Relative Utopia

In a way, we’re living in our ancestors’ utopia. If they could have wit­nessed our lives today, they probably wouldn’t have believed their eyes: all the food you can eat, a minimum of hard manual labor, the expectation to see all your children reach adult age, and no drunken lords to abuse you—truly a paradise compared to what most of them had to put up with.

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.

“there is little reason to believe the metamodern society we are headed towards won’t be a relative utopia; that what is currently only con­ceivable as a fictional account one day will materialize and acqu­ire osten­sibly utopian properties—relative to what we’re putting up with today and take for self-evident conditions of life.”

We have access to a large number of conveniences that in the past would have been the envy of even kings and nobles: modern healthcare, com­fortable and speedy transportation, and safe, fresh food from all aro­und the world, even during winter.

Few of us would want to switch our pleasant modern lifestyle with that of Louis XIV 300 years ago. After all, not even the extravagant Sun King himself ever flew to the Canary Islands during his winter holiday and sat on a beach without catching malaria while enjoying his favorite show on Netflix. And we would presumably soon tire of court jesters and pheasant dinners in leaky castles anyway.

We have become accustomed to a standard of living so high not even Moses parting the Red Sea would impress us. Why wander to the land of milk and honey when we can cross the seas in comfortable jets to places with much more interesting cuisine? Jesus too would probably have need­ed to up his game if he were to make disciples out of us modern people. Turn­ing water into wine hardly competes with the marvel of a good 3D-printer.

Even in the social realm we have opportunities and privileges un­imag­inable in the past. A medieval farmer would not have believed it if he was told that his descendants would have voting rights, freedom of express­ion, property rights, police protection and the freedom to choose their reli­gion. And a 19th century factory worker would have been dumbstruck by the life-conditions of common folks today: considerably shorter work hours, vaca­tions, pensions, unemployment benefits and an abundance of cheap con­sumer goods that used to be considered luxuries. Lenin’s gran­diose pro­mise of peace, bread and land that made a generation of workers start a revol­ution is so modest and unambitious in comparison to all the things we take for granted today.

There are of course still people who struggle to make ends meet: single unemployed parents, paperless immigrants, people with mental illnesses, substance addicts, and so on. But overall, we must admit we have come very far. We may not live in a true utopia, but in comparison to the past, modern society is at least a relative utopia; truly utopian relative to what used to be.

But the word “utopia” actually means “no­where”. It goes back to the proto-modern thinker Thomas More’s book Utopia from 1516. In this mean­ing of the word, we do actually live in yesterday’s Nowhereland, in a fairytale, a tech­no­logical Shan­gri-La that in the past only could have exis­ted as fiction. Yet, as things went on, the fictional became all the more fac­tual.

As such, there is little reason to believe the metamodern society we are headed towards won’t be a relative utopia; that what is currently only con­ceivable as a fictional account one day will materialize and acqu­ire osten­sibly utopian properties—relative to what we’re putting up with today and take for self-evident conditions of life.

“modernity, with all its technological and social advances, has pract­ically solved all of the problems of all earlier societies: famine, disease, opp­re­ssion, war, poverty, lack of education, slow and dangerous trans­port­ation, superstition.”

The “Both-And” of Development

Even if the argument can be made that tradit­ional society was “better” than the modern one (as so-called “integral trad­itionalists” like Frithjof Schuon and Réné Guénon have argued: less poll­ution, more spirituality, a more enchanted sense of the world, less dest­ructive weapons, less mind­less con­sumerism and alienation, more in­dep­endence in having the skills to pro­duce what you need, more humility, etc.); this should not blind us to the circumstance that modernity largely solved all of the major prob­lems of pre-modern society. Yup, pretty much all of them.

For most of recorded history, child mortality was high, starvation com­m­on­place, slavery institutionalized, serf­dom ubiquitous, wars fre­qu­ent, violence a part of everyday life, mon­arch­ical oppression unqu­estion­ed, disease rampant, poverty the rule, literacy low, cruel norms limiting indiv­idual freedom prevailing—and so forth.

