can be a good or bad climber.

Are we just adding more factors to our equation? Is this not just more of the same? No. We are looking now at something completely different: how the entirety of the system (the climbing of the mountain) is affected by the interactions of two quite different sets of variables.

Let’s say that the climber generally is better at climbing if she’s taller. But then it turns out that this only holds true under some circumstances: some­times shorter arms and legs are better. Shorter legs are better when there is very small distance between each crack and protrusion in the cliff.

So now we have to break up the variable “blefuscity” into three const­ituent parts: the frequency, sharpness and size of the cracks/protrusions of the rock. At very high frequency (low distance between the cracks), short­er arms make for a better climber, and at medium or low frequency (grea­t­er distance between each of the cracks), longer arms are advant­ageous.

Also, the better the climber, the more she can use blefuscity to her adva­n­­t­age. In fact, the best climbers actually are demotivated by long, easy climbs, thus in practice climbing the more difficult mountains with great­er vigor and skill.

This makes us re-evaluate the “general rule of blefuscity” that our friend at stage 11 Formal formulated (that blefuscity makes for a more diff­i­cult climb unless it’s a very steep climb, in which the reverse is true). It turns out to be not-so-general after all: even steepness can make for an easier climb, because, together with the right kind of blefuscity, it motiv­ates the climber and breaks up the climb into manageable and interesting parts.

Here, at a view from stage 12 Systematic, we see that neither blefuscity, steep­ness nor indeed “difficulty”, were what they seemed. They are all so much more contextual than we would have thought.

Of course, in a discussion, the stage 10 Abstract thinker may appear more certain and common sense: blefuscity makes for a difficult climb! The syst­em­atic stage 12 thinker may seem less sure of herself, having to think longer, to explain herself more technically and wordily, but she has never­theless a much deeper understanding. And she can make for the best mountaineering. And she alone can formulate “the theory of mountain­eering”. Glory days.


But even as stage 12 Systematic thinkers, we are limited to thinking of one system at a time. We don’t see that systems follow fundamentally different logics.

So at the stage 12 Systematic we tend to want to squeeze everything one and the same coherent system, not being able to compare different syst­ems with quite different properties. If we are engineers, we tend to believe that the world consists of systems resembling engineering, if we are socio­logists we believe it is made up of social constructions and tend to misinterpret and under­value e.g. biology and psychiatry – and so on.

The main problem of many of the adult development theorists, from Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter to Robert Kegan, stems from the fact that their authors are at this cognitive stage. This is why their minds smash development into one unified model of one-dimensional development. They fail to see that there are different forms of develop­mental systems and that the logic of one such dimension cannot unprob­le­m­a­tically be applied to the others. These thinkers tend to have great existential depth (as discussed in the following chapters), but that does not cancel out their cognitive shortcomings.

So stage 12 Systematic cannot solve deep, wicked issues that span across sectors of society and the sciences. The high esteem that “inter­disciplinarity” holds within academia these days is really a vaguely form­ulated grasp for stage 13 Metasystematic solutions. Simply mixing panels with different scien­tists is only lip-service to the complexity of our day and age.


  • Writing a conclusion in an essay which criticizes and goes beyond the thinking presented in other comparable essays (teaching at uni­ver­sity level, I can say that only a few students manage to do this, even among the ones who study very hard).
  • Inventing a new form of plotline or genre within literature.
  • Inventing new words for theories, systems or “principles about prin­ciples”.
  • Overseeing the traffic system in a city, reducing risk, bottlenecks and poll­u­tion.
  • Medical work with applied critical thinking within science, com­paring different research results and perhaps putting forward novel theories and methods.
  • Critical investigative journalism: being able to see cracks and loopholes in the system and putting these in focus.
  • Accurately drawing or otherwise representing multidimensional obje­cts (including by successful use of the multiperspectivalism of (post-) modern art).
  • Artisanship or building that requires the creation of novel methods, app­lying physics or engineering in unconventional ways.
  • Providing instructions for creating good maps and how to provide instru­c­tion for reading them.
  • Comparing and inventing different methods for teaching kids to read and write.


  • Anti-racist argument: Racism is an emergent property of all soc­ieties and interacts with things like inequality. Blaming and pointing fingers is gene­rally unproductive and one should instead try to add­ress the long-term issu­es that may be causing ethnic tensions under these part­icular circum­stan­ces.
  • Conservative argument: There are challenges in reconciling West­ern and Islamic culture which depend on how these categories inter­act, rather than flaws inherent to either category.
  • Feminist argument: Feminism means to work towards a long-term equi­librium where self-reproducing inequalities have petered out and peo­ple of all sexes and gen­ders have less reason to feel insecure and frustrated.
  • Libertarian argument: State control and policy implementation tend to have unexpected and unwanted consequences as society is always more complex than we recognize. It is therefore good to be restrictive with reg­ula­tion and policy.
  • Green argument: There are serious systemic flaws in our economic syst­em that cause crises and may lead to ecological collapse.
  • Day-to-day politics: Public spending should carefully follow and counter international trends – this optimizes the labor market. But the labor market can unfortunately not be expected to function per­fect­ly; it always lets some people down.


Stage 12 Systematic thinkers will tend to have less rigid opinions but more rigid argumentations. So one way to spot them is simply to ask them quest­­ions about their opinions: if there are few rules of thumb and clear conclu­sions, but much weighing of different factors, it may be stage 12 Syst­ematic.

The stage 12 Systematic thinkers are often more inventive than others, so if the person has made unconventional innovations, this may indicate this stage.

But perhaps the easiest way may be by means of their cognitive biases: stage 12 Systematic thinkers tend to believe that the world consists of systems and their properties. So you find a strong bias towards explan­ations of this kind: structures, patterns, regularities, the economy, the biological body, Darwinian evolution, the gender norms and so forth.

Stage 13 Metasystematic

Who? Adult humans from early 20s and onwards.

How many? Only about 1.5-2% of a normal adult human population.

In the history of science and philosophy you might find ideas that embody this stage of complexity in relative recent branches such as general infor­m­­ation theory, cybernetics, complexity science, chaos theory, the systems sci­en­ces, metatheory (theory about theory), Wilberian integral theory and per­haps epigenetics. Of course, just studying these sciences doesn’t mean that the student is automatically a stage 13 Metasystematic thinker. And most of the innovators within these fields are of still higher cognitive stages (14 Para­digmatic or 15 Crossparadigmatic).

I will present this stage more briefly. The point is that the stage 13 Meta­systematic thinker is capable of com­paring the general properties of systems, naming these properties and reasoning about when they general­ize or not. Let’s jump right to the invented example.


We can observe then, that it is not blefuscity (and its sub-factors), even com­bined with steepness, that determines how good a climb (how much value, recreational or practical) we get. Nor is it the characteristics of the clim­ber that determines the climb. Rather, it is a property of the system as a whole: how well-aligned the different variables, across both systems (cliff and clim­ber), are to one another, with regard to value created by the cliff/climber syst­em as a whole. So the overall alignment of the system deter­mines the climb: not any single variable like blefuscity. Our previous ideas about ble­fus­city reveal themselves as “true, but partial”.

So we have added a term, alignment, to describe the system as a whole. Let’s expand that term: how much can you adjust the different variables so as to increase their alignment? We are now introducing an invented meta-syst­em­atic term: alignability.

The cliff/climber system has low alignability (a property of the system): it is difficult – or it has high cost – to change any one variable (to, for instance, make the cliff less rugged), and the different variables effect al­most no change upon one another. The low alignability of the cliff/ clim­ber system will only produce value in relatively few cases.

Compare this to another system: the market economy. Each of its parts is much more dependent on the other parts. Things like supply, demand, distrib­ution sys­tems, and legal frameworks change all the time. Because of the market system’s high alignability, it aligns into value-creating (and there­by behaviorally self-sustaining) equilibria all the time. It is not logic­ally necess­ary to have a market to produce food or to create other value – so there is no logical necessity for why markets should be so much more central to most humans than is mountaineering.

The reason that markets are much more prevalent and important is that there is a certain property of this system that e.g. mountaineering does not have: high “alignability”. If it were mountaineering that had such high align­ability, it would be more central: we could just align its different parts in ways that created more value. The market can steer the right people to the right mountains, with the right equipment and most other people to other acti­vities, such as skiing.

There is a long stretch between the stage 10 Abstract concept of “ble­fus­­city” and the Stage 13 Metasystematic concept of “alignability”. We have made a major climb, into more abstract heights, viewing the world from a much more ele­vated conceptual vantage point. We have traveled away from concrete reality: whereas “blefuscity” is an abstract concept, you can still see it with your eyes, feel it with your hands. And we have arrived at a much less tang­ible world: the “alignability” of systems and how it creates value.

We have also made conceptual leaps: from discussing relatively con­crete and small matters, to grasping a wider world.

And we have abandoned the topic (mountaineering). That’s what a cogni­tive advance often looks like: that which seemed so important at an earlier stage seems less so – and more contingent – when viewed from a higher cognitive vantage point.

From here, let’s go straight to the political reasoning examples.


  • Anti-racist argument: Racism emerges as different cultures and status hier­archies interact, where ethnic markers are used in order to increase one’s position in the status hierarchy. It should be pre­vented by the crea­tion of both greater psychological security and by the facilita­tion of prod­uctive dialogue about cultural differences.
  • Conservative argument: Liberal values prevalent in Western coun­tries may be more functional in late modern society than the more traditio­n­alist values of many Arab Muslims, but for the successful integration of these different cultures one must take the perspectives of all parties seri­ously.
  • Feminist argument: Feminism is an interest group movement as well as a social justice movement. As an interest group movement it must be weigh­ed aga­inst other interests and perspectives. As a social justice move­ment it must be coordi­nated with other social justice issues such as class, ethnicity, global inequality, other gender issues (including men’s issues), and the exploitation of animals and nature.
  • Libertarian argument: State control and policy implementation always interact with other societal systems and are dependent upon these for their successful functioning. It is thus important to care­fully weigh state regul­ation and policy against other possibi­lities: markets, culture, and civil sphere. State regulation is often not the best path ahead.
  • Green argument: The logic inherent to the economic system is funda­mentally alien to the logic of the ecosystems of the many bio­topes. This means that there is no self-regulating feedback cycle directly present bet­ween our eco­nomic and technological expansion and the eco­syst­ems upon which we depend. This lack of feedback means that we have to drive the ecosystem to collapse before the market self-adjusts. We must thereby create some other feedback, e.g. by means of policy, pub­lic awareness or cultural development.
  • Day-to-day politics: Public spending can be high or low, where higher spending is generally made possible by strong institutions such as rule of law, policing, democracy and free press. This keeps corruption down and allows for public support of spending and makes spending less wasteful. There is no one answer about high or low taxes; you have to coordinate it with the other societal systems.

Note that the different political stances at stage 13 Metasystematic gen­e­r­­ally have more in common with one another than with the corres­pond­ing ideological positions at the earlier stages. This has important implic­ations for metamodern politics.

And that concludes our brief guide to the four most important stages of cognitive adult development. There is more to it, but that’s all you need to know the basics.

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.

In Defense of Hierarchies among Humans

Want to know the reason why moral philosophy almost never makes a differ­ence, why most academic moral philosophers remain rather use­less? After all, we are obliged to ask: Why don’t they manage talking people into being vegans, selling their cars and giving away more of their money to charity, and being more selfless generally? Or even getting us to do what makes us happy either way, accord­ing to happiness research (give away your stuff, exercise, do mindfulness, eat healthy, walk in nature, don’t stress, have more sex and care about others)? A moral philosopher can still help us come to the right conclusions, given we agree on the pre­m­­ises, but they seldom seem to drive the ethical development of society. Why don’t moral philosophers make any noteworthy difference? It’s because they don’t have their behavioral science and psychology strai­ght. They don’t understand that humans are, in a manner of speak­ing, behav­ioral robots.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on stage theories; a chapter that presents the field of adult development and argues that it is the missing piece of the puzzle if we want to accomplish progressive change in society, and even less modestly, that we need to understand the various psychological stages if we are to save the world.

“A good behavioral and developmental psychology, one that recognizes the stages of human beings, is the missing piece of the puzzle for us to make society more rational and ethical.”

Of course, we’re not robots in the sense that we don’t have real feelings, thoughts and sensations. And the robot metaphor should not blind us to the depths and rich ecologies of our co-evolving minds and emo­tions. How­ever, it does underscore the very hard facts of behavioral science. We are not free and rational individuals who you can just talk into one ratio­nal conclus­ion or another, thereby dramatically altering our social values and behaviors. For any moral philosophy, you must consider who, when, what and where: are we talking about children, or cats, or mice, or edu­cated people, or rich people, or scared people, or mentally disabled peo­ple, in Denmark or Saudi Arabia? Such questions generally fall into the background of humanist, analytical phil­os­ophy – and, unfortunately, of continental philosophy as well. There is no “default human” from which moral philosophy can start.

One of the most important aspects of understanding behavior, human or animal, instrumental or moral, and what can reasonably be expected from an organism, is the overall developmental stage of that organism. That’s where develop­mental psychology comes in handy – and, in parti­cular, the stages of adult development. As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, before a person understands this part, they tend to have great trouble grasp­­ing what meta­­modern­ politics is.

A good behavioral and developmental psychology, one that recognizes the stages of human beings, is the missing piece of the puzzle for us to make society more rational and ethical.

Developmental stage, aye? But who is to say that someone or something is of a “higher” or “more advanced” stage of development? Maybe ants are more advanced than people, just in ways we wouldn’t think of? Children towering far above their parents in their intensively alive experience of the human condition? The Jarawa tribes folk of the Andaman Islands leading lives far beyond anything a modern professor in Mexico or China could ever imagine?

”Without the insight that humans can be described with subsequently unfolding developmental stages, you are driving in developmental blindness. It’s worse than drunk driving. And it kills or harms considerably more people, literally speaking.”

Don’t Fall Victim to Developmental Blindness

But development does matter, and it can be studied in coherent and reli­able ways. The terrible truth is this: Adult human beings are not equals. We are as differ­­ent from one another as adults from children, albeit in various ways and in different regards.

This is a trivial point when it comes to single skills: I have friends who lift more than four times what I can on the bench press, some who read at more than three times my speed, some that speak twice as many lang­uages, some that know more medicine than I could dream of, some that have much, much higher IQ, some that are much better at making money (and can easily make a dozen times or more than me in a given period), some who write books at five times my speed (I kid you not) and so on.

