Metamodernism, More Conservative than Conservatism

Conservatism may be the most misunderstood of the modern ideolog­ies—and its challenge to political metamodernism is perhaps the most serious one. The cen­tral conservative principle is a resolve to escape the traps of infatua­tions with utopian ideas and puritan ideals—and to settle for “the real world”. The insight that underlies this realization is one of humility: the world is always larger, more complex and more terrifying than our limited intellects and perspectives can imagine. When we want to change things around, it’s usually only because we haven’t really under­stood how they work in the first place. And so our dreamed visions and “creative ideas” usually end up wrecking what works in the first place, and then we have to painfully try to reconstruct what has been lost. Sometimes that can take an incredibly long time. Think of the sunk costs of the Soviet experiment.

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

Conservatism reacts against the hubris of intellectuals. As soon as mo­d­ern society was showing its first glimmers and it became apparent that the human world was about to drastically change, “smart” but unwise people from privi­leged strata of soc­iety took upon themselves to use their intellects to try to shape the direction of this development. This was, and remains to this day, an act of vanity: you flatter yourself, you grow self-righteous, you put your­self above your place in the larger world, above your place in history, your place as a member of your peo­ple and their accumulated wisdoms—and this leads you to try to force your neatly arra­nged ideas and ideals upon the rich­ness and complexity of the world. And your mental con­struct never fits, and you always end up getting angry at the world. The stark raving revol­ution­aries take over and things get vio­lent. Crazy experiments abound. Decay follows.

The primordial and archetypal such dangerously utopian thinker is, again, Rousseau. While highly intelligent and idealistic, he was unbalan­ced as a person, an irres­pon­sible father and impossible friend—unable to live up to his own ideals of engaged parenting as out­lined in his 1762 work Émile—and he was hope­lessly roman­tically attach­ed to unachievable uto­pian goals. Rouss­eau, a perpetual child who would never grow up and died bitterly defending his ruined reputation with far-fetched justificati­ons, is the origin­ator of such dreamy and dangerous ideas as “Man is born free, and every­where he is in chains” and “We will force you to be free!”[i]

How telling, then, that Rousseau was the spiritual father of the hard­core Jacobins of the French Revolution—the ones who led the Reign of Terror and guillotined folks left and right as the Revolution began to eat its own child­ren. Maximilien Robespierre, the young Jacobin lawyer who rose to power and eventually had the king decapitated—and even coined the motto of the French Republic, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”—worship­ped Rousseau like a god:

“Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind.”[ii]

Fanaticism—just like Lenin would later declare himself to be “in love with Marx” and honor the memory of Robespierre with a monument in Saint Petersburg.

It was after the excesses and madness of the French Revol­ution that con­­servative thinking took hold in earnest. The pendulum swung and for a few generations the leading minds of France, Germany and England dev­eloped the foundations of modern conservatism. You have Burke’s re­pu­dia­tion of the French Revolution, the German Romanticism’s rejec­tion of the cold and ahistorical intellect of the French Enlightenment project, and Joseph de Maistre’s poignant retort to Rousseau’s ideal of men born free but being everywhere in chains: “To say that sheep are born carnivor­ous, but everywhere eat grass, would be just as reason­able”.[iii]

Conservative thinkers knew that modernity was encroaching upon society: They did not deny the power of science and technology and the profoundly new territory that humanity was entering. They held that modern society had to grow and evolve organically, and that the role of the intellect was not to force itself upon the world, but to refine the human spirit on an individual level by self-reflection and hard work—even beyond the intellectual re­alm: linking to the spiritual, the myst­ical and the aesthetic. People aren’t natur­ally be­nign, as Rousseau and Robes­pierre had postulated, and society does not always opp­ress them—it often protects, fosters and supports them. People are relatively brutish and simple, and they must refine their souls to be any good—and society’s role is more often to hold us in place so we don’t commit crimes or work against one another. And society can offer a source of cultural refinement—through history, art and Bildung.