Yes, all of these miseries exist in the modern world too. In absolute num­bers, some of them are perhaps worse than ever as the world popu­lation is so much larger. On the other hand—and this is the point here—all of these problems have decreased drama­tically in relative terms. In­deed, if you look at the highly modernized, demo­cratic parts of the world, there is an appar­ent decrease in all of these problems at least by a power of ten. Look at Sweden today: How many peo­ple are starving for each one hundred who starved in the 1700s? One? Pro­bably not even that. When people are poor in the US today, they get food stamps and have to stand in line. In pre-modern times, they simply starved to death.

So modernity, with all its technological and social advances, has pract­ically solved all of the problems of all earlier societies: famine, disease, opp­re­ssion, war, poverty, lack of education, slow and dangerous trans­port­ation, superstition. Yes, even war; even if we count the world wars, the risk of being killed by another human being was statistically smaller during the 20th century than at any time before. Steven Pinker wrote an often-cited book about it in 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and then another one in 2018, Enlightenment Now. Since the millenn­ium, the number of people killed globally in violent con­flicts has been extre­mely low compared to any previous per­iod (in per capita terms).

Yet, of course, modern life is no walk in the park; it is still incredibly cruel and full of suff­ering—something that granny’s granny prob­ably would have had a hard time imagining if we went on for hours about all the awesome sauce (I imagine I’d pause for a long time to describe what I get to eat, where I have travelled and so forth).

Hence, it’s a relative utopia: It really is super-duper mega awe­some not to starve, to have modern medicine, to be able to speak and think freely, to have dominant sex with hot young men if you’re an old guy (I suppose granny might have had a problem with that part), to choose how to live your life and what to do for a living, to have internet and all kinds of abun­dance (even when un­employ­ed, you can eat well and have shelter and use many of the tech­no­logies). It really is nice.

At the same time that doesn’t mean life has become “perfect”. So to­day’s developed societies really are utopian, but only in a relative sense. This is the both-and of development. They are utopian as compared to what came before. But that doesn’t mean today’s society has no pro­blems. In fact, it has two very distinct kinds of problems:

  • Residual problems
  • New emergent properties problems

The residual problems are the percentages left here and there of the pre-modern stage of development: not all people are protected from cur­able dis­eases, some live in areas controlled by mobsters and are thereby still opp­­ressed, some slavery still goes on (30 million de facto slaves is a figure peo­ple often bring up), and some people still starve or other­wise suffer from pov­erty.

It’s true that the UN Development Goals were met in advance[i] and abject poverty is withering away as eco­nomic growth and ambi­tious, far-reaching aid programs take effect. But still, there are some resi­duals here and there, and they should cert­ainly be accou­nted for; they still define hundreds of millions of lives. They are, however, not quite the pro­ducts of modern society, as histor­ical develop­ments clear­ly indi­cate: Why else would they all be falling so sharply across the globe as the mo­dern world-system progresses? Nay, amigo, they are resid­uals, leftovers. The most modern countries have the least of these iss­ues.

The other category, which concerns us more in this context, are the pro­blems showing up as a direct result of modern society: the new emer­gent properties problems. At a bare minimum, there are three such prob­lems:

  1. ecological unsus­tainability,
  2. excess ineq­ual­ity, and
  3. alienation and stress.

Notwithstanding that these are, on an individual scale, preferable to the wars, droughts and pestilences of yore, they are still quite serious. Sustain­ability issues like climate ch­ange, ecolo­gical collapse, mass extinction—not to mention the looming threat of nuc­lear holocaust and other increas­ingly tangible doomsday scenarios (haywire AI or nanotech, biological war­fare)—can potentially cause miseries worse and more irreparable than even the black plague.