There is no reason to believe that we do not also vary greatly in terms of overall developmental stages (the four dimensions being cognitive develop­ment, cult­ural coding, state and depth, that I discuss in my book The Listening Society).

And this makes all the difference when it comes to under­standing pol­itics and society, even personal relationships. This scientifically uncontro­versial – but politically very sensitive – insight is central to under­standing behavior. Understanding the developmental stages of humans is manda­tory for all who seek to change and develop soc­iety. With­out the insight that humans can be described with subsequently unfolding devel­op­mental stages, you are driving in developmental blind­ness. It’s worse than drunk driving. And it kills or harms con­siderably more people, literally speaking.

So in the second part of my book we work through ten chapters disc­uss­­ing what personal, psychological development can mean. The bogey­­man here is of course the H-word. I’ve addressed it before, but now we must stop to face it full frontal.

Hierarchy. We are introducing hierarchy into the study of human beings; sci­entifically supported and enduring – but not immutable – hierarchy. Some people are just much more developed, more evolved, than others. Ouch.

“Introduce hierarchy! Who would do such a thing? And why? Is it not a pretext for claiming that some people should be put above and beyond others, some unfair privileges unduly legitimized? After all, we are still work­ing hard all over the world to get rid of the postcolonial heritage, of male privilege, white privi­lege, Eurocentrism, the exploit­ation of the global South, discrimination against animals, anthro­pocentrism in relation to the rest of the biosphere and the many hidden injuries of class! And you want to discuss hierarchy? What demonic purpose would possess you to invoke such forbidden phantoms? I forbid it! Do not venture into this research of adult development! Do not go there to see with your own eyes! In the name of equality, choose ignorance! Do not ask forbidden quest­ions!”

You are correct, dear reader. This can be bad news. And it’s even worse than that. Once we open the Pandora’s Box of hierarchy – who knows what might come out of it? New sources of neurotic self-blame? New ideologies of domi­nation? Exploitation under the auspices of scientific legitimacy? Eugen­ics? A new class society, like the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the popul­ation is divided into bio-engineered castes? Shiver me tim­bers.

Despite these risks, all of which I fully acknowledge, I am convinced that we are better off with a sound deve­lop­mental stage per­spective than without one. And to study development, we must admit that there are hier­archies – that some opinions, behaviors or psyches are, at least in some sense, more developed. It is possible to take this stance without being an asshole.

The risks associated with developmental blind­ness are simply so much greater, the consequences so much more harmful. I contend, without blink­ing, that an understanding of the stages of human develop­ment is key to eman­ci­pation, to freed­om and equality in the globalized internet age. In this strange new wonder­­­land, the developmentally blind become the oppressors, much like Christ­ianity went from being a liberating force to having its own landed elites and an inquisition. A progress­ive thinker and activist of today must know and accept hier­archy; a rebel heart must love hier­archical dev­elop­­ment – and use it, against all masters, against all unjust hier­archies, and against the chaos and entropy inherent to the cosmos.

Wait a minute; I don’t think you heard me. Didn’t I say it slowly, didn’t I make it clear? I am saying that if you fail to understand hierarchies and hum­an devel­opment, you end up being primitive, conserv­ative and oppress­­ive. You, not I, are the oppressor. You speak the language of opp­ression.

Let me explain some important principles to clarify this. Being pro hier­archy only makes progress­ive sense if you meticulously apply these eight principles. So here’s a user’s guide.

”The point is not to obsess about hierarchy. The point is that if you see hierarchies clearly and don’t imbue them with emotional value, you can relate to them in a more rational and detached manner.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hierarchy

    1. Non-judgment. The first principle is that stages of development in humans and other organ­­­isms must be studied in the light of a radical accept­ance, a pervasive non-judgment – much like Christianity (in its liberating for­ms) teaches, really. Every creature has an inalienable right to be who she is, even the least likable among us. So when­ever you see far­ther than some­one else, whenever you are more ethical or intelligent or sensitive, you are mani­festing a privilege over that creature. The reason that she is not like you is that you are more privil­eged, at least in that particular regard. Even things you learned through suffer­ing, and insights or capabilities that are painful to bear, in some sense put you at an advantage. When you acknowledge this hier­archy, you are no longer judg­ing. The pers­pective shifts from judging people for not being like us (damning all who are racist, not socialist, un­educated, not environ­mentally minded, not sensitive, not good listeners, etc.), to trying to give a universal account for why our own position is better than theirs (why it would trump their position on their own terms) and explaining why the same insight or capability is not available to them at this time. Such explana­tions can be: it’s just a kid, he didn’t have the chance to learn this, she wasn’t allowed the peace of mind to think this through, he’s in a too pre­carious position to allow himself to think along these lines – etc. In this way, the acceptance of hier­archy serves non-judgment and forgiveness.
    2. Not a moral order. The second principle is that the developmental sta­ges do not constitute a moral order, in which a higher or later stage would be morally “more worth” than a lower or earlier one. For instance, as we will see in the next chapter, kids generally are of lower cognitive stage than adults – but they of course have the same priceless value. And they can often be kinder and “better people” than adults, more honest, empathetic, etc. The jury is still out on who should count as morally valuable or not, but a good starting point might still be Jeremy Bentham’s old “…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”.
    3. Natural and dominator hierarchies. The third principle is that there is a difference between natural hierarchies and dominator hierar­chies. Domin­ator hierarchies are the ones that you cannot find any universal arguments for and that are used to legitimize expl­oit­ation: men over women, whites over non-whites, H&M (the clothing store) customers and stock owners over Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, hum­ans over non-human animals, nobility over commoners, masters over slaves. Natural hier­archies are different – no exploitation is inherent to the hierarchy; it builds on a universal argument that benefits all parties, and it is limited to the specific area in which that benefit can be argued for. Examples: student driver and driving instructor (probably the clearest and best example), child and parent, patient and doctor, pupil and teacher. Of course, each of these natural hierarchies can be misused, the power imbalance exploited for other purposes (if the doctor wants sex for medicine, etc.) – but that is not in itself inherent to the definition of the hier­archy. Developmental hierarchies can, if used corr­ectly, support such natural hierarchies. Remember, however: all dom­i­nator hier­­archies disguise them­­­selves as natural ones, to make them app­ear as “the triple-N” of all hidden oppression: Natural, Normal, Necessary.
    4. Does not transmit. The fourth principle is that the hierarchy does not transmit to other, irrele­vant areas or power relations. They should not give “halo effects”. For instance, that you are at a higher cognitive stage than me, doesn’t mean you should get lower taxes or sleep with my wife. Also, I can still be a much better figure skater, listener or math­ematician than you are, even if you are able to think more complex thoughts – in which case I still deserve recognition for my talents. Developmental stage is not the same as skill.
    5. Humility. The fifth principle is humility. Hierarchical models with sev­eral stages are more humble, not less, than non-hierarchical visions of reality. Let’s say for instance that you, giving yourself medals for being noble defen­der of plurality and equality, are “against” hierarchical stage models in science and human­ities. You are thereby in effect creating a hier­archy your­self: the people who have your opinion are placed “above” the people who don’t – it’s better to be against hierarchy than to be for it, right? The very preference creates a two-step hierarchy, in a sense. By doing that you just made several moves that are anything but humble. To start with, you are redu­cing the rich­ness of possible answers to just your own position “and all others”. This means that you are squeezing together many, perhaps very qual­itatively diff­er­ent, answers and labeling them under one category (the non-correct one). There is just your way or the highway, and no internal ranking is possible between all the other possible answers. You are also precluding all possib­ilities of there being stages above your own – because there only are two stages, and you’re already at the higher one. So you don’t need to learn from others, right? But hier­archical stage models that have more stages don’t allow for these mistakes: you are obliged to describe all the relevant stages, how they relate to one another, and you must always admit that there can be higher stages than your own, stages that you don’t yet under­stand. Rather counter-­intuitively, hier­archy, under­stood correctly, serves open­ness and hum­ility towards the pers­pectives of others.
    6. Different dimensions. The sixth principle is simply to know that hierar­ch­­ical stage theories of human devel­op­ment have different dimen­sions and that development in one dimension does not necessarily trans­late into devel­opment within another. The dimensions do interact, how­ever – as we shall see in the coming chapters. In fact, you will find, the development of one dimen­sion can possibly even hamper development in another dimension.
    7. Sensitivity. The seventh principle is sensitivity. One must recognize that all hierarchies can and do hurt people’s feelings. After all, nobody likes con­tinuously being picked last for the football team. And when you reveal endur­ing, deep-seated devel­op­mental structures that describe vast, qualitative diff­erences between real people, it tends to make some feel elated and others degraded – most of us are, after all, not at the highest stages of human devel­opment. That some­body is at a “higher stage” than me, somehow tends to hurt more than the fact that someone has higher grades, has higher IQ, or lifts heavier weights. Develop­mental hierarchies are just an extremely sensitive topic. What does it feel like to recognize that someone I know genuinely understands deeper aspects of reality than I do? Or that I am less morally developed than another person, a person who adheres to values and ideals that are lost on me? That my mind is more or less permanently incapable of doing what you do routinely? It hurts, quite simply. Maybe not if I think of Einstein at great dist­ance, but if I realize that this younger, junior colleague is hier­archically above me, and that the distance is qualitative and permanent, it tends to really hurt in soft places deep within. So – to deal with these issues, we have to be very emotionally sensitive to everyone involved. The sensi­tivity of this topic is probably, by the way, the main reason that this field of research hasn’t gone farther: nobody wants to be an insensitive prick.
    8. Not all there is. The eighth and last principle is that stages of develop­ment are important, but they are obviously not all there is to life, knowledge, talent and meaning, and so they should only be treated as useful psycholo­gical tools, never be rever­ed as anything more than that. Just as you can be blind by not under­standing the stages of human development, so you can be blinded by staring too much at them. Like the sun, really: without it, you walk in darkness – but if you keep staring at it all day, you also go blind. It’s when the sun shines on other things that you see them more clearly.

So you need to remember these eight principles for hierarchy to make sen­se in a progressive, egalitarian manner. But all in all – not understand­ing the hier­archical stages of human develop­ment leaves you more judg­mental, more pre­judiced, more arrogantly narrow-minded, less com­pet­ent to under­stand and empathize with others, and less likely to success­fully interpret and predict behaviors (and the events in society). And in order to understand the stages of human development you must admit that they are, at least in some ways, hier­archically ordered. Thus, deal­ing with hierarchy is not a “necessary evil”; no, it is simply an evil to refuse. Hier­archy, correctly understood, serves the grea­ter good. Again, this only holds true, of course, if we follow the eight princip­les outlined above. Other­wise we can end up legiti­mizing dominator hierarch­ies, contrib­uting to opp­ression of all sorts.

The point is not to obsess about hierarchy. The point is that if you see hierarchies clearly and don’t imbue them with emotional value, you can relate to them in a more rational and detached manner. There is no need to pretend that we are the driving instructor when we are the student driver – and both parties benefit. The aim here is of course to create a more equal and egalitarian soc­iety, where hierarchy matters less, and only in ways that make sense.

If you still don’t like where this is going, I think your heart will soften once you – by reading my book The Listening Society – see the direction in which the hier­archical development goes: towards greater inclus­ivity, understanding and accep­tance of others and towards challenging one’s own certainty.

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.

New Book: The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht is now available as paperback and Kindle eBook

Metamoderna is happy to announce that The Listening Society – A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One by Hanzi Freinacht is now available for purchase as paperback and Kindle eBook. The Listening Society is the first in a series of books on metamodernism by Hanzi Freinacht and book one in a series of two on politics. The second half, titled Nordic Ideology, is planned for release spring 2018.

As any self-respecting philosopher, Hanzi Freinacht wrote this book while living alone in the Alps, overlooking a majestic mountain view.

In a sweeping move across history, politics and developmental psychology Hanzi works his way through the modern world, leaving in his wake a trail of crushed opponents and shattered, out-dated ideas. Full of jokes, poetry and exaggerated postures, often bordering on the arrogant and obscene, he takes strides to equip the reader with a powerful understanding of our day and age.

As we move from the industrial age and its nation state to an internet age with a globalized postindustrial market a question presents itself: What is the next major developmental stage of society after the liberal democracy with a balance between capitalism and welfare state?

In this book Hanzi Freinacht offers a compelling answer to this question. We are reaching the limits of modern society and we must work to achieve a metamodern society, that is, a society which goes beyond modern life and its institutions. The metamodern society of the future is a listening society; a society more sensitive to the inner dimensions of human beings.

Drawing upon an elaborate weaving of psychology, sociology, political science and philosophy this book lands in a positive vision for the future. It shows how a clear description of human psychological growth – how we grow as human beings – can also offer us key insights into how global society can and should evolve in the internet age. A politics that can help humans grow to the later stages of psychological development is also one that can be capable of meeting the staggering challenges of our time.

In the first part of the book Hanzi examines the politics and culture of the Nordic countries and shows how these progressive societies offer a fertile ground for metamodern politics. The basis of such metamodern politics is also described. In the second part of the book he turns to developmental psychology, describing how humans evolve through a series of stages – and how this matters immensely for the happiness and survival of us all.

As this story unfolds – in a uniquely provocative genre breaking manner – you will also glean insight into your own developmental stage and those of people around you.

Read with caution.

The Listening Society is available as paperback and can be bought here, and the Kindle eBook version is available here. Enjoy.

The Listening Society: Possible and Necessary

In my last post I asked if we should really make people happy  and argued that “[w]e desperately need a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security – a listening society, where every person is seen and heard.” In this one I will assert that it is absolutely necessary to insure that people are much more socially and psychologically functional in our increasingly confusing and demanding society, that it’s possible since we now have the know­ledge and new social technologies to execute it successfully and that it saves our perpetually pressured welfare systems.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter about political metamodernism “in a nutshell” that investigates how a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security, can be achieved and the chapter simply titled “possible and necessary” which argues why such a society should be developed and how it connects to everyday life.

”As our power over nature grows, and as the social technologies allow us deeper access into the human soul, the political metamodernist takes open, deliberate and unapologetic responsibility for the psychological devel­­op­­­ment of all citizens.”

