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.
The basic idea of Politics of Theory (or “of Narrative”) is to monitor, steer and regulate the fundamental “theory of everything” that people subscribe to; our shared narrative or worldview. Straight talk: It’s the politics of massive population brainwashing.
I realize how this sounds. But hold on just a second.
All societies more or less brainwash their citizens into a certain story (or set of competing stories) about reality, society, humanity and life. We are all socialized into a certain identity, ideology and ontology—ideas about our “self” and our place in the universe, about what’s right and wrong, and about what’s really real in the first place. We imbue the cultural code of our society; we are bathed in it, fed with it, marinated in it, drowned in it. Every person who speaks a language and is above a certain cognitive stage of development will have some kind of answers to the fundamental questions of life, and most of these originate from their social context. It’s in the air we breathe.
The modern conception of a historical development towards higher levels of individual autonomy in thinking (they used to tell people to believe in Jesus, but now we’re free to believe what we want) is manifestly wrong. Or, at least, it is “true but partial”. The modern project and its reach for freedom is undergirded by a corresponding growth of intimate mechanisms of control, mechanisms through which minds, bodies and behaviors are controlled and coordinated to an unprecedented degree. The most obvious of these mechanisms is schooling: “Society” takes all kids at age six and indoctrinates them for twelve years. If that isn’t brainwashing of an astronomical magnitude, I don’t know what is: millions of people, shaped, trained, drilled, molded, taught, disciplined, controlled.
No matter how much we may tell ourselves that our educational system is “liberal” and only brings out “what wants to flourish within each person”, it is obvious that such socialization must always be structured somehow, meaning, it must build on certain premises and ideals. And that in turn molds our bodies and minds. School in present-day capitalist digitized democracies isn’t the same as school in 20th century communist Poland or Franco’s Spain.
So the question, then, is not “should we have massive and extensive brainwashing of millions?”—we already do, and we probably must: Modern society relies upon an educational system, and all societies rely upon shared narratives and intricate coordination of people’s perspectives and streams-of-action.
Rather, the question is, “should this underlying theory of everything be brought under continuous, explicit, democratic scrutiny, or should it remain beyond our reach in terms of democratic governance”?
You see—what initially may seem as the libertarian, “liberal” or democratic good-guy response: “we should let everyone make up their own minds!” is actually the authoritarian response. Listen to yourself:
“NAY! Millions of people should be brainwashed and no discussion or common discourse should be held about what that entails, or why! All of us should be taught what is thought of as common sense and no comprehensive democratic discussion should be held about it! This is freedom!”
Freedom of thought? Doesn’t sound like it to me. Sounds like oppression, like authoritarianism.
No. The freedom-loving response, and the only responsible response, is to say that we will make the massive brainwashing of everyone visible rather than invisible, explicit rather than implicit, transparent rather than opaque, thought-through and well-argued rather than customary and habitual, subject to public scrutiny rather than to quiet consent, in the hands of the many rather than the few.
The initial negative response most people have to the idea of a Politics of Theory is that of “the liberal innocent”. The liberal innocent is the mindset that thinks you can just take any one position within the normal Left-Right spectrum, live a “normal life” and that you will be the good guy, and that there is no blood on your hands for all the good suggestions you ignore or for all the critical discussions you suffocate. But, of course, there are no such positions of innocence. If your complacency kills, you are guilty as charged: This is either “game denial” or “game acceptance” as you have blocked real and possible “game change”.
Or, as we have said earlier in the present volume, these defenders of freedom turn out to be the “false defenders of democracy”.
The fact is that the massive brainwashing is already happening. People are brainwashed, for instance, to think of animals as less worth than humans and that they can be tortured for the most trivial of human concerns. What the “liberal” response implies, then, is a preclusion of further discussion of the most important thing of all: the social construction of reality and everyday life. That, my suspicious friend, is anything but innocent. Seriously—who’s the Stalinist here?
So, yes, I am saying we should use political means to brainwash the population. And yes, I do recognize this is a dangerous idea. But the point is we’re already doing it. All I am saying is that we should add a democratic discussion about it and call it for what it is. Is that more or less imprudent than the current system? Is it more or less democratic? More or less fanatic?
Should the massive, ongoing brainwashing be brought under democratic control or not? The main difference, the deepest difference, between modern and metamodern society lies in the answer to this question.