The inequalities of the world may seem bearable compared to the pov­erty of pre-modern subsistence farming, but nowadays we all live in the proxi­mity of wealth and abundance, know­ing for instance the dis­ea­ses that kill our kids in fact are curable. Such knowledge can make our rela­tive poverty even more bitter and insufferable than the harshness of pre-mod­ern life. Indeed, it is one of the most robust findings of social science that income inequality correlates with violent crime, within coun­tries and even more so between countries.[ii]

And alien­ation—a pervading sense of estrangement and exis­t­ential angst—causes young people to suffer depression and com­mit suicide to an unpre­ce­­dented degree. It causes people to live mean­ingless and empty lives ami­dst what superficially looks like freedom and abundance; lives in which we become increasingly stressed out and often exper­ience burnout.

I rem­em­ber spending seven years fending off suicidal thoughts, as a per­vasive but unspecific anxiety haunted my young adult­hood. This is not un­comm­on in devel­op­ed, modern coun­tries where the trends generally point towards rising mental health pro­blems in adolescents and young adults. These are perhaps not as acute or severe as the chall­enges that people faced before mod­er­nity, but they still remain quite serious issues.

All three of these problems are caused, in one way or another, by the dramatic expansion of our industrial productivity: sustainability because we pro­duce and consume more than our ecosystems can endure, ineq­u­a­l­ity because this wealth is distributed in a series of “scale free net­works”, where the most cen­tral positions gain a larger proportion of the wealth, and alienation becau­se of the abstractness and distance that shows up be­tween our every­day activities and their benefits for ourselves and others: Many of us lose a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. (Of cour­se, there’s a lot more to the story on each one of these, but we’re just sket­ching here to get on to the point).

We have finally created a land that flows with milk and honey; literally, vast amounts of highly nutritional substances flow from the taps of indu­stry—yet it’s making us and the planet sick. The paradise of yesterday is great, but it carries with it a number of unexpected pathologies that need to be dealt with in tomorrow’s relative utopia.

“metamodern society is defined as one in which the pro­blems that emerged in modernity—lack of sustainability, excess inequa­lity, alienation and stress—have been resolved.”

Beauties Lost and New Heights Reached

Beyond the two categories—residual and new emergent properties pro­blems—we can add two more to the list of troubles of today’s society. The third cate­gory I’ve called “beau­ties lost”. It entails all the good things that were prevalent in pre-modern societies, but for different reasons dimini­shed as societies became modern.

A good example is “community”, or what the classical 19th century soc­iologist Ferd­inand Tönnies called Ge­mein­schaft (modern life, at least in its later urban­ized stages, generally offers little cozy, genuine comm­unity in which you con­tinuously relate to a wider group of family and neighbors).

As an exam­ple of Gemeinschaft lost, compare the expansion of electro­n­ically available music—mill­ions of bands, artists and orchestras avail­able online to be played with marvelous sound systems—to the fact that most of us have stopp­ed singing. In all pre-modern societies, people got togeth­er and sang, pretty often too. The individualism and per­form­ance orien­ted attitu­des of mod­ern life somehow nudge us to shut up, un­less we’re alone in the shower or partake in a formally organized choir. Music gain­ed, but singing lost.

An­other example of a beauty lost is “sim­plicity”; that life had a kind of directness and straightforwardness which all­owed a certain modest satis­fac­tion. Other such beauties lost are the “conn­ection to the soil”, appre­ciation of the small things—perhaps a well-crafted tool—or the via con­templativa of monastic life; the calm, ascetic life in service of spiritual goals. You get the picture.

These “beauties lost” have been brought up by many reactionary move­ments and romantics of all kinds (I mentioned the inte­gral trad­itionalists, for instance). But the romantic and nostalgic longing lends itself to exagg­eration—to overvaluing an imagined past, a yesteryear that never quite happened. What we should do instead is simply to acknow­ledge that all societal progression into later and “more ad­vanced” stages en­tails some beauties lost, and that there may be good reasons to figure out how some of these can be regained and reincorp­or­ated without trying to turn the clock back.[iii]

The fourth category of problems is more important. We can call it “new heights rea­ch­ed”. There are problems that are perhaps not directly cau­sed by modern life, but whose solutions only now come within reach. Only when we acquire greater capabilities can we begin to see them and direct our atten­tion towards them. In the old days, we simply didn’t have the luxury to worry about these problems; now we can. We have reached new heights and hence we can begin to tackle higher issues. The soul always wants more; it is never contented. You never get to the end; there is al­ways a new hor­izon after this one, and another.