The answer to how we can achieve higher levels of happiness and decrease overall suffering is that we today know so much about the human mind, the brain, and the human being in her totality: her psycho­physiology, her behavioral responses and patterns (including econ­omic behaviors), her emotions, her relationships, how to make her happy, how to decrease the likelihood of psych­iatric disorders, how to prevent family tragedies, how to support her in the developmental stages of child­hood, adolescence and adult­hood, how to support (and to some extent increase) her intelligence and creat­ivity, how to help her to heal after hurt and loss, how to support her tenden­cies for universalistic values, how to support her towards developing more complex thinking – even how to support the acquisition of existential and spiritual insights that make death, pain and life’s disappoint­ments more toler­able and mana­geable.

And this knowledge is growing by volumes every day. There is increa­sing evidence that many different factors work together to help a human being flourish or to let her fall apart. In medicine this insight is called the “bio­psycho-ecological paradigm”. In psychology it is similarly called the “bio-psycho-social model”. In politics and welfare policy we can call it the listen­ing society, which is the deeper form of welfare that metamodern activists strive to achieve. (Here you can read more about how metamodernism differs from postmodernism and why political metamodernism is the future, I sincerely advice you to if you haven’t already read it, especially the last section about political metamodernism.)

Political metamodernism is the rebellious act of taking this vast know­ledge into our hands – and to boldly shape it into usable politics; into wonderful but dangerous “social technologies” that can be used to funda­mentally improve the lives of a majority of the citizens.

This is to be achieved within the time frame of a few generations. We are not talking about a dramatic revolution from one day to another, or an attempt to “set things straight once and for all”, or the sudden “waking up” of every­one. Nor are we talking about a utopia in any naive sense. We are talk­ing about painstaking, slow reforms that nevertheless can be expected to have substantial effects on the quality of life of our fellow citizens – over longer periods, and on average.

We take the most useful of the scientific know­ledge into our hands, and begin the long path of using a multiplicity of slow, open, transparent demo­cratic processes, with the goal of reshaping all parts of society: sch­ools, the workplace, high­er education, the market, healthcare – even the personal rela­­tion­ships, sex lives, gender relations, worldviews and inner selves of the citi­zen. We are speaking about conscious and delib­erate social-psychological and cultural development.

As our power over nature grows, and as the social technologies allow us deeper access into the human soul, the political metamodernist takes open, deliberate and unapologetic responsibility for the psychological devel­­op­­­ment of all citizens.

It is my responsibility that they left home for the madness of the Syrian war. It is my responsibility that most people do not see the wrongs in how we let the farm animals suffer slavery, torture and mutilation. It is my responsi­bility that the integration of immigrants is working poorly, that so many young women suffer from anorexia, that so many people live their lives with a per­vasive lack of meaning and never truly work to im­prove the world.

I could have changed social reality, thereby changing the lives of these fellow beautiful creatures under God. It was me all along. It always will be. This is the commitment of the metamodern activist.

The political philosopher Elizabeth Cripps has argued that the citizen cannot hide behind her individuality in the face of collective ethical dil­em­mas caused by the actions of the many. One must act according to one’s abilities to change the collective, given that one understands the mechanism that cau­ses harm, and that one knows what actions can reas­on­­ably be taken. This moral obligation includes political activism.

Where­­as Cripps writes primar­ily about climate change, her ideas certainly apply to a wider context. The more you understand how soc­iety’s ills are caused by the psycho-social envir­onment (i.e. the interplay of people’s inner lives and the arenas of every­day life) the more obliged you are to change and develop these realities.

”Every day we must look deep into our own eyes in the mirror – are we becom­ing this technocratic man of system? This is not only a con­temp­lative question, but a political and analytical one.”

Accepting the Risks

Reaching deeper into the human soul (and organism), supporting its inherent capacities for development, is dangerous business. It can easily lead to breaches of the private and personal sphere, to subtle but pervasive forms of oppression. But it is a path that we have already travelled along at least since the 17th century; and it is becoming increasingly necessary, given how our tech­nology is evolving.

Such a cultural development requires millions of scientific articles and careful democratic debates, trial and error, effective measurement, cont­in­uous feedback and full transparency of information and decision making. Build­ing – or cultivat­ing – the next and deeper layer of social welfare re­quires the ongoing posing of two questions:

  • How can good conditions and prerequisites for human flourish­ing and “thrivability” be brought about?
  • How can this be done in a manner that is open, democratic, non-mani­pul­ative – without a “creepy” undercurrent of control?

The metamodern political activist lives by both of these questions, day and night, body and soul. It is a fulltime commitment because negligence in either one of the two questions can and will have terrible consequences.

If we fail to answer and act upon the first question it means that we are not using the best knowledge available to let people lead happy and productive lives. We are thus letting people walk lonely through life, lett­ing children be bullied, exploited and harmed in so many other ways, letting the public debate continue to be dysfunctional, letting the destruction of our environment cont­inue, letting the torture of billions of defenseless animals continue, letting people rot away during old age and die full of angst, confusion and regrets.

Failing to answer the first question does not only mean that we are reprod­ucing the inexcusable suffering prevalent in current society; it also means that we are making large global catastrophes much more likely, as insecure and afraid people, with poorly working social institutions, gain power over nano­tech, AI and the redesign of life itself. We are failing to evolve humanity to a maturity matching her newly won powers over nature that the inform­ation age (or rather: the multidimensional crisis-revolution) brings.

If we fail to answer and act upon the second question, we are under­min­ing freedom, democracy and human dignity – we are treating people like pawns, and contributing to a system of increasing manipula­tion and surveillance, where power over deep, psychological and personal issues fall into the hands of elites and bureaucracies. At the dawn of the modern age Adam Smith, the father of economics, warned us about the “man of system” who tries to arran­ge everything in accordance to his plans and ideas about the good society, but ends up creating unexpected consequ­ences and misuses of political power:

“…so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of govern­ment, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

Adam Smith, 1759. Theory of Moral Sentiment. London: A. Millar: paragraph VI.II.42 (Available at http://www.econlib.org/library/)

You may have heard of the term “nudging”, Sunstein and Thaler’s behav­ioral-economic idea that people can be subtly “nudged” to make “better” choi­ces by means of “libertarian paternalism”. A “choice arch­itect” can arran­ge how food is presented in the school’s lunch line, thereby improving public health by facilitating the making of “better” choices.

There is nothing wrong with this line of reasoning in principle – but it begs the question about who such a “choice architect” should reasonably be. In Sunstein and Thaler’s discussion, the “choice arch­itect” comes eerily close to “the man of system”. At the very least, people should get to vote in a “direct democracy” manner, about how or when we want to nudged or not.

Every day we must look deep into our own eyes in the mirror – are we becom­ing this technocratic man of system? This is not only a con­temp­lative question, but a political and analytical one. In my book Nordic Ideology you’ll see how the six new forms of politics suggested create checks and balan­ces that work against the misuse of power, against manipulation and insensitive social engineering. The develop­ment of society and our inc­reas­ing knowledge force us to face, and to balance out, the man of the system at new and deeper levels. We have only begun to become acqu­ainted with this “man of system” – and this grey eminence will show his face in more subtle ways, even deep within ourselves.

The two questions go together. You cannot have the first without the sec­ond. And neither question has “one answer” – they are both open-ended, in that they will continue to produce new conundrums, dilemmas and riddles as society evolves and new challenges arise. They both require ongoing questio­ning and answering. They are, to use that hackneyed term, processes.

Many people take pride in not even attempting to answer the first quest­ion, because they thereby avoid having to answer the second one; a position I call the liberal innocent. From that position their hands are free to attack anyone who tries to make suggestions about how society might be different and better, by labeling them control freaks, arrogant or naive. These are the people who fail to accept the risks, and there­by make themselves complicit in the suffering of all who are muti­lated under the unacceptable cruelty of our prevailing society.

Higher freedom begets greater responsibility; and we are freed to­gether, or not at all. For those who do not accept the risks, who asks for freedom but does not take the respons­ibility, I have nothing but the most severe moral condemnation.

Possible and Necessary

A deeper expansion of social welfare – seeing to that all citizens (or as many as practically possible) grow up genuinely healthy and emo­tion­ally well-developed – is both possible and necessary.

”The listening society saves the welfare system, by being much more efficient and socially sustainable than our current syst­em, thereby being more affordable in the long run.”

Yes, It Is Possible

It is possible due to the new circumstances of the internet age, the robotics revolution and the sheer growth of production and knowledge of the global economy. As the economy continues to grow, and with the expan­sion of technology, society simply has much greater opportunities to employ people to work with subtler, more psychological and more long-term oriented – yet deeply meaningful – tasks.

We know that the costs of one kid gone rebel in the rich world are imm­ense, seen over a life span: not entering the labor market, taking up social costs, police work, courts and prison, causing harm to other citi­zens, reducing general security and causing surveillance and security costs to rise, making the public afraid and thereby more prone to dumb fear-driven politics, and so on. Lately econo­mists and social work resear­chers have increasingly argued that such “bad kids” should be singled out early on and get the extra support they need; a few years of support teacher salary is a bargain in comparison.

That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about something of a much greater magnitude (and ethically on less murky wat­ers) than sing­ling out 4-year old ruffians. We are talking about universal measures, guar­anteeing everyone more care, support and attention by redesi­gn­ing all of our major institutions to improve the quality of human relations, personal devel­opment and mental health. I beg to move:

  • Everybody should have the benefit of talking to a kind, listening prof­ess­ional therapist while growing up (just think of how the number of mol­es­t­ations would drop, how kids would treat each other better, how family life would improve).
  • Everybody should get to learn to meditate, both with mindful­ness and other techniques so that one can handle stress and get in touch with one’s own emotions.
  • Everybody should get a good gym coaching from early age so that they grow up to have fit bodies, good bodily awareness, positive body image, relaxed body language and healthy habits.
  • Everybody should be trained in dialogue and get the chance to par­ticipate in public debates or deliberations.
  • Everybody should get a year off once in a lifetime to go look for new purpose in life and make tough life decisions under profess­ional care and support – in a kind of secular monastery.
  • Everybody should be “nudged” and supported to consume both heal­thy and sustainable food that prevents depression and supp­orts long-term soc­ietal goals.
  • Everybody should be trained in social and emotional intelligence so that conflicts arise less often and, when they do arise, are handled more prod­uc­­­t­ively.
  • Everybody should have a proper sexual education from early on, knowing things such as how to tackle early ejaculation, tensions in the vagina, sexual rejections, making approaches in a charming but resp­ect­ful manner, how to handle competition and how to handle porn­ography or sexual desires that diverge from the norm.
  • Everybody should get some aid in managing the fear of death and facing the hard facts of life – to help us intuitively know that our time here is precious.

This is just a very rough outline, so far. The point is that we need to shift the whole fabric of social reality, making the mental and emo­tional back­ground noise of anxieties and fears less prevalent and making every­day life in general saner and kindlier. This is not a superfluous or self-evident claim. In no exist­ing society does a corresponding level of welfare exist; not in the Swedish system, not in nice boarding schools, not in the “Gross Nat­ional Happiness country” of Bhutan.

If everybody did have a support structure resembling the one briefly out­lined above – all according to best practices – do you think that you would be more or less afraid of walking down the street a dark night? Do you think that you would be more or less likely to hurry past by a person in need? Would you feel more or less secure in sending your kids off to school? Do you think the integration of immigrants would be more or less hindered by prejudice and cultural tensions? Would more or fewer people become terror­ists? Would the average person feel more or less compelled to buy cool cloth­es and cars to prove their social status? Would people build stronger or weaker local comm­unities? Would mental and physical health be better or worse? Would society be more or less prone to violent overreactions during times of change and crisis? Would class distinctions be aggravated or leveled out, and would the hidden injuries of class be deeper or would they heal more easily? Would the average family be more or less harmonious and healthy?

The most reasonable answer is that, on average, society as a whole would be safer, saner and kinder – and that these effects would accumul­ate over dec­ades and generations until a new and higher equilibrium of happiness and lower suffering is reached. People would experience a much higher degree of free­dom and contentment. Life would be a lot more fun and exciting too, since much fewer people would get stuck in their lives, limited in their develop­ment by stress, anxieties or broken relationships. There would be more human bonds, trust and opportun­ities. This in turn would save humon­gous costs and let much more people spend their lifetimes in prod­uctive service of themselves and others. So the whole idea of a listening society is possible because, after its initial investments, it saves a lot more than it spends. It saves the increas­ingly pressured welfare system.

I will say it again, in case you missed it, because people really seem to have difficulties with getting this point.

  • The listening society saves the welfare system, by being much more efficient and socially sustainable than our current syst­em, thereby being more affordable in the long run.

What we are talking about is the deliberate, long-term management of deep, complex, social-psychological issues. These deeply seated issues affect all aspects of society in a great variety of ways that are difficult to predict prec­isely. But the effects are pretty easy to spot on a general level. Think about it – if the average person would just be more socially well-developed, healthier and kinder, would not society as a whole benefit immensely? How about the economy, the labor market, or the efficiency of demo­cratic govern­ance?

A deeper welfare, a listening society, is possible because we live in a post­industrial age and because we are now beginning to have the know­ledge to execute it successfully; new social technologies are being made available. And the knowledge about how to continuously improve upon the implemen­tation of such social technologies is growing.

The listening society is possible, moreover, because of the foundation created by the prevailing meta-ideology of Green Social Liberalism. However, in a country like the US, where universal health care, abortion and gay rights are still real issues, we don’t yet have a stable ground to build upon. A country (or other society) must first have reached a point in the devel­op­­ment of its political discourse in which a solid majority supports liberal, social and green values, allowing these to be used as a common ground to start from. This is to a much greater extent the case in the Nordic count­ries.

Once it has become a no-brainer that we want a free, fair and sust­ain­able society, and once the first steps towards this end have been achieved, it beco­mes apparent that all the current parties (all of which are de facto green social-liberal, as is the case in the Nordic countries, including even the nationalist parties that to a considerable degree defend the welfare state, emphasize gender equality as national virtue and at least pay lip service to the protection of the environment) have become stuck as movements. They no longer have any long-term visions for society, no utopias or future goals worth mentioning.