Modern society and its project of enlightenment and progress uses science and economic growth to reshape nature in accordance with the inner projections of the human mind—but it does not see its own culture and fundamental worldview as subject to change. It doesn’t recognize that not only does our knowledge of the world evolve, but so does our perspective of our knowledge of the world. Our own thinking and our viewing of the world are believed to simply rest in the background; they are a constant, as “man” progresses through the universe over the millennia!
The postmodern critique of the modern world revealed that the underlying patterns of thought and ideas governing the lives of people can be questioned, analyzed, deconstructed, unveiled. It led intellectuals to question the universality of the modern project in its entirety.
Metamodern society takes that fundamental code, our very own perspectives, into its own hands, and shapes it, just as it shapes nature; metamodernism is the historical point when society becomes conscious of itself.
So if modern “man” boldly rode out to conquer outer space, metamodern society takes into account that the very concept of “man” and its underlying presuppositions will only last for a while and is already being replaced by other ideas of the fundamental protagonist in the universe: self-organization and consciousness, categories beyond any anthropocentric and humanistic biases. And then it—“it” being the metamodern mind as a pattern of human agency—works to reshape not only outer space, but the very perspective, the very maps from which that reorganizing is to occur. It is the conquest, if you will, of inner space.
Just as our maps of the universe, our scientific maps, are always limited in scope, reliability and applicability, so are our maps of meaning, our discourses, our narratives, our mythologies, our language structures, our “imaginaries” and “imagined communities”, our cognitive schema—our social construction of reality. And, given different circumstances, some maps are better than others, and our maps must be reshaped to fit whatever conditions life throws at us, as (in)dividual persons, as states, as an emerging global civilization.
To the modern mind, nature is the object, the “great it” and culture is the subject, the “great me” who acts upon a silent cosmos. To the metamodern mind, culture and nature are both part of the object, whereas the subject is the transpersonal developmental process itself. Just as nature must be governed, regulated and controlled for modern civilization to exist, so must culture itself be governed, regulated and controlled for a metamodern society to emerge and be sustained.
“Metamodern society” is defined as a society where the modern ailments—ecological unsustainability, excess inequality and alienation—are extinguished, for all practical purposes; a relative utopia. If we want to achieve relative utopia, we’re going to have to consciously and deliberately develop culture itself.
Society’s cultural development and narratives about reality set the frameworks, goals and limitations for the actual applications of the natural sciences and technology. Our perspective of reality shapes how we use the forces of nature.
Today we can create all sorts of bizarre little mutants by means of genetic manipulation (there are, for instance, frogs with eyes on the back of their head created by researchers at Tuft’s University, and the nerves of the frog’s third eye lead to the part of the brain that registers hearing). And we can, soon enough, transform the global ecosystems and human biology itself, including the brain and hence the inner worlds of experience. We will be able to create new life and new conscious experience: extremely high and low inner states. If anything goes wrong, we can all but literally create hell.
We’re talking about transformations of sentient life itself—a notion popularized by the physicist and AI theoretician Max Tegmark as “life 3.0”. This life can not only reproduce itself (life 1.0), nor just change its culture (life 2.0) but can change its own hardware, its own physical properties (life 3.0).
But according to which ideals should such transformations take place? Within which frameworks, according to which goals, with which constraints? The answers to all of these questions depend on our culture. And who decides how to develop culture?
Simply put: Who gets to brainwash who, and on what grounds?
The transformation of nature is accelerated and deepened in our time; and since nature is transformed by the logics of culture, we must begin to think of how culture itself can be transformed—before it irrevocably transforms nature into something undesirable, such as unimaginable amounts of suffering that would make the Second World War seem like a walk in the park. Point being: More advanced technology requires more advanced narratives; in some sense, “better” narratives.
Yes, some worldviews and narratives are likely to be “better” than others, given certain technological/historical circumstances, and thus it is of utmost concern that the “best” narratives come to the fore and take hold.
But here’s the paradox: We can of course only evaluate what might be a “good” narrative from inside of the confines of whatever narrative we already subscribe to! In one narrative the greatest good for the greatest number is the goal, in another it is to get people to wake up to the truth of Jesus being our savior and the son of God, literally speaking (lest they go to hell for eternity, which is serious business after all), and so on. Each of them will have us transform nature and culture in different directions, according to different premises.