What are these new issues then, these “new heights”? I would like to men­tion four of them.

The first “new-heights issue” is tied to alienation, but still distinct from it: the lack of meaning and fulfillment. What happens in a society where you already have food, shelter and abundance? People begin to worry that they might be squan­dering their lives; that they may not be making the best of it; that some­thing is still lacking; that life has become boring and too pre­dictable.

The second new-heights issue has to do with struggle and heroism; how can we align our own petty lives with the overarching story about hu­m­­anity, the world and even the cosmos? How can we be something else, some­thing more, than just an average Jane or Joe consumer? Now that we have relative safety and autonomy, how can we make it worth­while? Once we have achieved a comfortable villa life, there is still, lin­gering in our hearts, a visceral longing for greatness within us. How can we tran­scend ourselves; how can we serve something greater so that our lives become imbued with crisp, clear moments of intense aliveness?

The third higher issue pertains to gender equality and freedom of iden­tity: Can we be sexually emancipated, not only in the sense that we can be women with equal rights as men, but that we can be truly sexually and emo­tionally fulfilled? Can we experience erotic fulfill­ment and intimacy both at once? Can we be gay, transgender, or otherwise experi­ment with and create our sexual and gender identities? Women’s liber­ation and the other gender/sexuality issues have come within our grasp in mod­ern soci­eties, but they are not conclusively solved by it.

The fourth and last higher issue is animal rights. Of course, a big part of the problem with the abuse of animals has to do with modern phen­omena such as industrial farming. Animal suff­ering is exacerbated by modernity, even with the increased legislations for “ani­mal welfare”. There have been some pre-mod­ern examples of prin­cipled con­cern for animals in the East­ern traditions (Buddhism and Jain­ism), but even these have not quite res­embled the modern-day animal rights move­ment. In Jainism, for inst­ance, concern with animals grew from a general non-violence prin­ciple, which is not quite the same as a modern phil­osophy of “rights”. In mod­ern life, we can now create an abundance of vegan and synthetic solutions that allow us to live without animal slavery and exploi­t­ation. Hence, vega­nism becom­es a new issue within our reach.

So, sorry for tricking you into thinking we had only two categories of pro­blems under modernity. We have four, these being:

  • Residual problems (left-overs from before modernity).
  • New emergent properties problems (caused by modernity).
  • Beauties lost (qualities from earlier societies lost under modernity).
  • New heights reached (problems that simply weren’t viable to try to solve before, but now have come within our reach).

Yep, that’s it. Modern society is truly utopian, truly glorious. Except it has these four categories of problems.[iv]

Now to the point we’ve been working our way towards. We live today in what to most earlier generations could only be described as sheer uto­pia. Yet, we hardly wake up every morning to what we feel is a utopian society. It is a utopia only in a relative sense: The problems of old have all but van­ished, just as new ones have appeared—as dark clouds on the hori­zon, growing cracks in the walls, and new subtle knots within our hearts and minds.

What about metamodern society; is it a utopian project? Yes. It is una­polog­etically utopian. A society can be described as metamodern if, and only if, all of the problems of modernity have been more or less resol­ved, meaning that they have been reduced by at least a power of ten.

In other words, metamodern society is defined as one in which the pro­blems that emerged in modernity—lack of sustainability, excess inequa­lity, alienation and stress—have been resolved. So that’s what we’re going for. Fucking utopia.

Fucking relative utopia, that is.

“We are trying to achi­eve a self-organization of society that is happier, in a profound sense of the word, than anything that has gone before it. But we’re not saying it’s going to be a perfect world. In fact, we’re saying it’s going to be as mess­y and risky as ever.”

