Hanzi Talking about “Metamodern Values”

Hanzi Freinacht at the bar, talking about the development of values: “I want to talk about values. Let’s begin with this question: “What are good values?” How do you know if the values that you hold true to your heart are valid? How do you know if they’re efficient, if they’re true, if they correspond to the real problems out there in the world? Are some values perhaps better than others?”

The central claim that I have is that postmodern values emerge from the very core or center of modern values, and that metamodern values emerge from the very core or center of postmodern values.

Here’s a way of thinking about it, that I think might be fruitful. I think that some values correspond to certain societies or certain time periods. And I think that some values meet the demands of those societies and time periods – and their life conditions. Which is why they evolved in the first place. So medieval people had medieval values because they lived in medieval societies. Modern people have modern values because they live in modern societies.

Today I’d like to talk, then, about three sets of values – about three families, as it were – of different kinds of values. These three are, in order of appearance, and in order of emergence more crucially:

1. Modern values
2. Postmodern values, and
3. META modern values

The central claim that I have is that postmodern values emerge from the very core or center of modern values, and that metamodern values emerge from the very core or center of postmodern values.

So you’re going to have, in the modern world, a lot of people who have and express and sincerely feel modern values. And you’re going to have a minority of people – but a pretty big minority, especially in late modern or advanced modern societies – who express and live and embody postmodern values. And there is, emerging at this point, something I would like to call metamodern values. And they’re still emerging. They’re still a bit experimental, but they’re distinct from postmodern values nevertheless.

So to begin with, are some of these values better than others?

Yes and no, I would say. We can look at it individually and collectively.

Individually speaking, let’s say you go back in time, or you go to a less modern country, and you meet someone who has very traditional values. They believe in God, literally everything that’s written in the Bible or the Koran, and they’re a devout follower, and they believe that the world is 6000 years old and that gay people should be stoned to death, for instance.

Let’s call the values of this person pre-modern. Does this person have worse values than you do? Do they have more primitive values? Are they a better or worse person?

It would be difficult to argue that this person has a lower morality than you do. They still act kindly, love their family, and follows what they have been taught is right and wrong. Their interests and feelings are as important as yours.

But collectively… we would be in huge trouble if in modern societies, people have pre-modern values, the kind of values of pre-modern societies. If you have a modern society, but it is run by values akin to those of Genghis Khan, or even just the values of traditional relatively authoritarian Catholicism, you get stuff like authoritarian dictatorship, or even Nazism: aggressive foreign policies, no focus on sustainability, and so forth.

So collectively, it is very important, that we as a society have values that correspond to the realities and challenges of our present day and age. As things look today, we are leaving the industrial age, and the age of the Enlightenment behind, and we are entering a new kind of society altogether. And most of us still have modern values. Which is to say that our values are not in tune with the society that we ourselves have created.

So a large part of our inability to tackle the problems of the modern world have to do with the fact that we have perhaps not sufficiently updated our own values. We haven’t sufficiently grown as human beings to match the challenges we are faced with.

The Three Modern Challenges

Specifically, modern society faces us with three challenges, and these challenges grow as modern society progresses to its later stages. You have:

1. Sustainability. The world economy is not sustainable and is going to crash due to exponential growth on a limited planet.

2. Excessive inequalities. Even though poverty is dropping globally, we still have extreme inequalities that can hardly be justified and in some ways are growing.

3. Alienation. This includes the many subtle mental health issues that stem from modern life.

These are the problems caused by modern society, but that we as modern people find ourselves unable to tackle with modern values.

Modern Values

What, then, are modern values in the first place?

We know them more or less from the mainstream of society. These are the values of industrial civilization. They are the values of the Enlightenment.

There is a belief in science.
There is a belief in progress.
There is a belief in rationality.
Oftentimes there is a belief in the individual.
It is meritocratic, meaning everybody has to earn their position by a proven track record.

And in a way, it is kind of sincere. Modernity and modern values are married to a kind of sincerity. You ask mother nature, by the means of scientific method, and you get her to tell you the truth. And then you verify or falsify the claims of one another, so as to serve the progress and advancement of mankind – or that’s the idea.

This is pretty much what we all learn in school.

Some people thought that was the end of history. Some people thought, that’s as far as we’ll get, and from now on, humanity’s journey onward will not be into new philosophies, but only into more and more scientific and technological and progress.

But as modern society has progressed, more and more people – especially the ones that are highly educated and culturally sensitive and often, actually, according to research, the more intelligent ones – begin to question those values.

Postmodern Values

Enter postmodernism. Enter the postmodern values.

So what are those? You can find them around the counter culture of modern and Western society. All modern societies have a sizable counter culture. You have significant postmodern populations especially among the most modern societies in the world. You can find them among humanities professors, students, sociologists, critical social sciences, intellectuals of different sorts.

Instead of believing in science, postmodern people tend to be critical towards the supposed objectivity of science. They tend to be skeptical. They tend to want to pick it apart and look at power structures that drive this purportedly rational search for the truth.