Yet, again, how do we know which one of all the possible worldviews we should pick, given that they themselves can only be evaluated as seen from inside of another worldview? We don’t, after all, have access to “the eyes of God”, and so we can’t see all the worldviews “from the outside”. We’re stuck, seemingly.
Or are we?
When our culture begins to create institutions of Politics of Theory, it takes a view of itself that is necessarily culturally and historically situated; culture considers how to develop itself. Culture becomes both object and subject, both the change-maker and the clay in the potter’s hands. A potter made of clay (as the first man by God in the biblical Genesis), who in turn makes another potter of clay. A fractal of infinite depth. And when we begin to recreate life itself by means of bio-engineering, this takes on a whole new dimension: culture recreating nature, recreating consciousness, recreating culture, recreating nature, and so on… We are dissolving the boundary between nature and culture and diving into the depths of development.
There is no clear beginning or end to the relationship of culture to culture/nature itself: It is like a serpent in a ring, biting its own tail, an ancient symbol also called the “the ouroboros” (sometimes it’s a dragon biting its tail). The Klein bottle is another image that comes to mind (the mathematical image of a “bottle containing itself” first presented in 1882 by Felix Klein). Or, if you like another image less imbued with occult or mathematical symbolism: a dog chasing its own tail.
So if we try to have a discussion about which culture is better and which worldview should be taught at schools and be upheld in everyday life, we will necessarily be like the serpent biting its own tail. Nevertheless, we have to do it, because if we fail to develop our culture and worldviews in deliberate and intelligent ways, we won’t optimize the people’s worldviews, and the world can and will be governed from frameworks and narratives that will prove to be incompatible with our new-won powers over nature and ourselves.
Where, then, does this leave us? Does it leave us saying that all that can be done is that all members of society will have to fight it out by arguing that their worldview is the best, and then we’ll just have to hope the best player wins in a Darwinian struggle between memes? Not quite.
If Politics of Theory entails taking the development of our culture and shared narratives into our own hands, it makes a whole lot of difference how the dog chases its own tail. Is it stumbling about cluelessly or is it an elegant, self-conscious and playful swirl of a dance? We should create institutions that improve the possibilities of different worldviews to meet and argue about the proper balance between them.
Under the best possible settings and circumstances there is an increased likelihood that the more complex, universal, nuanced and (in a deep sense of the word) secularized worldviews and value-systems eventually will win out. The “more advanced” worldviews are likely to win because they tend to beat the simpler ones on their own terms. But again—that is only true over a large number of repeated iterations, under the proper circumstances of free and fair exchanges, minimally distorted by power games, rhetoric, social dominance hierarchies and so forth.[i]
Under the current historical conditions, we have democratic institutions; rights and liberties that enshrine a somewhat free and fair “market of ideas”, even if distortions and manipulations necessarily occur. What we don’t have is a proper set of institutions with the explicit goal of monitoring and steering the worldviews of the population. Politics of Theory would offer just that: an institutional framework for our stories about the world to come together, and for the best narrative—or meta-narrative with a set of sub-narratives—to be explored, developed and spread.
The difference between this way of thinking and the major brainwashing programs set in motion by the authoritarian communists of the 20th century is that the latter never created a framework that could let through other ideas than their own. They already thought they knew “what’s right” and simply proceeded to the brainwashing part.
What I am suggesting is different: The brainwashing should be democratically up for grabs by all contenders, and all political actors will need to specify which worldview they would like to spread and why—which means all worldviews become subject to greater self-scrutiny.
What you get then is not that one monolithic idea someone read in this or that book gets shoved down everyone’s throat, but a richer “diffraction” of many different perspectives. You know, diffraction is when soundwaves cross one another and create new patterns. We should get the best possible cultural pattern-of-patterns, and make certain it is spread in a fair and transparent manner.
That’s what Politics of Theory is about; it wants your brain.
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]. For readers versed in social theory, you likely recognize this as an echo of Foucault and Habermas. Foucault points out that we can only ever judge anything from within the confines of our own value-system and worldview, and concludes that the best we can do is to deconstruct our dominant worldview, but Habermas counters that people on average and over time will tend to converge around at least some issues if the communication functions very well, and says that there is a kind of developmental potential in communication itself. Or simply put: If all we can do is chase our own cultural tail (Foucault), at least we can do so smoothly and elegantly and soon the dog will swirl up through the air and rise to new heights (Habermas).