This is an ironic turn of events; we have in fact never had greater pot­en­tial to develop new forms of everyday life than we do today. The resour­ces and knowledge at hand are simply staggering compared to only twenty years ago. The problem for the established political move­ments is that they all build upon ideologies that were founded during the industrial era. These ideologies are largely being aband­oned in practice (the Social Dem­o­crats no longer truly want socialism, and so forth). The industrial age ideologies are all bankrupted – they have all become pale, polite but­lers of Green Social Liberalism.

This leaves plenty of political and institutional leeway for new powers to emerge, offering an update upon the new political equilibrium of Green Soci­al Liberalism.

Look. Even if the socialists got everything they wanted, life would still be full of inequalities and misery. Even if the libertarians got their way, most people would not be free. Even if the Greens got their way, society would not be sustainable in any deeper sense.

By offering a bid for a “Green Social Liberalism 2.0”, one begins to build a new layer of society, on top of the modern society and its project of pro­gress and enlighten­ment. It brings up deeper, more personal and authentic issues that constitute the very core of how society functions. Such social-psycho­logical and existential issues are often what lie under the surface of superficial “societal problems” that we habitually think about and debate.

More and more people have begun to take interest in asking deeper quest­ions about life and society. People long for more depth and authen­ticity – and the inspiration that can come from answers in these domains. There is a demand for a deeper kind of politics, and thus there is political power for the taking. This new layer of welfare breaks the limits of mod­ern society. It beg­ins to transform the very quality of human relations. Nobody else is doing it, so whoever starts first gains a sharp competitive edge. That’s what makes it possible.

”We need people who are much more socially and psychologically functional for this new society to run smoothly in all of its crazed beauty.”

And, Yes, It Is Necessary

But Green Social Liberalism 2.0, and the listening society that it seeks to put into effect, are not just long-shot possibilities. They are, as I have argued, a moral imperative. And they constitute an institutional necessity. We are quickly moving from one kind of society to another, and failure to adopt a more efficient welfare system is likely to have very negative con­sequ­ences. Our current form of liberal democracy and welfare deserve all the respect in the world – but they are insufficient, and we must help them evolve. If we do not, our society can be expected to face increasing problems, even to the point of collapse, as our old answers and instit­utions persist­ently fail to tackle the challenges brought by the new era.

The cultivation of a deeper layer of welfare is necessary because the curr­ent system and its political visions are increasingly bankrupted under the globalized internet age. The problem is no longer to get food on the table or to manage the successful extraction of natural resources or the production of cars and medications (although these problems may come back as results of eco­logical collapse). What is lacking in our day and age is the ability for peo­ple to manage complex problems that require pat­ien­ce, knowledge, over­sight, creativity, mutual trust and friendly co-operation across sectors, scientific disciplines, cultures and subcultures. In a phrase: the management of com­plexity.

Similar social-psychological demands are also increasing for everyday choi­ces such as consumption and how we spend our time amidst all the dis­tractions. It even holds for personal relations, where new forms of love, fam­ily, friend­ships, acqua­int­ances, co-habitation and mixed work-perso­nal rela­tions are mush­rooming all over the world. We need people who are much more socially and psychologically functional for this new society to run smoothly in all of its crazed beauty. As a population, we are not ready to face up to and live in the society that we ourselves have created. We are out of our depth. Or, as Robert Kegan – the Harvard adult dev­elop­­ment psych­ologist – has suggested, we are in over our heads.

So basically, for people to function well as participants in the new econo­mic landscape, the demands for psychological wellbeing and good social net­works have become greater. A deeper welfare is necessary, one that increases our average psych­ological health and wellbeing and thereby our function­ality in this bizarre new global society. We need to be stable, flexible, mature versions of ourselves, because we spend our lives playing on an incr­ea­singly complex and multi-dimensional arena, where social skills and the quality of our relations make all the difference.

Collective and personal meaning-making is another big part of this. People need to be able to create their own life stories, their own narratives about the world, to find their own meaning. Life conditions no longer force you to go out and plow the field to feed your family and society no longer offers (and/or forces upon you) a coherent worldview written down by the gods – although we still of course inherit the norms of soc­iety, its language, etc.

It is a major challenge for people to stay sane in this world full of contra­­dictions, temptations, distractions and stressful yet devilishly vague demands. No meaningful story is given beforehand (unless you are part of some reli­gious sect, but even these positions are increasingly precarious). Not only must we stay sane; we must find and keep direction in all of this; we must stay active, even as our activities are rarely “necessary” in any direct, con­crete sense. If we fail to do this, we can easily land in socially and econo­mic­ally precarious situations. Many of these challenges require us to devel­op higher stages of personal develop­ment, as described in my book The Listening Society.

Consider the changing nature of professional work. The freelance part of the labor market grows and the relatively stable structures of the indus­t­rial age companies melt away (along with their employments), which means that the average person must think and act much more indep­en­dently in order to thrive and be productive. And no, this does not happen because of a neo­liberal conspiracy pulled on us, start­ing with Thatcher and Reagan, but because of the internet revolution, robotics and post­indust­rialism – and the mech­anisms of globalization (which, of cour­se, do deserve their fair share of criticism from the Left).

We are leaving behind the economy in which you were defined by your profession. Increasingly, people are defined and acquire their social value through a wider array of identities, including civic, personal, aesthetic and exi­stential ones. This has two major implications.

Firstly, people will need much more emotional support in order to grow into maturity and to be able to play with the many possible and con­fusing identities – instead of taking them too seriously, or clinging to one job desc­ription and be crushed if one is suddenly out of work. As men­tioned in the parallel discussion above, this necessitates a deeper form of welfare that supports self-knowled­ge and a rich life beyond the labor market.

Secondly, many new professional roles need to be invented to match the transformations of labor, as robotization and digitalization progress. “New jobs must be created”, to speak that horrid language of our current leadership. Many of these jobs can and should be concerned with the meaningful activ­ities involved in creating a listening society (a huge amount of work is needed helping kids, designing public spaces, support­ing life stage transitions, im­pro­v­ing upon diet, organiz­ing citizen deliber­ation, evaluating and develop­ing all of the above, and so forth). So the listening society is necessary both as support to the citizen and as a new source of meaningful, productive work opportunities.

Moreover, the listening society is necessary as a competitive edge in the global economy. The regions that will be able to create the most fertile soil for the blooming of human relations and wellbeing, are also likely to have much higher productivity in the postindustrial economy. It is well esta­blish­ed that things such as flow state and intrinsic motivation are conduct­ive to creat­ivity and performance of complex tasks. Confident, happy people, who can manage more abstract and long-term goals, and who are more self-secure and thus better at taking in negative feedback (and adjusting to new inform­ation), will simply out­com­pete other people in the scramble for capital and central positions in the new world economy.

This is a cynical part of the argument, admittedly, but an important one. It is not just that the listening society is kinder and more ethical. The listening society is, plainly, much more powerful in a digitalized global economy, than is the cap­italist liberal democracy. It saves so much tax money, it boosts enterprise, entrepre­neurship and innovation, it attracts talent, and it att­racts capital in different forms – and it grows human and social capital. We have seen similar macroeconomic effects with HDI-rankings (Human Devel­op­­ment Index): human develop­ment drives eco­n­o­mic growth. In the inter­net age, a deeper and more complex form of human develop­ment is highly likely to drive a deeper and more com­plex form of economic growth.

The deeper welfare system is necessary because, without it, you will be outcompeted by other, more listening societies, where citizens truly do thrive. Luckily for the future of humanity, this dynamic sets the world-system on a positive feedback cycle towards greater sensitivity and care, rather than a race to the bottom.

So we go ahead to sincere­ly building a listening society, a deeper kind of welfare, a new kind of politics and economy. We go ahead with informed naivety, with an ironic smile at our own self-importance.

In my book the Listening Society you can read about the crucial insights about human psychological development required to commence the realization of this momentous task, and in the sequel Nordic Ideology you can read how we accomplish it.

Let us do it,
For all the kind, intelligent
And sensitive people
Who bow down
And break down
Under the existential pressures
Of modern life

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.

Should We Really Make People Happy?

Should we really make people happy? Is it a viable goal for society? To some it may come off as an unnecessary question, “of course we should make people happy!”, but a lot of people tend to be annoyed about the notion of happiness as a societal goal and often argue that there are higher and nobler objectives than mere happiness. That seems to stem from the failure to properly make the distinction between hedonic happiness (pleasure, enjoy­ment, fun) and eudemonic happiness (meaning, purpose in life, and peace of mind). But the thing is that neither should be favored over the other and both of these can be supported for the long-term develop­ment of each person as well as society as a whole.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter about political metamodernism “in a nutshell” that investigates how a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security, can be achieved.

Supporting happiness means relieving suffering, which also means improv­ing the quality of human relationships. Neg­ative emotions such as sadness and frustration are, in manageable quant­ities, an integral part of a happy, productive life – but they must be effectively learned from and sur­mounted. And that requires happiness, or mental health, or at least some goddamn peace of mind. Happiness not, then, as the opposite of sad­ness – but as the opposite of suffocating misery and degradation.

To seek to develop and improve the psycho-social environment in which we live our lives does not (I repeat: not, read that word again, because I find a lot of people misread this sentence) mean that people should be protected from all challenges, difficulties or pains in the name of a superficial, immed­iate “happiness”. We’re not going to induce people to burst into loud, empty, hyst­erical laughter at their mother’s funeral or to abandon their family respon­si­bilities to “find happi­ness”.

It simply means that much better support can and should be offered to citizens, so that we are better able to productively tackle and over­come life’s challenges – and to make the best of what life offers. It is a matter of increa­sing people’s autonomy and sense of indep­e­n­­dence, not the cont­r­ary. High levels of challenge and high support give the best learning out­comes, and the best learning outcomes give the most sustainable posit­ive results – this is edu­cational psychology 101.

”People are hurt and afraid at a subtle psych­ological level – and are therefore self-absorbed, incap­able of taking on larger perspect­ives and incapable of acting upon the very real long-term risks that are threat­ening our global civilization.”

Isn’t Happiness a Personal Responsibility and Do People Deserve to be Happy?

A libertarian reflex is to be wary of all attempts to create happiness by pol­itical measures (“it is not the role of the state to…”). While under­standable, this reflex misses the point entirely. It is not that either states or markets (or families or civil society or individual persons) create happi­ness – and “if the state does it”, the individual cannot. That’s silly; a rath­er crude and, frankly, unintell­igent way to look at it. All of these categor­ies work together in a great mesh­work. You can gear these differ­ent parts of society to work toge­ther well and create happy human lives – or not. Given that we already do have a public sphere and a market, we can either tweak them so that they tend to generate sustainable happ­iness, or we can develop them in ways so that they become oppressive and create misery. But we cannot avoid the choice.

But, again, do we really want a happy society in the first place? Aren’t challenges and difficulties what give life its meaning and direction? And do we deserve to be happy at all?

Let’s start with the last question. If I grew up neglected by my father, with a school class where one girl cut her arm, one kid never talked to anyone, most people were insecure and never really figured out love and relationships, and some took hard drugs or drank alcohol and never got jobs, and some of the people who went to college got depressions and severe stress anxieties – am I not justified to want to inflict a corre­sponding pain to others, so that they learn just how tough life really is?

No. The current level of suffering in modern societies is not ethically justi­fiable. It is morally wrong to uncritically reproduce a society that dis­plays the amount of misery and long-lasting traumas prevalent in modern countries – even the com­para­tively happy ones like Canada and Denmark. It’s not that pre-modern societies are any better, but today we have more options available, which lends us greater moral responsibility.

Another version of the “not deserving” argument has to do with the global bottom billion – people in abject poverty. Somehow it might seem arrogant or even coldhearted to want to dramatically improve the lives of people in rich, relat­iv­ely happy economies when there is quite obviously so much material inequality in the world. Isn’t it unethical, or at least distasteful, to want to build a more kind, listening and inclusive society in the developed economies, when we should in fact be focusing on redist­ribution of wealth and more acute suffer­ing? There are three answers to this.

The first answer is that we can and should do both, so that the poor do become richer, but once they have become so, life can actually be happy – which was the point all along. The second answer is that rich societies are going on with their development and institutions either way, so we might as well make sure they do so in an efficient and intelligent, rather than in­effic­ient and unintell­igent, manner. The third and by far strongest argu­ment is that the world-system is evolving a whole; each part affects every other part. So one of the best things that we can do for the good of the world is to make sure that the richest and most privileged people have enough psychological secur­ity not to worry about how fancy their cars are or if they look a little fat, so that they can instead expend time, attention, energy and resources as genui­nely concer­ned world citizens – which would benefit everyone immen­sely.

Happier people create more functional societies, and more functional soc­ie­ties are more efficient at combating inequality – locally as well as glo­bally. We are trying to shift the whole global system into a fairer and more sust­ain­able equi­librium, and that requires some parts of the world to cult­urally devel­op ahead of others. It’s simply hard to see how we could neg­lect this part of the equation.

Life is just much too full of suffering and lost potential, and this is keep­ing our populations from developing psychologically and becoming mature, gen­uine world citizens. People are hurt and afraid at a subtle psych­ological level – and are therefore self-absorbed, incap­able of taking on larger perspect­ives and incapable of acting upon the very real long-term risks that are threat­ening our global civilization. We must, at all cost, make the world population much, much happier in the deepest sense of the word.

Obviously, we don’t want to obsess about consumerism and commer­cial­ized “self-development” (as happiness researchers and yogis will agree), but we can and should wish our fellow human beings genuinely happy, prod­uct­ive lives. If you think about it, it becomes obvious that the opposite position is un­tenable from an ethical standpoint. Try saying this out loud:

 “I will inflict upon you deep suffering and degradation, or refrain from pre­venting the hell-like mutilation of your psycho-physiology and emotions, ‘cause it might be good for ya.”

… or worse, because “it might be useful to society”.

”That life is too easy and hurts too little is just very rarely the problem. Don’t worry. Life is going to hurt, alright, even if we dramatically improve upon its quality.”

But isn’t Suffering Necessary?

When I talk about this vision of a deeper welfare, people will often bring up the argument: “Oh, but if you make people genuinely happy, society would stop funct­ioning, because we need people to be anxious consumers (so they keep spendin’ it!) and act out of fear of losing their jobs (so they keep workin’ it!) for things to run smoothly.” Sometimes people will even, in all seri­ous­ness, say that we need suffering to produce good books and screen­plays.

