The main issue is that the classical delineations of class, as one’s relation to financial capital under the industrial mode of production, no longer act as a satisfying way to understand the stratifications of our current society. Rather, we should understand class as a complex amalgamate of different forms of capital: financial, cultural, social, emotional, physiological (including sexual) and informational. More on this new landscape of class in this endnote.[i] To this sketchy picture I would like to add one important detail: the interactions of “class” with spirituality and self-improvement.
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 has been great confusion, especially among observers on the political Left and other progressives, as to which role spirituality and related forms of self-improvement play in postindustrial society. The most common understanding is perhaps still that spirituality, especially of the New Age kind, is a dangerous distraction from “real” societal issues and social engagement—and that self-improvement courses offer an “individualization” of societal ills and injustices. Such practices are often seen as allies to neo-liberal capitalism as “the individual” only has herself to blame and her own mind to work on: “don’t protest, just go home and meditate”. I should especially address the issue as my own work —which focuses much on the inner development of the population—can be subject to similar reactions.
I would suggest another understanding of the relation between spirituality and class, one that will need to remain on the hypothetical level until we can study it with relevant data: namely that spirituality and self-improvement are in effect magnifying glasses of class distinctions.
Here’s what I mean. If you are already in a position of financial security, good access to information and cultural sensitivity to frauds and trends, you can partake in high quality meditation courses and self-development programs that are scientifically supported and help you learn new things about yourself. This will generally improve your life quality further and make you more socially, emotionally and economically proficient.
But if you are on the opposite end of this class spectrum—and you have little money, little access to good information, little ability to critically evaluate wild claims and promises, and generally find yourself in a more desperate situation (in a “scarcity mindset”)—you are likely to be sold ineffective magic gems, expensive diet supplements, fortune teller services, astrological consulting and all manner of harmful bogus ideas (like “The Secret”, the idea that you can “materialize” wealth by thinking of money, through “quantum mechanics”). All of this makes you waste valuable time, money, attention and resources on stuff that further impoverishes your life. Your spiritual beliefs simply make you vulnerable to crude exploitation.
So you have a scale of class—understood in its widest sense—that is magnified by the growth of spiritual practices and self-improvement in society. Far from all people have a rich spiritual life, but in the minority who does adopt spiritual worldviews, class differences are increased.
At the top of this scale you find what I call integralists (after the followers of Ken Wilber’s elaborate “integral spirituality”). These folks are the relatively privileged ones who adopt difficult and esoteric teachings and subtle body practices, and drill them arduously for years—and who manage to keep a scientific worldview (uhm, relatively) intact in the process. Their thinking and life experience are enriched and they develop greater existential depth and higher subjective states, even to the point where they themselves can sell these services at favorable prices. They are enriched across the scale.
The middle segment we can call the yoga bourgeoisie. These might dabble in a little astrology and quick-fix “life-changing” courses and eat some silly supplements, but by and large they are still energized by their spiritual practices and are comfortable enough economically to do so with good conscience. They might believe in a little magic here and there, but they generally understand that they should keep such discussions to themselves and don’t spoil their professional lives in the process.
And then, on the low end of the scale, we have what I call the astrology precariat.[ii] Here the magic beliefs of desperate people result in a heightened vulnerability, which leads to a cruel commercialization of the human soul.
In a capitalist society, made hyper-commercialized with the advent of the internet, disempowered people are made to believe in the worst imaginable nonsense, and there really is no end to the venues of exploitation: conspiracy theories, aliens, ghosts, past lives, healing crystals, alternatives to vaccine, Scientology, divination—the list goes on, and there is no end to the supply side and the inhuman cynicism with which it is tooted, packaged and sold.
But the hopes and aspirations of the astrology precariat are betrayed as no quick-fixes materialize beyond some initial placebo. And then you just spent the last year paying healers to help you when what you really needed was to get your life and finances more organized. And you end up even more desperate and gullible. People in the astrology precariat very often suffer from severe mental illness and distress—and often end up in psychiatric care (psychiatrists can attest to the prevalence of people with borderline syndrome who have been exploited by quacks and con artists).
It is tempting, from a classical Left perspective, to think spirituality and self-improvement are simply nonsense and offer no path towards deeper equality. Yet I would hold that they, in fact, are keys to transforming society, even beyond equality, taking us closer to equivalence and equanimity. However, I would be wary of any attempt to center the transformation of society on spirituality and self-improvement alone. This would only lead to an exacerbation of inequality in its most profound and venomous sense.
Spirituality and inner self-improvement are heavy drugs; they are indeed a double-edged sword. Today, they have become a magnifying glass for inequality and class stratification; tomorrow, inshallah, they can become universal tools of empowerment, emancipation and universal solidarity.
Would it be so strange if, at the enigmatically silent depths of our human (or posthuman) hearts and minds, we will find deeper equality?
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]. At the top of postindustrial society you have groups emerging who are rich in all of these forms of capital put together. The Swedish philosophers Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist have suggested the new “masters of the internet” should be called netocrats. These are the small groups who are most proficient at benefitting from the World Wide Web and thus constantly gain an upper hand in the informational economy; not necessarily because they have the best technical skills, but because they understand the social and cultural logic of the internet most intimately. In The Listening Society I proposed that the growing triple-H populations (hackers, hipsters and hippies) are gaining influence across the board and increasingly are becoming important agents in the new economy. You might also call them the creative class, with a broader, more established (and more scorned) term. Franco Berardi, of the Italian Marxist “autonomist” school, has suggested the term cognitariat—the class distinguished by its relation to abstract symbols.
At the bottom of postindustrial society you don’t really find a wide “proletariat” any longer. You find people who are just disenfranchised in a general manner; who are in an economically, socially and otherwise precarious situation. They are perhaps best denominated with a term made famous (but not invented) by the economist Guy Standing: the precariat. However, on the low end of informational and cultural capital you also find a lot of people who are relatively economically comfortable, but never really get to participate meaningfully in the postindustrial society of social media spectacles and exciting events. These growing groups are continuously reduced to a position of consuming the ideas, images and spectacles produced by others, hence Bard and Söderqvist call them the consumtariat.
Regarding the “regressive” voters of present-day USA (who voted for Donald Trump), there has been much discussion whether they constitute an economically disempowered segment of the population. Is this a revolt of the lower classes, or is it the bigotry of the privileged?
The answer is clear: They are not all economically poor, but they have lower cultural and informational capital than “progressive” voters. Trump voters largely belong to the consumtariat, the relative underclass of a postindustrial internet society.
Hence it is clear that the class struggles of our day and age have already shifted. It’s not that financial capital and economic class no longer matter —it’s just that it’s no longer the only game in town and that other forms of class distinctions are growing in importance. Rightwing populists can help these groups take back the spectacle, the center stage of society—at least for a while—and thus reaffirming the sense of meaning and empowerment that flows from it.
[ii]. The term “precariat” is discussed in the endnote above.