To different extents, the conservative thinkers also defended God and the Christian faith against the onslaught of cold scientific rationality. Hum­ans need God to know their place in the larger scheme of things. So what could be worse than throwing all of that rich timbre of human expe­rience and culture overboard in exchange for a dreamt-up plan for a new society!

The point isn’t, then, to try to go back to the Middle Ages,[iv] but simply to defend traditions, sacred values, national ethnic bonds, hierarchical relations and institutions from unrealistic and irresponsible attempts to efface them. The funda­men­tal conservative prin­ciple is to be responsi­ble and prudent; it is to avoid what I have called “game denial”.

Conservatism and counter-revolution have surfaced as a political, aes­the­tic and intellectual force time and again since early modernity. During the period 1815–48, the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich, a major influence in Austria and in Europe generally, devoted his energies to erec­t­ing an antirevolutionary chain of international alliances throughout Eur­ope. After the turn of the 19th century you had Oswald Spengler’s som­ber ruminations on the fall of Western civilization. In its latest incar­nation you have thinkers such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and the US literary scholar Camille Paglia who call themselves classical liberal and libertarian respect­iv­ely, but who, structurally speak­ing, quite clearly repro­duce the conservative creed. They work to challenge leftwing academic postur­ing and to demask the exces­ses of univer­sity campus radicalism and the youth’s blind faith in neo-Marx­ism and inter­sectional femin­ism. Their message appeals mostly to white young men, just as ear­lier forms of conser­vatism. And just as before, the young men are encour­aged to cult­ivate their masculinities and inner lives. Peterson and Paglia seem to be lead­ing an ongoing counter-revolution in its own right—albeit in a cult­ural and not military sense.

The enemy is always simplistic and collectivist radicalism. As such, con­servative thinkers view themselves as opposed to “ideol­ogy”. The con­serva­tive mind holds that they stick to a sober view of reality, where­as radicals and progressives have sold out reason in hope of playing an into­xicatingly heroic role, or in covert hopes of advancing in the social hierar­chies. On a deep level, the conservative feels that ideologies provide an excuse for such behavior, a kind of simple filter through which the ideo­logue can view the world in black-and-white terms—thus avoid­ing to ever see his own limitations and the greed of his soul, because he is always on the “pure” and “good” side. The conservative tells us:

“Your ideology is a sickness, a big lie, an excuse for your in­ability and un­will­ing­ness to deal with your own inner weaknesses. And that is, ultimately, why the French Revolution turned sour, as did the Bolsh­evik one, as will all future ones. You say you are good, but you lie. If you really cared about what’s good, you would bother to first find out, without a priori, what is true—including truths that happen to hurt—and then you would do your hard inner home­work and deal with the less rosy and more terrifying reality of existence.”

This conservative trail of thought of course also poses a challenge to poli­tical metamodernism. And the challenge should be taken seriously, by all means. How can we justify the Nordic ideology? Is it just another attempt at a seductive, blinding ideology that would make Chairman Mao proud?

As with the other modern ideologies, you can either beat conservatism by dismantling its core suppositions, or by taking it to its own limits and turn it against itself. And again, we need to do the latter. But just to point out some ways to disprove conservatism “from the outside” we can men­tion that:

  • conservatism cannot itself escape the charges of being an ideology,
  • conservative thinkers have all been beaten down by history as they opp­o­sed abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, labor rights, the rule of sci­en­tific method over religion, the separa­tion of state and religion, the in­­­depen­dence of colonies, the equality between sexes, and so on, i.e. they have sided with the losing institutions, and all been proven terribly wrong in the long run, and
  • you can always tear down their philosophical foundations, such as the belief in the individual, in free will, or in reason, all of which are manifestly false and provably so.

In short, it’s apparent that conservatives are usually right in the short run but wrong in the long run, and we can always point that out. But that would be cheating. It wouldn’t reach the conservatives on their own terms. Here’s the point of attack: The conservative wants to be pru­dent and to respect tradition and let society grow organically without effac­ing nat­ural hierarchies that have been est­ablished between com­petent and less competent members of society.

