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seated beliefs that hail from the modern, industrial view of life, existence and society – beliefs that I contend are outdated and increasingly harmful.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’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.