Of course, this line of reasoning is in opposition to the ethics that Imm­­anuel Kant set up for us, to treat every human being as an end in and of herself – never as a means for somebody or something else. It also breaks the older Golden Rule, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated.

Besides, it’s completely wrong, if you look at the facts. The Nordic coun­t­ries have happy popul­ations relative to others – and this appears to work in tandem with a highly functional and ordered society (producing plenty of poetry and crime novels too, for what it’s worth). It is often misery and psychological hurt that prevent productive and meaningful social, political and economic devel­op­­ment.

The happiness of human beings – again, in a deep, psychological sense of the word – serves the common good. Deep suffering can have positive eff­ects (there is an increasingly promising clinical literature on “posttraumatic growth”), but most of the time it causes lasting traumas and costs the hell out of society in terms of social work, criminality, unrest, poor health – the list goes on. Our society generates huge amounts of trauma, every day, every minute. And psychological mutilation causes suffocated souls that never get to blossom and share their unique gifts and longings with the world.

Either way, making life hurt more is the last thing in the world you have to worry about. Even in the most functional, educated, equal and heal­thy regions on Earth, a lot of people are traumatized, miserable wrecks. Ask any therapist, social work­er or doctor who knows what goes on beneath the surface. And with all the rapid changes and crises coming up at every corner, somebody’s gonna get-a-hurt.

That life is too easy and hurts too little is just very rarely the problem. Don’t worry. Life is going to hurt, alright, even if we dramatically improve upon its quality.

Of course, over­protection from discomfort can be harmful, because it may foster unsustainable laziness and inability to deal with problems. In psych­ology and psychiatry there is the concept of “learned helplessness”, which can be caused either by seemingly hopeless situations, by exhaust­tion, and by over­­protection. However, being severely harmed and degrad­ed many times over through­­out your lifetime, often beginning at very early age – which happ­­ens to many if not most people – is simply not productive.

What we are looking for is not an army of spoiled fools, incapable of tak­ing responsibility or enduring pain. We are not looking for a non-accep­tance of the suffering of life (which only brings more misery), but for a profound acceptance of life as it is. Psychologically speaking, we want a rad­ical accept­ance of pain, so that we can deal with it much more product­ively and create happier (and less miserable) lives for people and animals. But to truly accept the pain of life and deal with it, we require a lot of comfort, support, security, meaning and happiness. This is also what the “posttraumatic growth” re­search­­ers claim, i.e. the folks who look into how people gain positive, life-changing insights in the wake of pers­onal crises.

The point is that “normal life” causes immense harm to so many peo­ple; it just happens on a subtle and non-obvious level. This grind­ing down of living, breathing children is currently going on at a massive, global industrial scale through many cruel social-psychological mech­anisms prevalent in what we call everyday life. Maybe we cannot stop this suffer­ing, but at least we should do our best to substantially reduce and mitigate it.

What we are looking for is to stop the mass-mutilation and torture of hum­an beings – who are in turn fed with the agonized bodies of enslaved non-human animals.

But then again, the happiness of our children and fellow citizens does not – should not – require further justification. We can and should create a happy society, simply because we care. Unfortunately, I have found, this is not obvi­ous to many professors of psychology, theologians, philo­so­ph­ers, econo­mists and the like. Pond scum.

”…yes, we should make people happy, and it is simply perverse to suggest otherwise.”

Don’t Scorn Happiness

It is as fashionable to scorn happiness as it is dumb. It is popular to try to seem “wise” because one “understands” that happiness is not that impo­r­tant after all. And voilà: you can mirror yourself in Kierkegaard, Hei­degg­er or Viktor Frankl, saying that meaning is more important. And sure, for the indiv­idual person faced with aging, sickness or con­cen­tration camps (that was Frankl), this can make sense, which is probably why most people begin to say such things after about age fifty. But at a societal level of analy­sis, the scorn for happiness is profoundly misplaced.

You don’t think happiness is important? Now look the chronically dep­ressed person in her eyes – we are not talking about the cute kind of depress­ed of cultural creatives here (like the Norw­egian author Karl-Ove Knaus­­gard) but people who really can’t get up in the morning and get aband­oned by their own families as a result – and say that again. Look at the unhappy, insecure kid, who desperately looked for comfort in a stran­ger on the web and just got raped by someone (who is also miserable), and say it again. Or how about the screaming piglet who just literally got his testicles ripped off without anesth­etics. Look him in the eye and tell him his happiness is unimportant, that he should try to find meaning in it. Not so tough, huh? Kind of craps that solemn, wise style you had going there for a moment.

Happiness and misery, bliss and suffering – these are, to a large extent, continuous with one another. If you are committed to preventing and relieving the suffering of others, you are also committed to supporting their happiness.

To say something in the defense of the deriders of happiness, it’s not usually that they don’t care about others or that they suffer from philo­sophical defeatism due to a kind of Stockholm’s syndrome (that you begin to excuse un­happiness because you yourself are unhappy, that your mind is “taken host­age”, as it were). Their mistake lies primarily in the failure to make the analy­tical distinction between unsustainable, hyster­ical “happ­iness” on the one hand, and authentic, sustain­­able happiness on the other. Authentic happ­iness includes hedonism (pleasure, fun) and eudemonia (meaning, content­ment) as well as the product­ive and respon­sive accept­ance of pain and sorrow.

These critics also fail to see the social implications of how happy people are more productive in profound and complex ways. The critics conflate all talk of human happiness with cheap commercial self-help books and unbrid­led individualism: one big, hot summer party on Ibiza. They think that striv­ing for happiness implies what I in my book The Listening Society call “the denial of trag­edy”. Sometimes they also mis­take sincere commitment to the happiness of others for the worship of the happy/successful person and a corresponding disdain for the unhappy/unsucc­essful person – which is of course not what we are talking about here. Striving for the happiness of our fellow citizen is per­fectly compatible with ascrib­ing equal ethical value to the fortunate and grief-stricken alike.

On another note, some of the better informed critics point out that happi­ness is a rather vague societal goal, because people don’t seem to agree about what makes them happy. But the argument doesn’t hold up. First of all, it is perfectly possible to describe with some consistency what happiness feels like, some of its psycho-physiological correlates and so on. Happiness consti­tutes a set of describable, discernible phenomena, reg­ard­less of how it is cau­sed. And yes, we can know a lot about what causes happiness – just not by naiv­ely asking people (what a stupid method is that!), but through experim­ental psy­chology, ethology (studies of animal behavior), psycho-physiology, and so on. Secondly, and more import­antly, people are rather consistent in their ideas about what makes them un­happy (social degra­dation, harm to the body, etc.), which again under­scores that we can prevent misery in order to create happ­iness and vice versa.

People find many reasons to be against happiness. Such criticism of happi­ness is under­standable, but ultimately mistaken and inexcusable. It lands you in untenable positions.

The fact that happiness isn’t everything, that it isn’t the only worthy perso­nal and societal goal, doesn’t mean that it’s nothing and no worthy goal. Of course, if you always try to make everything about happiness only, you get in philosophical trouble, and people can start asking you those dull questions they like to ask beginner-level utilitarians, i.e. people who want to maximize the happiness in the world (“what if you had a poisonous happy-pill…”). But – and here’s the reply – if you try to act in society without any concern at all about the happiness and suffering of others, you get in much worse trou­ble. That’s the point here.

I’ll say it again: the fact that happiness isn’t everything, doesn’t make it into nothing. Happiness still matters very much if you want to under­stand the problems of society. A growing host of research from the field of “posit­ive psychology” and other fields, including strands of medicine and epigene­tics, shows that happiness is good for you. A banal research find­ing, in a way; I’m not going to reference it here. So yes, we should make people happy, and it is simply perverse to suggest otherwise.

Don’t worry, spirituality and existential development really do tower far beyond emotions of happiness, and yes, they are awesome and signi­ficant, and no, happiness alone does not exhaust the meaning of life and the uni­verse. We just need to get some people off their high spiritual and existential horses, so that we can get on with the argument with­out being stuck at point zero due to tiresomely preten­tious attempts at pro­fundity.

And then we need to set the horses free, while we’re at it. Their backs aren’t made for carrying other animals, you know. Horses are made for roam­ing on vast plains under open skies.

”The suffering and stunted development of our citizens are not individual concerns, but matters of utmost importance to society as a whole.”

The Fabric of Hurt and Bliss

Let’s return to the main argument. People are hurting as hell. It matters. We should do something to make them happier, if we can.

So, where were we? Let us clarify the diagnosis of late modern society, the central feature of our predicament: there is a shared, complex fabric of psych­ological hurt and bliss that determines our common lives and fut­ures. Our wounds and insufficient developments do not stay with our­selves – they tran­smit to other people, often in unexpected and indirect ways (as that of the terrorist mass-murderer described in my post about the transpersonal perspective). The suffering and stunted development of our citizens are not individual con­cerns, but matters of utmost importance to society as a whole. They are deeply politi­cal, ecological and economic matters. The stunted develop­ment caused by emotional suffering affects the individ­ual’s quality of life as well as basic societal concerns such as security, pub­lic health and the stability of our insti­tut­ions.

It has been shown in large, influential studies that happiness tends to trans­mit through networks; a happy friend within a mile tends to make you happier – a neighbor even more; siblings or spouses work too, but to a lesser degree.

But happiness and pain are “social” in an even more tangible and intimate way. Hurt, shame and fear make us become mean, controlling bosses, envious friends, lousy parents, bad teachers, thoughtless voters, uncritical consumers and ungrateful neighbors. We shift the blame, as immature people do, and believe that the ills of the world are due to peo­ple who are not like our­selves – we become poor citizens, incapable of meaningful dialogue, incap­able of uni­versal love and forgiveness. We are judgmental, short-sighted and self-right­eous, raging at the “moral degen­erates” and “hypocrites”, and we fail to show common courtesy and respect to those we disagree with, not least in politics. We fail to take responsibility, to act productively in the interest of ourselves and others. And in our attempts at a better life, we are often severely limited or thwa­rted by the immature and socially inept behavior of ourselves and others.

There is a great fabric of relations, behaviors and emotions, rever­be­rating with human and animal bliss and suffering, a web of intimate and formal rela­tions, both direct and indirect. Nasty whirlwinds of feedback cycles blow through this great multidimensional web, pulsating with hurt and degradation. My lacking human development blocks your possible human development. My lack of understanding of you, your needs and perspectives, hurts you in a million subtle ways. I become a bad lover, a bad colleague, a bad fellow citizen and human being. We are inter­connected: you cannot get away from my hurt and wounds. They will follow you all of your life – I will be your daughter’s abusive boyfriend, your bellig­erent neighbor from hell. And you will never grow wings, because there will always be mean bosses, misunderstanding families and envious friends. And you will tell yourself that is how life must be.

But it is not how life has to be. Once you begin to be able to see the social-psychological fabric of everyday life, it becomes increasingly appar­ent that the fabric is relatively easy to change, to develop. Metamodern politics aims to make every­one secure at the deepest psych­ological level, so that we can live authen­­tically; a byproduct of which is a sense of meaning in life and lasting happiness; a byproduct of which is kindness and an increased ability to cooperate with others; a byproduct of which is deeper freedom and better concrete results in the lives of everyone; a by­product of which is a society less likely to collapse into a heap of atrocities.

Of course, it should be noted that the fabric works in complex and often contradictory ways: one form of happiness can give birth to another form of misery (and vice versa); the happiness of one person can be the downfall of another. But there are regularities to these patterns, and we can make the patterns work for collective, sustainable happiness – yes, for love.

We desperately need a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security – a listening society, where every person is seen and heard (rather than made invisible and then put under sur­veillance). How can this be achieved?

In my next post I’m going to attempt to answer this difficult question. The vision of a listening society, which I’ll make a brief outline of herein, and that you’ll be able to read more about in my book by the same name and its second part titled Nordic Ideology, is an elaborate proposal to how we can deepen our welfare and increase the levels of happiness and personal development in society. In the next post you’ll read why it is necessary and possible, and why we need to accept the risks involved in this endeavor.

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.

Let the Mass Killings of Liberal Innocents Begin

Metamodern political thinking constitutes a breach with liberalism and liberal demo­­­­­cracy as we know them. Not only is it a death sentence to the individual, like the one I issued in my previous post, it is also a virtuous attack on the silly liberal notion that one can be “the good guy”, that it’s possible to simply chose the “right” political position – and – that one can remain untarnished, pure and innocent by doing nothing, by not taking a stance. We must put an end to this naive and harmful position I have termed “the liberal innocent”. It is this innocent that has to die. We must hereby issue a fatwa; shoot on sight.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from a section named “Liberal Innocence Lost” in the chapter on political philosophy; a chapter that also includes an inquiry into complexity and its political consequences, how it will lead beyond Left and Right through non-linear politics and the developmental hierarchical aspects that seems to be the lacking piece of the puzzle to get us there.

”What we hailed as liberal democracy was never based on deliberation about the common good, but rather on the dialectic between conflicting interests, checked in a dynamic power balance.”

The liberal innocent holds a few deeply seated beliefs that hail from the modern, industrial view of life, existence and society – beliefs that I con­tend are outdated and increasingly harmful.

The first such belief is that one can hold a “pure” or “correct” ideol­ogical position within a parliamentarian party system; that one can be “on the right side” of things, the Left, the Right or something similar. But this is increas­ingly becoming an untenable position. The thing is that liberal demo­cracy cancels itself the same moment as its ideals are appro­ached.

Liberal democracy cancelling itself? Let’s take a little detour to exa­mine what I mean when I say that. This is a difficult, abstract part of the argu­ment, so you might have to make an effort. Here goes: the death of the liberal innocent.

The ideals of liberal democracy are formed around the notion of the educ­ated “concerned citizen” (an ideal showing up from Alexis de Toc­que­­ville to John Dewey and George Herbert Mead through Paolo Freire’s radical peda­gogy of the sixties to Jürgen Habermas and other leading theorists of demo­­cracy). This informed citizen must be able to take on a general perspect­ive of society and deliberate with others, as equals, about the common good.

In reality, liberal democracy in industrial society has been a party-poli­tical trench war between working class (worker, employee) and bourgeois (indus­try, professional, consumer, share owner) interests. Indus­trial soc­iety, its cla­sses and categories, has spliced aspects of us into different sh­ards, from which political identities have been formed. From these differ­ent identities we could then form parties and belief systems about what modern life is and should be.