We can ask the conservative: Which scenario is most respectful of peo­ple’s relations and traditions—one in which you have an active and delib­erate Gemeinschaft Politics, or one in which such a thing is lacking? With a Ge­mein­schaft Politics you have the means to look at cultural, ethnic and national values and relations and to defend them or develop their inter­relations. Without it you don’t. So a good con­servative must accept that Gemein­schaft Politics can be useful—in fact, many unknowingly already advocate embry­onic forms of this kind of politics, as discussed in chapter 11.

How about Empirical Politics? Which society will be most prone to crazy dreamt-up and disembodied ideologies—one that continuously finds ways of optimizing checks against bullshit, or one that doesn’t? Em­pirical Polit­ics is perfectly in line with the conservative ideals of making well-informed decisions and demanding proof that something is likely to work before carrying it out.

And if you want to be prudent and respect the narratives and traditions that have grown through history, which alternative treats such folk narra­tives with the greatest care and respect; one that has a Politics of Theory to continuously see if culture has gone off the rails and become destructive, or one that has no such mechanism? Having a Politics of Theory is—toge­ther with Empirical Politics—like buying an insurance.

The classical conserva­tive wants to refuse to buy the insurance in an accelerating time that is changing very quickly and in which crazy ideo­l­ogies are popp­ing up again. The prudent thing to do—indeed, the resp­onsible and con­servative thing to do—is to buy the damned insurance and make sure you pay its premium. The same can be said about Demo­cra­ti­zation Politics: Again, it’s like buying an insurance.

And when it comes to the conservative concern for the soul, or the loss of connection to it in our fast-paced fast-food society, what could be more important than Existen­tial Politics? Would you like to go on not having inner development as a poli­tical topic, with good data to look at and dis­cuss? Not to mention Emanci­pation Politics—how will you defend indivi­dual rights without an institu­tional framework to do so? Wouldn’t it be reckless and irrespon­sible—which is what every conservative claims not to be—to reject such politics?

And then there’s the whole issue of the value of elites that have done hard inner work to earn their place and who lead with a gentle hand and a long-term perspective. Political metamodernism has a developmental psy­ch­ology to back it up and can help identify and gather such elites and make sure they can wield and maintain power. Can classical conservatism do that? Do the conservatives have any better strategies for how the edu­cated and com­petent elites of society should organize themselves to avoid an un­informed mob rule from taking over? Recent populist developments sugg­est they don’t.

And you want to not have a partial, ideological perspective, but to re­late to the slow and organic development of the whole? How exactly can you do that without seeing that the other ideological positions are also a part of that whole—without the metamodern principle of transpartisa­nism and the meta­­modern method of co-development? How can you lead and represent the whole when you always splice off about half of the population and their worldviews? You cannot let society grow organically without the holistic multi-perspectivalism of metamodernism. Or rather, you can, but you won’t be overviewing and leading that growth.

As you can see, good monsieur, your conservatism is only a cheap fanfare for political metamodernism. The modern form of conservatism is imm­ature, childish, irresponsible and imprudent compared to the Nor­­dic ideo­logy.

The Nordic ideology is, simply, more conservative than conservatism.

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

[i]. Note that I’m paraphrasing here. What I am referring to is, more precisely, Book 1, Section 7 of the Social Contract. “This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his coun­try, secures him against all personal dependence.”

[ii]. Robespierre quoted from chapter 4 in: Hicks, S. R. C., 2004/2011. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. China: Ock­ham’s Razor Pub­lishing.

[iii]. Or actually, I’m playing along with a popular textbook simplification here. In reality this quote is from an 1899 book by Émile Faguet (Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvième siècle), who creatively paraphrased the conservative philosopher de Maistre with the formulation: “Dire: les moutons sont nés carnivores, et partout ils mangent de l’herbe, serait aussi juste.” (p. 41).

[iv]. Even if some early conservatives, like the young Novalis, did indeed long for a united, Catholic, theocratic Europe.