The postmodernists say: “It’s not rational. It’s driven by all sorts of all too human interests, all too human relations.”

They say: “I don’t believe in progress. I don’t believe in your grand histories of the world. I just believe that there are many different histories, and these are all situated among the people who they are meaningful to. And you have to understand those people on their own premises, rather than fitting them into your own ideas of the world and where it’s going.”

There is no one big history, with one big direction, of the world.

Postmodernists don’t believe in rationality, beginning with Freud and his exploration of the irrational unconscious, and beginning with Marx and Engels and their theories about how people are blinded by ideologies in everyday life. The postmodern thinkers don’t believe there is such a thing as a rational human being. Human beings are driven by irrational drives, and a lot of times by their social surroundings, even by the structures of the language we speak – things that lie far beyond our own individual, conscious making.

Rather than the individual, then, you postmodern thinkers look at society. Even committing suicide – the most individual choice you can make, if you want to live or not – is a societal matter. In some countries, suicide rates are ten times or twenty times higher than in others, which says that we are governed by society more than we could normally imagine.

And, of course, postmodern minds tend think less of modern meritocracy and be against hierarchies. They question the hierarchies of everyday life. Why is the boss always a man, why is it always a tall person, why is it always a white guy? Why do the rich get so much political power? Why are all the Nobel prizes going to white guys, and why are they afforded by other white guys… in their fifties?

Rather than the modern sincerity, then, you get the postmodern irony. Think of The Simpsons for instance; this whole show is steeped in what could be said to be “cultural postmodernism”. They’re ironic towards pretty much everything. Everything gets an ironic beating, including the show itself.
Irony is the guiding principle of the postmodern mind.

Metamodern Values

But after you’ve been through a whole lot of postmodern irony, for a long time, and you’ve deconstructed (or “picked apart”) your own thoughts, what happens is, in the long run it gets rather dissatisfying.

In the long run, you find out, you don’t actually have anything to believe in anymore. Then you tend to fall into the traps of crude forms of nihilism and relativism, and you don’t really know the path forward. And you get stuck in all of these details, all of this turning of stones, looking at the exceptions, and the cracks, and the contrasts.

And that’s where metamodern values enter. Metamodern values bring in some hope and sincerity again. In a way they’re both modern and postmodern at the same time. That’s the metamodern value system; that you take the sincerity from modern life, together with a very healthy good dose of critical irony of the postmodern mind.

Metamodern values you cannot find in any larger numbers at this time. You have small, thin networks around the globe, writing about these things, talking about this shift, having conferences. The first academic journal is being started. The first political party with metamodern values has also been started, in Sweden and Denmark.

Metamodern values grow from populations of postmodern people. If you get enough postmodern people, sooner or later are going to turn into metamodernists.

Both progress and critique. “Both and” is a central theme in the metamodern mind. Finding the best “both ands” of life, itself becomes a metamodern value. At least you have to give both sides of the argument a fair chance.

“The central claim that I have is that postmodern values emerge from the very core or center of modern values, and that metamodern values emerge from the very core or center of postmodern values.”

Metamodern people labor to stretch their minds so as to take the best possible of both worlds: both-and, both-and – oscillation between two poles, or superposition between two potentials.

So how do you both believe in progress and not believe in it at the same time? You adopt a developmental view of human perspectives.

A core metamodern belief is the growth of people; personal inner growth of people, through stages of development. A simple example of which is actually the value systems I have presented in this talk.

Modern values show up in history at one point, they emerge, they grow in strength, they spread in the world, they take over whole political systems, and they give birth, eventually, to postmodern values. Oftentimes it is relatively privileged people within modern societies who can accept and take in and understand the postmodern values. And once the postmodern values have grown, and gone through many iterations, and eaten their own tail as it were, for a long time, they give birth to metamodern values.

And people who have metamodern values recognize this sequence. They understand, then, that there is a developmental sequence at the heart of what it means to be human.

So society develops through stages of development. And there is a direction to those stages. Human beings and our values, our psychologies, our personalities, also develop through stages of development.

Here, then, is the crucial point: If society develops ahead of us, the people, normal human beings like you and me, then we will live in a society that doesn’t match the values that we hold dear. We won’t be able to resolve the central issues of late modern global society. And we will never be able to arrive safely at the next historical stop, let’s say a postindustrial, digitized, global society.

So the postmodern critique asks too much of people. It asks of the modern mind to be somebody it is not. It doesn’t see the developmental perspective, that most people do not have postmodern values because they simply cannot. They simply cannot meet the inner demands that this value system requires.

How, then, do we resolve the central issues of modern society? Here’s what I believe.

Only if people grow past the modern values can we create a sustainable world.
Only if people grow past the modern values can we create an equal and fair economy.
Only if people grow past the modern values can we fill the hole in the soul that modern society leaves in so many.

Postmodern critique goes some way, but it does not offer us this path to growth. Metamodern values are all about putting that inner growth at the heart and center of how we design society.

That is our utopia: a society designed to help each of us to grow as a human being. From the inside out. So that we can match the complexities of the world.

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