Liberal demo­cracy works as a power balance between these different asp­ects of ourselves, as a dialectical process resulting from the interaction of different ideas – ideas that by themselves are partial and largely mis­taken, but that together form a dynamic process that we know as the liberal, democratic market economy with public welfare (leading up to the victorious meta-ideology of Green Social Liberalism). It never actually worked through the “informed citizen” and certainly not the “public intellectual”. The ideological posi­t­ions, Left and Right, were false all along. What we hailed as liberal demo­cracy was never based on delib­eration about the common good, but rather on the dialectic between con­flicting inter­ests, checked in a dynamic power balance.

It is only when industrial society fully blooms into postindustrial soc­iety (and education levels rise dramatically and class distinctions and the cate­gories of class become blurred), that liberal democracy begins to live up to its own mythos as a deliberation between equal citizens. In such societies we begin to observe a situation in which arguments and reason­ing of informed citizens actually do matter.

It is a popular sentiment that democracy has lost its vitality these days. Political scientists in country after country show appalling research results – the younger generation would sell their votes, don’t care about democracy, and would even support dictators. But that democracy is losing ground is a superficial analysis, an illusion. Truth be told, demo­cracy (as the rule of informed, deliberating citizens) is only becoming real once society develops past the trench wars of industrial class parties. Before that, we never had democracy in any deeper, qualitative sense anyway. The whole system was built around the fact that our interests were at odds. You couldn’t actually unite “the people” or “let the people rule”.

Exclamations such as “United and free” (Soviet anthem) or “In the name of democracy, let us all unite!” (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dict­ator) re­main oxymorons, self-contradiction. Democracy and freedom, as we have known them thus far, are born from the very fact that we are and remain largely divided into the classes of industrial society, nationally and globally.

It is because the social categories of modern, industrial society are losing their relevance, that we suddenly land in a much more interesting position – one in which it is hard to know what my own interests are, long-term or short-term, let alone tell your interests apart from mine. The divisions, not the unity, that made possible the party system we know as “liberal demo­cracy”, are breaking down. So when demo­cracy begins to fulfill its promise of a people ruling itself through deliberation – it iron­ically wrecks the whole game that we know as party politics, around which our democratic system is built, because the necessary party division interests break down. By its dial­ectic development, by the logic of its own productive contradictions, liberal demo­cracy cancels itself.

”When I make suggest­ions about how to improve society, and you say no, but offer noth­ing in ret­urn, you are not being innocent, a liberal defender of freedom – you are kill­ing children and burying them in invisible graves.”

Liberal Innocence Lost

In this strange new state of affairs we have every reason to engage in an open-ended, democratic dialogue and deliberation with one another – to do “real” democracy, more according to the classical and Habermasian ideals. But the system of governance is still running on the engine of a modern, industrial society. This is where the frustrations and dis­appoint­ments with the ongoing political debate are coming from: people are recognizing that the boxing matches between Left and Right are increas­ingly devoid of substance. We begin to long for a real, honest talk about society and the future. But we find ourselves unable of speaking and list­ening, these being a much more difficult tasks than we imagined.

When you take up that thread, when you begin to deliberate about the evo­lution of society as a whole, you must admit that your own position on an ideological scale must always be partial, inherently harmful and limited in some respects.

Liberal democracy begins to reveal that it never worked in the first place. The different positions we are offered within its game of party pol­itics no longer make any deeper sense.

That is – you can no longer be innocently Left or Right, no longer believe that you’re the good guy and that the other positions are false, because it is becoming apparent that the real action happens in the honest deliberation between your position and theirs.

You can no longer believe that you are the libertarian defender of freedom, up against the odds with so many nasty control freaks of the Left and conserv­atives. You can no longer be the defender of the poor against the high bosses of neoliberalism and capital. You can no longer be the upstanding citizen, reacting against multiculturalism and relativist degen­eracy, no longer a Green env­iron­mentalist reacting against the excesses of industrial society.

All these positions still believe in those little shards that were one part of the greater whole. Once you see the larger process and identify with the dialectic of society as a whole, each of these positions is revealed as a partial, silly belief, a childish dream.

There is something endearing, almost cute, about being so blinded by the current forms of liberal democracy, that you think that you can take one pos­ition within it, and it just so happens to be the right one. It is innocent, in a way. It is very much like when people in pre-modern times used to believe in Jesus or Mohammed just because they happened to be born on opposite sides of the Mediterranean; the highest cosmic truth was in all seriousness believed to be determined by flukes of geography. Mod­ern people are “religious” in a correspon­ding way; they believe that the people born and raised in their pos­ition in society have the “correct” beliefs and values; that the truth is some­how dependent on where you are situated on a sociological map.

Once you adopt the metamodern perspective on politics, you lose that innocence. You become secular in a more profound and systematic way. The modern worldviews, such as those of libertarians or socialists, appear as irra­tio­­nal as Kali, goddess of creation, with blue skin and four arms.

You realize that there is no “safe” political position. Whatever position you take, it will work its non-linear way through reality and sneak off to mur­der, torture, maim, destroy, exploit, defeat others, deprive others of their mea­ning making, and press itself upon social and political reality. The truth is that you don’t have the truth; that you never will. And even if you turn out to be right about something, there will always be a time when your opinion is outdated or at least incomplete. Whatever direction you move in, it will lead to contra­diction, self-destruction and decay, sooner or later. Your perspect­ive or opin­ion always has a systemic limit, a breaking point; it always breaks down under its own weight, just like any engine, organism or economic system. You never get to be the good guy in the end. You are not innocent.

And that leads us to a second, even deeper, belief of the liberal inno­cent: that you can choose not to act, and just be a normal citizen, and that you are thereby innocent. The belief holds that, if you “don’t want to control others” and “just live your life”, you are innocent; that only the politicians, reformists and dictators bear the true responsibility.

But you are society as a whole, more than Louis XIV, the Sun King, ever was the state (the one who said l’état, c’est moi). Society is you – Left and Right, up and down. There is no “default position” to which you can revert, no way of “just being normal”. Ours is a meat-eating, animal-exploiting, cruel, capit­alist, alienating, unfair, oppressive, unscientific, undemo­cratic, un­sust­ain­able society. If you partake in it, you are com­plicit in its crimes, mis­takes and vices.

And if you tolerate this, your children will be next. When I make suggest­ions about how to improve society, and you say no, but offer noth­ing in ret­urn, you are not being innocent, a liberal defender of freedom – you are kill­ing children and burying them in invisible graves. When you call yourself an anarchist, an environmentalist, an anti-capitalist or just an honest working citizen, you are not pure, not taking the “right path” and leaving it to others to mess up the world. You are hiding behind a small shard of the totality of human existence and failing to take responsibility.

Third and last. Once you see, with a transpersonal perspective, that you are the whole process of evolving language games, that you are the pol­arities and dynamics of the social and political developments, you also recognize that all of your positions, all of your opinions, all of your choi­ces, both do good and cause harm. You are causing harm, doctor. You are causing harm.

”The universe seems to have presented us with a mean, ironic twist: any true freedom, revolution or open horizon is simultaneously a call to power, a crown to grasp, an adversary to conquer.”

You Can Never Chose Innocence

If you, like me, are against animal exploitation, you are also saying that you want to denigrate the social status and livelihood of millions of hum­an beings, the honest folks working for generations with animal husband­dry. Yes, I admit it. I would destroy their lives for the greater good of all sentient be­ings, if that’s what it takes.

If you, like me, tend towards liberal stances on narcotics, you are also say­ing that you would cause many young, innocent people to suffer irre­pa­r­able psychiatric harm, let them live through unimaginable hells, in order for huma­nity to stop the global terrorism, civil wars, criminality and prison-industrial excesses emanating from drug bans. Yes, I admit it; I will cause them harm. (And by the way, drug liberalization facilitates state regulation, redu­ces neg­ative feedback cycles due to stigmatization and makes damage redu­ction easier, thereby reducing overall death tolls and psychiatric harm – but still, yes, some people that would otherwise have not used drugs, will, and while some of them may benefit, it is unavoidable that some of them will be harmed.)

It is a question of choosing totality over partiality. Partiality is only poss­ible if you believe in the liberal innocent. Once you choose totality, once you begin to see society as a whole, liberal innocence is lost.

The universe seems to have presented us with a mean, ironic twist: any true freedom, revolution or open horizon is simultaneously a call to power, a crown to grasp, an adversary to conquer. Even the most heart­warming ideal­ism, be it feminism, peace work or abolitionist animal rights, must act viol­ently to create new hierarchies, new winners and los­ers. In that violent act, we can never know for certain if we are good or evil; an inconvenient truth if there ever was one. We only know that if we choose innocence, we have chosen evil.

When we identify with ideas, ideals and deeper political movements, we are also challenging other patterns of thought. The metamod­ern thinker and activist challenges modern society. This is not revolution on the barricades, and no harm needs to come to human bodies. But people are deeply invested in their ideas and worldviews. To challenge their ways of thinking and sensing is also an act of cruelty and aggression; shattering peo­ple’s beliefs, their sense of security, self, ethics and reality. Nothing could be less innocent.

But the gods of modernity are false idols – the individual self, liberal dem­o­cracy, liberal innocence, Left and Right, humanism, rationality (and “free will”), scientism, many forms of linear causation and to some extent even equality are all outdated ideas. In the infor­mation age, and the new life conditions it brings, these golden calves must be rejected – even at great cost. We must discipline ourselves to be temple thie­ves; to pillage and desecr­ate the symbols of modern society.

So while bodies are spared, and no physical violence is needed, the souls of our fellow human beings do not go unharmed. As we build a program to develop a metamodern society, we must crush the resistance that the defen­ders of liberal democracy muster, applying just the right balance of ruse and tenderness, guns and roses.

The modern worldview is ridden with inherent self-contra­dictions, with analytical dead-ends that cause intolerable suffering and are likely to event­ually lead to the collapse of civilization. Against these dead-end brick walls of contradiction we must round up the ideas of modern life, the dearly held beliefs of people we love and care about, and execute them in the name of the revolution.

When analytical rifles shoot ideas, they also shoot the human souls that worship them. We are attacking your time, your society and your way of life. Let the mass killings of liberal innocents begin. (Not literally, stupid. Be nice and non-violent.)

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.

Death to the Individual

In modern society there is a widespread idea about “the individual”. The idea of the individual is actually an ingenious solution to a difficult social-philo­sophical problem: should we focus on society as a whole, or on its diff­er­ent parts and singular processes? This view has served us greatly in the past and made it possible to avoid the totalitarian, oppressive and very pathological form of modernity we’ve encountered in the 20th century. But individualism doesn’t really seem to cut in any longer, it doesn’t fulfill its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organization, it can’t solve many of social problems and often it even stands in the way of an adequate resolution of these. But entering the opposite ditch of collectivism evidently has its fair share of problems too. So as a solution to transcend this dilemma, without compromising one or the other, allow me to introduce the transpersonal perspective: a way to go beyond the individual without suffocating it.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the part about transpersonal perspectives in the chapter on political philosophy; a chapter that also includes an inquiry into complexity and its political consequences, how it will lead beyond Left and Right through non-linear politics and the developmental hierarchical aspects that seems to be the lacking piece of the puzzle to get us there.

”The idea of the ‘individual’ no longer fulfills its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organization. As a solution to the problems of society, it no longer does its job.”

If a society focuses on its totality and wholeness, it can easily repress or deny processes that follow their own, partly independent, logics and social orders: legal systems, business, personal love relations, party politics and so forth (think Soviet communism). On the other hand, if a society (not necess­arily a nation state) fails to integrate the many parts into a whole, it can easily suffer serious consequences: that people work against one another, environ­mental degradation, failure to address wider issues such as social exclusion.

The idea of the individual provides a kind of solution to this problem. It basically says that each human being, over the stretch of her lifespan, is an indivisible whole unto herself. This idea thereby creates a series of smaller “whole” systems, “individuals”, each being a “life project” that ties together many different societal processes into one seamless fabric: child­hood, pers­onal life, education, work, family, political opinions, and so on. By use of this idea, modern society finds a golden mean that addresses the dilemma between the whole and the parts: within each single individual, the many processes of society come together into a whole. By means of the individual, all of society can be integrated into a microcosm.

Individual means “that which cannot be broken down into smaller parts”, if we look at its Latin root. The Greek translation of the same word is “atom”. In actual reality, of course, there are no “individuals” in any deeper sense that corresponds to the theory of atoms in physics: we are just animal bodies that move through a series of socially defined realities. Our bodies are always in a flux, always being changed by the environ­ment. After five years, all mass in our body has been exchanged (at least more than 99%).

The life story about our “individual self” is always just that: a story. There really is nothing to our individuality that makes us very unique: all of our wants, dreams, words and ideas come from the social environment. Even our name and our idea of a self come from interactions with other people, who in turn have been defined by their social surroundings. And the individ­ual has no real “free will”. Even if we are organisms with inten­tionality of our own, we are always deeply shaped by the social environ­ment; this includes our thoughts and intentions. The same conclusion is appar­ent to all people train­ed in meditation or otherwise versed in East­ern philo­sophy: when we quiet down our “talking head” minds and obs­erve our thoughts, it becomes evident that the voice speaking in our head runs automatically and largely beyond our own “will”. Where in all this is the individual located?

After all, even atoms turned out to be divisible; their very existence non-local and always based upon interactions. But the reason that pol­itical meta­modernism must go beyond the idea of the individual, and “see through” the individual person, is not just philo­sophical, not just a matter of being corr­ect in an analytical sense. It has profound practical and poli­tical implications.

The idea of the individual was a smart solution under the circumstan­ces that modern, industrial society produced. In today’s globalized infor­m­a­tion society, however, when the problems of society are of a much deeper and more complex nature, the idea of the individual tends to blind us to the prob­lems as well as to their solutions. The idea of the “individ­ual” no longer fulfills its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organiza­tion. As a solution to the problems of society, it no longer does its job. This is because the problems of society increasingly stem from deep layers of the psyche – and their interactions with the world – that are hard to access for us as indivi­d­ual persons. How do you make the average person trust her fellow citizens more? How do you make those same fellow citizens more trust­worthy in the first place? How do you make people have genuine solidarity with all people and animals (which, truth be told, most of us simply don’t have)? How do you make the average person more far-sighted, creative and complex? How do you make the average family have more stable and loving relation­ships? How do you break the evil cycle of insecurity, commercialism and over-consum­ption?