New Miseries Worth Fighting For

Metamodern society can and will follow the same pattern of rela­tive uto­pia as modern society has. There will be:

  1. residuals of the mod­ern problems: still some inequality, environmental issues and alienation (whereas the pre-mod­ern residuals are redu­ced by yet another order of magn­itude);
  2. and yes, there will be new, emergent problems caused by metamodern society itself (some of which we will discuss in this book in an attempt to preempt them);
  3. and yes, some beauties of modern life will be lost along the way;
  4. and yes, new dark clouds will form on the horizon, new bold challenges to civilization that come within our grasp.

And yes, in some sense, these new problems will be pre­ferable to what we have today; but strangely, they are likely to somehow be even more ser­ious than the chall­enges of modern society.

So that’s the notion of “relative utopia” for you. We are trying to achi­eve a self-organization of society that is happier, in a profound sense of the word, than anything that has gone before it. But we’re not saying it’s going to be a perfect world. In fact, we’re saying it’s going to be as mess­y and risky as ever. More complex. Why should we expect any­thing else, when hist­ory—cultural, geological and astronomical—has thus far meant explosive increases of com­plex­ity?

It shouldn’t surprise us that future society will manage issues that today may seem insoluble, out of reach, or downright impossible. That’s what modern society did. It let steel float and fly, it saved us from disease, it conquered the moon, it brought peace—and so forth. Is it really wrong to think that future soc­iety, the one that comes after the modern, indus­trial one, could do what seems unimaginable today?

Somehow, modern life—and its relative utopia—was possible. Perhaps metamodern life can be too. A simple reason to assume this is the fact that so many intell­igent people are working so hard, in so many different ways, to solve the problems of modernity: sustainability, inequal­ity, alien­ation. Pretty much every smart and idealistic person is grappling with at least some aspect of one of these issues. It’s all over the sciences, all over policy making, in the arts, even on the market—whoever can solve these prob­lems is most cherished, most appreciated, even well-paid. Are we being pulled in some dir­ection, towards a new great attract­or point, upon which a series of attractors converge?

So I’ll say it again. We go ahead with sincere irony, pragmatic idealism, informed naiv­ety and magical realism—to entertain the potential of a rel­ative utopia.

In the end, we still live in a tragic universe; existence has us “eternally by the balls”. But there are new miseries on the horizon, miseries worth fighting for. And there is fun to be had along the way.

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.

[i]. Even if the anthropologist from Swaziland, Jason Hickel, has done a brilliant job revealing some of the mathematical trickery it took to exaggerate the succ­ess. See: Hickel, J. 2016. The true extent of global poverty and hunger: Questioning the good news narrative of the Millennium Development Goals. Third World Quart­erly. Vol. 37: 5, pp. 749-67.

[ii]. Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D., Loayza, N. 2002. Inequality and Violent Crime. Jour­nal of Law and Economics. vol. 45: 1-40.

[iii]. Note that I discuss this in detail in my other book, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History. A later “metameme” can include earlier ones via either what I call “reenact­ment”, i.e. when you

[iv]. And to be exact, there are two more cat­egories, but they are more com­plicated and need not concern us here. Just to mention them briefly the first one is transition problems from one stage of society to another—like the horrors of early industrialization. For instance, in Liverpool in 1829, at the heart of budding industrial­ization, life expect­ancy at birth was as low as 29 years; the lowest since the days of the black plague. And such painful tran­sitional periods seem to occur to this day in developing countries. Today, in 2018, people in China report considerably less happiness than they did twenty years ago, despite the fact that poverty rates have been slashed from a third to ten percent. The educated, urban population are especially de­pressed—which feeds right back into the idea about modern alienation.

See: Graham, C., Zhou, S., Zhang, J. 2017. Happiness and Health in China: The Paradox of Progress. World Development. Vol. 96, pp. 231-44.

The other such category is “loop­holes”, i.e. when the values of modern society can be set aside and the ethics of earlier stages of society de facto reign. For instance, modern society transposes (and rela­bels) slavery and serf­dom beyond its own shores under colonialism and, in our days, under the com­plex sub-contractor chains of production and distribution of major corporate transnationals. You could say that these categories are special cases of “residual problems” and “new emer­gent properties” pro­blems. I discuss these in another book titled The 6 Hidden Patterns of History.

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