In turn, such deeper layers of the psyche are fundamentally intertwined with the collective structures of society. For instance: how everyday life in school is, how the labor market is, how love and sex function (or don’t), what words we are taught to discuss the universe and our place in it. All of these things depend on our surroundings so much more than on indivi­dual choices.

But society cannot be viewed solely as “collect­ive structures” or “net­works”, either, because that would make us blind to the deeply lived and felt per­spectives and experiences of singular human beings – and to the fact that the collective structures are largely defined and determined by such deep, psych­ological processes within each one of us.

”The idea of the trans­individual sees the human being as inseparable from her language, her deep unconscious, her relations, roles, societal positions, values, emo­tions, develop­mental psychology, biolog­ical organism and so forth. Each human being is viewed as an open and social process, a whirlwind of par­ticipation and co-creation of society. Soc­iety as a whole is viewed as a self-organizing system which creates such trans­individuals who are in turn able to recreate society.”

From the Individual to the Dividual to the Transindividual

The French philosopher Deleuze proposes that we should see society as made up by dividuals, i.e. that we all are in fact part of one another and affect one another. We consist of many different influences, roles and perspect­ives, within a multitude of contexts.

I am offering a related bid for anti-individualism: the trans­personal per­spec­t­ive. The transpersonal perspective holds two seemingly opposed, but in reality complementary, positions.

The first position is to see society as determined by the deep, inner lives – the most personal relations and tender emotions – of human beings. This takes the unique lived experience of each human being very seriously. Such lived experi­ence is taken to be the very foundation of soc­iety: if there is anger or love in our hearts, if there is peace in our minds, and if all manner of psychological issues have been properly dealt with. Such things determine if we turn out engaged world citizens, mind­less con­sumers or bitter reaction­aries.

The second position is that this deeply human and personal experience is in turn created by societal processes that are largely invisible to each single person, and access­ible only through a profound and systematic sociological and psychological analy­sis of society.

So this lands us in an apparent paradox: to really see the singular hum­an being, to really respect her rights and uniqueness, we must go beyond the idea of the individual; we must see through it and strive to see how society is pre­sent within each single person as well as in the relationships through which she is born as a “self”. We go from the idea of the individ­ual (vs. “the collect­ive”), to sim­ply seeing society as an evolving, inter­linked set of transindivi­duals. This is the transpersonal perspective. It’s not just that we are each a billiard ball that “interacts” with other people. We co-emerge. Or, as the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad has put it: we intra-act.

Initially, it may seem counter-intuitive to think of humans as some­thing other than individuals: after all, don’t we all have one body each, one voice and one inner monologue? But even neuroscience challenges this assumption. Ever heard of what is popularly called “split-brain”? It occurs in rare cases when the bridge between the left and right hemi­spheres of the brain is surgi­cally removed to treat severe epilepsy. People with “split-brain” show a num­ber of deeply puzzling features; they appear to have two different selves, each cont­roll­ing one side of the body. Some­times these two sides work past one another, the conscious mind (or rather: the linguistically endowed “talking” mind of the dominant hemi­sphere) even making excuses and rationalizations for the behaviors of the ghostly left hand which seems to gain a will of its own.

Or, you can show a picture to one eye and not the other – and the split-brain person will act as if he has seen the picture. But if you ask him, he is still unaware of having seen the picture and gives rationalizations for why he acted as if he had seen the picture. What you can see here is that the brain becomes split in half, and each part seems to have a mind of its own – although some­times the two communicate indirectly. This truly is bizarre, at least from a perspective where humans are thought to have an individual self and will of their own.

Or you may have heard of the cranially conjoined child twins (mean­ing that their heads are partly physically merged into one) from Van­couver, Krista and Tatiana Hogan, who seem to be able to pass visual impress­ions to one another direct­ly through their brains: you can ask one girl what the other sees and she will know. Such cases make the reality of the dividual clearly apparent: the single human mind is not indivisible, not a “single atom”. It’s just not; not even biologically speaking. But these un­com­m­on cases serve only to underscore something more fundamental that involves all of us: nowhere can you find a single, individual “self”; it’s always connected to every­­thing around us.

To the metamodern activist, the rights and interests of the trans­indiv­id­ual are seen as much deep­er, more real and more important than the rights of the individual. Just like modern society scrapped the rights of the clan or the family in favor of the individual, we are now scrapping the indiv­i­dual in favor of the much more morally entitled and more analy­tic­ally valid trans­individ­ual.

The idea of the listening society serves the trans­individual: the human being is seen as more than a unique, separate life story. The idea of the trans­individual sees the human being as inseparable from her language, her deep unconscious, her relations, roles, societal positions, values, emo­tions, develop­mental psychology, biolog­ical organism and so forth. Each human being is viewed as an open and social process, a whirlwind of par­ticipation and co-creation of society. Soc­iety as a whole is viewed as a self-organizing system which creates such trans­individuals who are in turn able to recreate society.

To sum up, the idea of the individual and her rights and freedom has served us well, but now we need to move on – lest society come crashing down on us like London Bridge.

Metamodern politics, working from sincere irony, applies a trans­pers­onal perspective to society, serving the trans­individual, her rights and inter­ests. You can use the words transpersonalism and transindividualism more or less interchangeably. Just remember this: It is by looking at deep psychological issues, the inner development of each of us, and how such properties are generated within society, that we address the core of society’s problems. (In the appendix of my book you will find some more conden­sed definitions of what the transpersonal perspective means.)

”…the terrible truth is that Breivik is you and me. He is a direct result of the society we create and uphold every day. He is not an alien force. He is that kid from school who came back and killed our kids. It’s all inter­connected. We are all interconnected.”

The Terrorist and Mass-Murderer from a Transpersonal Perspective

Let’s take an example. How about a terrorist like Anders Behring Brei­vik, the Norwegian guy who killed 77 people (mostly social-democratic youth) and injured more than 300 people on that fateful day in July 2011. There are two major explanations people use to account for his acts of terror: that it is a political issue (the spread of neo-Nazi ideas in the wake of rising populist nationalism) or that it is a mental health issue (the guy is crazy). A third, less common, explanation is the suggestion that Breivik is the result of neoliberal developments of society, which have purportedly made people unhappy and narcissistic (obviously championed by main­stream Left sociologists). Some social-psych­ological observers have sugge­sted that the long process with years of isolation and self-disciplining while preparing for such a grave trans­gress­ion of norms is the main issue: how did someone like Breivik at all manage to get himself to follow through?

What all sides agree upon is that online forums played a big part; that Breivik is at least in part an internet phenomenon.

These discussions choose between an individual and a societal (collect­ive) perspective. From a more transpersonal viewpoint, the issue appears quite differ­ently. The matter at hand is instead the social psychology of a long seq­u­ence of everyday events: somehow and somewhere in everyday life, this young man became very embittered, and was clearly unable to handle life in a prod­uct­ive manner. Breivik, the mass murderer, was born in the school yard, in the dysfunctional family, in the peer group, on the internet, in the labor mark­et, in failed love aspirations, in sexual frust­rations, in failed masculinity (a recurr­ing theme in his crazed “manifesto”, released the same day as the kill­ings occurred – he even spent his last night with two expensive prosti­tutes and champagne), in hurt pride, in failed interethnic relations and stalling inte­gration processes. In short, he was born as a result of the entire fabric of society.

So Breivik planned for nine years and then went out and killed people. In doing so he of course violated the rights of each unique person, and the rights of their loved ones.

Think about it; the only way to have prevented this from occurring would be if people like Breivik were simply much less likely to emerge in the first place. We can’t really protect each single person from the ill will of all conce­ivable wrong­doers, not even with super-efficient policing. No matter how much we “stand up for the rights of the individual”, the indiv­idual will still be limited and harmed in a million ways, even to the point of being murdered, if we don’t see her deeper insides and the social-psych­ological contexts of which she is part – if we fail to see the trans­individual and stand up for her rights.

We cannot do much about the sporadic occurrence of pathological psycho­paths, as psychopathy clearly has strong hereditary or genetic fact­ors. Nor can we make crazy Nazi ideologies disappear from the inter­net (or do-it-yourself guides for terr­orists, for that matter). In any case, neither psychopathy nor internet extremism is sufficient to explain Brei­vik the terrorist.

What we can do, however, is to make sure that the average person is happ­ier and healthier, has better relationships, better self-knowledge and more support. Because the terrible truth is that Breivik is you and me. He is a direct result of the society we create and uphold every day. He is not an alien force. He is that kid from school who came back and killed our kids. It’s all inter­connected. We are all interconnected. Obviously Breivik is an extreme ex­ample of social deviance, but he emerges in continuity with the rest of us. Somehow, we are made of the same stuff. The answer to the horror show that Breivik unleashed is to be found deep within ourselves.

Would Breivik have become who he became if the whole fabric of bliss and suffering had been more intelligently weaved? It is a matter of likeli­hood: some societies generate more terrorists than others, Norway usually being relatively peaceful, but evidently not without its fair share of social tensions. It is a transpersonal issue; it goes beyond and through the indiv­id­ual person. But as such, it still is, and will remain, deeply personal, in the sense that it involves matters that are exquisitely intimate and emo­tional.

”To see human beings as ‘individuals’ in an obviously interconnected and co-evolving universe is not only poor social philosophy. It is an unforgiv­able insult to the greatness of the human soul.”

Let us go beyond the terrorism example. Extend this transpersonal per­spec­tive to all kinds of other issues: un­employment, where the issue is not only how many are employed, but how it feels to be unemployed, what it means to people and why; or bullying, where the whole environment and social setting of schooling and the educational system set the limits for inter­personal trust and solidarity throughout society; or public health, where the lifestyles of our friends and relatives affect our habits and there­fore our lifespan – which in turn depends on how well they are doing psychologically in terms of happiness, which in turn depends a lot on the quality of their relationships, which in turn depends on how much people are forced to compete for social status, and so on. So the great fabric of hurt and bliss that explains acts of terror is the same one that explains so many other miseries in our lives.

There is of course not “one explanation” for the gruesome mystery of Brei­vik, but some perspectives are much better at dealing with the com­plex nature of these issues than others. The inner life of the singular citiz­en is married to the collective structures of society, and vice versa. Our failure as a society to see this interconnectedness is the real explanation that people flip out and become murderous Nazis. None of the other pers­pectives can stop the next Breivik; only a transpersonal perspective can.

To serve the individual – or the collective – is thus increasingly becom­ing regressive and harmful. “The individual” and “the collective” are analy­t­ically faulty positions. We are not simply balancing individual and collective inter­ests; we are attacking both in the name of the trans­indiv­idual.

To see human beings as “individuals” in an obviously interconnected and co-evolving universe is not only poor social philosophy. It is an unforgiv­able insult to the greatness of the human soul. We are more than individuals; we are much larger beings. This is why, in a transpersonal perspective, I can say in all sincerity: Death to the individual.

Long live the dividual – or the transindividual.

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.

The Difference Between Post- and Meta-modernism

Lately I have written a great deal about metamodernism which is the overall philosophical school of thought this blog and my books are devoted to. I have introduced the notion of the metamodern aristocracy, proposed what’s going to be the meta-ideology of metamodern society, showed how we have progressed from pre-modern to metamodern thinking throughout history, and in series of posts presented the metamodern stance towards life, its view of science, reality, existence, society and the human being (you can read the first one here). However, to some it may still be rather unclear what exactly the difference between postmodernism and metamodernism is. And since there’re other interpretations and uses of the term “metamodernism”, mostly in terms of a cultural phase, which diverge significantly from how I use it to describe a developmental stage, a philosophical paradigm – and – perhaps most importantly, a political ideology; because of that there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the term. So in order to alleviate this inconvenience I’ll attempt to clarify the distinction, how I use the term and why you should bother.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the appendix about metamodernism as a cultural phase, developmental stage and a philosophical paradigm.

”Only now, in the age of internet and social media, are we approaching a time which can truly be described as postmodern”

As the word is used by scholars nowadays, the basic premise of meta­modern­ism is that it comes after and completes an earlier cultural phase, called postmodernism. Post­modernism in turn means “that which comes after modern society”. Modern society is based around beliefs in science, progress, an obj­ective and independent reality, the individual, and so forth. “Modern­ism”, in this sense, is the standard worldview we get in secular West­ern soc­ieties today (unless we happen to attend very religious schools or get liberal arts degrees at the universities, where other para­digms are dom­inant).

Postmodernism is a catch-all term for the ideas and cultural currents that have increasingly challenged the standard modern worldview, at least from the late sixties and onwards. But postmodernism isn’t really an acad­emic school of thought – usually when people speak of postmodernism they have in mind the French post­structuralist thinkers. These include Michel Foucault, Jean Baud­rillard, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard – and perhaps Americans like Richard Rorty, Daniel Bell or Frederic Jameson and Judith Butler. I am not going to try to describe post­modernism in any detail; suffice to say that postmodernism does not believe in “progress”, is suspicious of grand narratives for our day and age, likes to focus on details, exceptions and peripheries, and is critical of the power and prestige that science wields in modern life.

Postmodern art (to make matters more complicated this is what people usually call “modern art”, which you can read more about in my book The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History) can give us an intuitive sense of what post­moder­n­­ism is. It is perhaps best descri­bed with the image of Andy War­hol – who, in the sense I use the term here, can be called a post­modern artist. War­hol shows us that fine art and popular culture are not so different from one another: sur­faces and appear­ances within contexts are all that really matter. His triptychs and paintings indicate that mun­dane and popular things such as images of canned tomato soup or Marilyn Monroe repeatedly drow­ned in shrieking col­ors can also be fine art – because there is really nothing behind the curt­ains, no depth or sec­ret to reveal, nothing “special” about the artist and his art­work. Post­modern­ism sees through all such illusions. There is only surface. And you can play with these surfaces in irreverent ways: Pablo Picas­so squeezes several dimen­sions and multiple perspectives into the same two-dimen­sional frame – and the pastiche becomes increasingly popular. Pastiche is the mixing of different styles, fashions or epochs in surprising and often ironic ways.

In early forms, postmodern thought first showed up in late 19th century liter­ature: you may remember the wizard of Oz, who, upon being revealed as a fraud, points out to Dorothy that he’s not a bad man – only a bad wizard. Or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which the stupefying dialogues reveal the absurd and contingent nature of speech and lang­uage. Surface, context, absurdity.

Postmodernism is closely related to such things as relativism, social const­ruct­ivism and a kind of cynicism that comes from seeing many different per­spectives, with no longer being a naive believer in religious, politi­cal or even scientific movements. Postmodernism is interested not so much in what is true, in what should be done, but rather in questioning everything, in pick­ing things apart, deconstructing them, to make us think again, to make us less sure, to make life harder for those who would control or manipulate others: the politicians, the media moguls, the scien­tists and the medical prof­essionals. To the postmodern mind, the goal is to reach an anti-thesis – the critique or criticism of the existing is what counts as a real result; not to give answers but to refute old answers and dwell on new questions.

Whereas postmodernism, in some vague proto- form, appeared in arts and philosophy already during the 19th century, and prospered in the arts and literature in the early 20th century, it was clearly formulated only in the 1960s and 70s – and it became a powerful academic trend in the 80s and 90s. Soc­iolo­gists remarked, however, that the rest of society was hardly “postmodern” in the ways that the French theorists had descri­bed – which is why other epoch labels such as “late modernity” and “second modernity” were tried out to describe the period. Only now, in the age of internet and social media, are we approaching a time which can truly be described as postmodern – where surface truly is everything, and where everything becomes a cut-and-paste collage, an endless pastiche.

”…metamodernism is qualitatively very, very different from post­modernism: it accepts progress, hierarchy, sincerity, spirituality, develop­ment, grand narra­tives, party politics, both-and thinking and much else. It puts forward dreams and makes suggest­ions. And it is still being born.”


But history is always on its way – we never seem to catch it. So while society in the rich parts of the world is finally becoming post­modern, the phil­o­sophers and cultural theorists are already spotting the next tendency: meta­modernism.

Metamodernism, the word, is a silly adaptation in a way. “Meta” means “after” in old Greek, just like “post” does in Latin – so it’s the same word as postmodernism, basically. But the connotations are different. The “meta” pre­fix brings to mind such things as “meta-discussion”, i.e. a discussion about the discussion and “meta-theory”, which is theory about theories. So the meta­modern cultural phase somehow brings with it a bird’s eye on modern life and it begins to reflect more deliberately upon it, to try to shape it.

Meta is often taken to mean above, or beyond – and sometimes both of these. Metamodernism as a cultural phase is what comes after post­modern­ism, but it does so by being more postmodern than postmodern­ism itself – just as the postmodernism of the 1980s was more secular and dis­ench­anted than the modernist mindset itself (you can read more about this here).

In a now famous 2010 paper, the two Dutch art theorists Timotheus Verm­eulen and Robin van der Akker described a trend in art and arch­itecture they had spotted in recent years – a trend they called meta­modernism. Art, arch­itecture and to some extent popular culture, are coming out of their cynical, ironic, critical postmodern phase with manifestations of abstract art and com­edy such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Post­modernism was antithetical to a lot of what the modern age had brought; it was concerned with being an antithesis, with questioning what we take for granted.

Metamodernism instead sees itself as a synthesis of modernism and post­modernism – or rather, a protosynthesis, (a “proto”-synthesis because it ackn­ow­ledges that whatever story we tell ourselves, it must be incon­sistent and temporary). As Vermeulen and van der Akker write, meta­modernism “osci­ll­­ates” between modernism and postmodernism. To oscillate means to move back and forth like a wave – you may remember the word from physics class. I’d best quote Vermeulen and van der Akker:

“Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the post­modern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”

Vermeulen, T. & van der Akker, R., 2010. Notes on Metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Volume II, pp. 1-14.

Ontology is a word for what you believe about reality, about what is “really real”. So when Vermeulen and van der Akker claim that meta­modern­ism oscillates “ontologically”, they mean to say that the metamod­ernist artists adopt a new view of reality itself. In this view you are both a modern believer in science and progress, and a skeptical, ironic critic of your own naive belief.

We will not go farther into the analysis of art and architecture that these authors present with a rich array of examples. Basically, metamoder­nism is keeping the postmodern suspicion of progress and “grand narratives” (sci­ence, socialism, etc.) but bringing in the modern hope and sense of direction through the backdoor, as vaguely suggested open potentials.

Vermeulen and van der Akker are chiefly leftwing intellectuals like most people of their brand, and they link this new trend to a wider hope in political renewal, critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism), etc. Their paper spurred considerable attention and there is a blog named after it, Notes on Meta­modernism, with many different intellectual contributors. We should mention one: Luke Turner, an art scholar, who had the Holly­wood star and scandalous polymath artist, Shia Laboef (of the Trans­formers movie, you know those giant robots, and dancer in Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart), figuring as author of the 2011 Metamodern Mani­festo. This text outlines some of the principles of this artistic and cultural current. The manifesto proposes such ideas as informed naivety, magical realism and pragmatic roman­ticism.

When we speak of metamodernism as a cultural phase, as a Zeitgeist, it is possible to make the argument that it shows up in all manner of present day contexts – that many of the current day events are “metamodern phen­o­mena”. Note, again, that this is not how I use the term.

But note also that what we said about postmodernism holds true of meta­modernism: the fact that there were some French theorists writing about it did not mean that society as a whole was suddenly “postmodern”. These people were ahead of their time, and their analyses were certainly rushing things. In a corresponding manner people who think we today live in a meta­modern age, are precocious and ahead of their time. If they study today’s society instead of working out the philosophy inherent to a metamodern perspective, they risk mistaking late or extreme forms of postmodernism for metamodernism. But metamodernism is qualitatively very, very different from post­modernism: it accepts progress, hierarchy, sincerity, spirituality, develop­ment, grand narra­tives, party politics, both-and thinking and much else. It puts forward dreams and makes suggest­ions. And it is still being born.

Some societal phenomena of our day and age could be described as meta­modern ones, because they require a metamodern mindset to under­stand and respond correctly towards. Take ISIS (the Islamic State). Can it be seen as part of the metamodern Zeitgeist? To really understand what is going on with ISIS, why it emerged with such force, you must be able to understand the logic of a globalized information society in which sincerity and irony merge.

Although ISIS is hardly run by people at the metamodern stage of develop­ment, its very occurrence is, in a way, a metamodern phenome­non – its rise pertains to the logic of a globalized, online society and its develop­mental pathologies. Viewed from this perspective metamodernism is the domin­ant, underlying cultural logic of the internet age. But that cultural logic has yet to come fully into play.

”In my version of metamodernism, we are not contented with viewing metamodernism as a cultural phase. There is also the devel­op­­mental stage dimension, a general philoso­phical dimen­sion and … a political dimension”

Bringing A New Metamodernism into Being

What I am doing in my work is something that is closely related to cultural theory, but still quite different. I share much of the analysis of these different scholars of meta­modernism (whose works, to be fair, I have presented in a simpli­fied manner). But I also add a few things that I believe they would hardly appreciate. I think these scholars are right in their analysis, by and large, and I share their spirit. But they fall short; their project doesn’t really land us in hope and pragmatic idealism. It doesn’t really take modern soc­iety into its hands and look beyond it, towards what comes after.

I commend these thinkers as scholars, but I denounce them as small spirits and yellow cowards. They are too careful, too critical of themselves, too afraid of putting forward visions of progress and development. They are too wary of evoking existential or spiritual faith. They are, in a sent­ence, not sufficiently sincere in their sincerity – or, indeed, ironic enough in their irony. This lands them in late or extreme forms of post­modern­ism, rather than making them authentically metamodern.

In my version of metamodernism, we are not contented with viewing metamodernism as a cultural phase. There is also the devel­op­­mental stage dimension (that people and societies develop to a meta­modern stage, according to adult development psychology, etc.), a general philoso­phical dimen­sion (the paradigm I outlined above) and, which is the main focus of my books, a political dimension – a certain analysis of our time which points to how society is evolving and how we as a society can and should reasonably proceed, a vision of what politics we need.

I am hereby stealing the term “metamodernism” from its original context, and adding more meaning to it. Like all wild things, information must be free. And one of the most metamodern phenomena, if we use the term as a cultural phase again, is the piracy of symbols for idealistic pur­poses. Meta­modernism is being shanghaied.

When I found it, the thing called “metamodernism” was a cute little obses­s­­ion for academic conferences and art expositions, perhaps a source of inspir­ation for architects and filmmakers. When I am done with it, you have a powerful, effective ideo­logy that can save societies from collapse and drama­tically improve the lives of millions – a stream of thought that can out­compete and replace liberal democracy and capital­ism.

If you believe me when I’m saying that, you are either a naive fool, or you may be starting to finally get a hang of this “magical realism” thing.

”Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psych­o­logical growth. And humans develop much better if you fulfill their inner­­most psych­ological needs.”

Why Political Metamodernism Is the Future

What I call political metamodern­nism is a new perspective on politics. It changes not only how we do politics, but also what the role of politics in society is in the first place – and of course, it sets new goals for what we want to achieve in society, and it provides explan­a­tions for why.

Very basically, political metamodernism tries to bring about the society that comes after, and goes beyond, what we usually think of as “modern soc­iety”. Take a modern country today, like Sweden, and consider how diff­erent it is today – politically, socially and economically – from a cen­tury ago. And how very different its citizens are. Where did all the hack­ers, yoga people and feminist vegans come from, for one thing?

The Social Democrats of the early 20th century had an ideology – a vision, an idea of what the future welfare society might look like. In large parts, that society has successfully been materialized. But since a few deca­des, we have no such visions or goals – even as the world is changing more rapidly than ever and the technological possibilities are much great­er than before. So where are the major political visions?

Seriously. Where are they? The Left works only to maintain the welfare state, the Greens to maintain the sustainability of our current civil­ization, the libertarian Right to boost economic growth and the nationalist or conservative Right seeks to maintain the old nation state in the face of immigration and globalization. All of these movements and ideologies are stuck in the mindset of party politics that evolved from industrial society, with its classes and issues. None of them actually offer us anything new, or anything that might substantially improve our lives in a way that would com­pare to the building of the modern liberal democracy with a market econ­omy and welfare state. What is the equivalent of this system in the society of the future, a society we know is globalized, digitalized and postindustrial? In which dir­ection can and should our society evolve? Is that an unreasonable question? I don’t think it is. I think it’s deeply un­settling that we, as humanity, are not having that conversation.

This is where political metamodernism comes in. Political metamoder­nism tries to achieve a society that is as different from today as today’s Sweden is from Sweden in 1900. Everything is going to be different. For good or bad, people are going to vote differently, educate differently, work differently, live and travel differ­ently – even love and socialize differently. We will have diff­erent ideas about the world and our place in it. Just being alive will feel diff­erently.

So the aim of political metamodernism is to take us from one “mod­ern” stage of societal development (liberal democracy, party politics, capital­ism, welfare state) to the next “metamodern” stage of develop­ment. It is aiming to outcompete liberal democracy as a political system, out­com­pete all of the pol­itical parties and their ideologies, outcompete cap­ital­ism as an economic syst­em, and outcompete and replace our current welfare syst­em. There. Did I get your attention?

Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psych­o­logical growth. And humans develop much better if you fulfill their inner­­most psych­ological needs. So we’re looking for a “deeper” society; a civilization more soc­ially apt, emotionally intelligent and existentially mature.

There are three different parts of political metamodernism:

  • The Listening Society – which is the welfare of the future, a welfare that includes the emotional needs and supports the psych­o­logical growth of all citizens. A society in which everyone is seen and heard (rather than manipulated and subjected to sur­veill­ance, which are the degenerate siblings of being seen and heard).
  • Co-Development – which is a kind of political thinking that works across parties, works to keep egoissues and emotional invest­­ments and biased opinions in check, and seeks to improve the general climate of political discourse: “I develop if you develop. Even if we don’t agree, we come closer to the truth if we create better dialogues and raise the standards for how we treat one another.”
  • The Nordic Ideology – this is my name for the political structure that would support the long-term creation of the listening society and make room for co-development. It is called the Nordic ideology because its early sprouts are cropping up in and around Scandinavia. It includes a vision of six new forms of politics, all of which work together to profoundly recreate society. A large part of this has to do with how to defend citizens from new sources of oppression that can emerge as a side-effect of a “deeper” society. These new forms of oppress­ion are generally of a more subtle and more psychological kind than what we have seen in the 20th

So these three things taken together are what I call political metamod­ern­ism. My book The Listening Society explains how we as hum­ans develop and grow psychologically. The idea is that there is an intim­ate connection between understanding how humans grow and evolve – intellect­ually, cognitively and emotionally – and how good or bad society is going to be. Hence, it should – or must – become a top political priority to supp­­ort the psych­ological development of all citizens.

The second book, titled Nordic Ideology, is going to tackle the issues of how societies develop, how the new political system works, and how it’s going to beat today’s system of liberal democracy.

I have increasingly come to believe that political metamodernism is excee­d­in­gly useful for add­ressing society’s ailments, such as:

  • the multifaceted eco­logi­cal crisis;
  • the instability of the economy;
  • the excessive global inequalities;
  • the wide­spread anxiety, or “alienation”, that modern people harbor;
  • the challenges of global migration;
  • the transition to a postindustrial, robotized and digitalized economy;
  • and the challenges of transnational governance.

In other words – I believe it can productively address the major prob­lems of late modern society. The listening society is the bridge that can take us, in a few gene­rations, from the modern world, to a meta­modern soc­iety.

So basically, a meta­­modern society is defined as one which has “solved” the pro­blems of modern society, much like modern society “solved” the problems of pre-industrial, traditional society (dramatically reducing pov­erty, disease, wars, serfdom, slavery and misuse of monarch power).

Because metamodern thinking encapsulates much of the logic of our curr­ent day and age, it is also useful for you as an individual person – espec­ially if you have political ambitions.

So, in a nutshell, the mission of political metamodernism is thus:

To unite the many struggles
of the exploited bodies of the poor
with the struggles of the lost,
suffering souls of the rich world.
And to expand that struggle
to sustainability across time and space.
And to expand that solidarity
to fathom the vast suffering
and multiplicity of perspectives
of the animal realm in its entirety.
And to deepen the struggle
until it is reborn as play.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.