The Listening Society: Possible and Necessary

In my last post I asked if we should really make people happy  and argued that “[w]e desperately need a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security – a listening society, where every person is seen and heard.” In this one I will assert that it is absolutely necessary to insure that people are much more socially and psychologically functional in our increasingly confusing and demanding society, that it’s possible since we now have the know­ledge and new social technologies to execute it successfully and that it saves our perpetually pressured welfare systems.

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 the chapter about political metamodernism “in a nutshell” that investigates how a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security, can be achieved and the chapter simply titled “possible and necessary” which argues why such a society should be developed and how it connects to everyday life.

”As our power over nature grows, and as the social technologies allow us deeper access into the human soul, the political metamodernist takes open, deliberate and unapologetic responsibility for the psychological devel­­op­­­ment of all citizens.”

The answer to how we can achieve higher levels of happiness and decrease overall suffering is that we today know so much about the human mind, the brain, and the human being in her totality: her psycho­physiology, her behavioral responses and patterns (including econ­omic behaviors), her emotions, her relationships, how to make her happy, how to decrease the likelihood of psych­iatric disorders, how to prevent family tragedies, how to support her in the developmental stages of child­hood, adolescence and adult­hood, how to support (and to some extent increase) her intelligence and creat­ivity, how to help her to heal after hurt and loss, how to support her tenden­cies for universalistic values, how to support her towards developing more complex thinking – even how to support the acquisition of existential and spiritual insights that make death, pain and life’s disappoint­ments more toler­able and mana­geable.

And this knowledge is growing by volumes every day. There is increa­sing evidence that many different factors work together to help a human being flourish or to let her fall apart. In medicine this insight is called the “bio­psycho-ecological paradigm”. In psychology it is similarly called the “bio-psycho-social model”. In politics and welfare policy we can call it the listen­ing society, which is the deeper form of welfare that metamodern activists strive to achieve. (Here you can read more about how metamodernism differs from postmodernism and why political metamodernism is the future, I sincerely advice you to if you haven’t already read it, especially the last section about political metamodernism.)

Political metamodernism is the rebellious act of taking this vast know­ledge into our hands – and to boldly shape it into usable politics; into wonderful but dangerous “social technologies” that can be used to funda­mentally improve the lives of a majority of the citizens.

This is to be achieved within the time frame of a few generations. We are not talking about a dramatic revolution from one day to another, or an attempt to “set things straight once and for all”, or the sudden “waking up” of every­one. Nor are we talking about a utopia in any naive sense. We are talk­ing about painstaking, slow reforms that nevertheless can be expected to have substantial effects on the quality of life of our fellow citizens – over longer periods, and on average.

We take the most useful of the scientific know­ledge into our hands, and begin the long path of using a multiplicity of slow, open, transparent demo­cratic processes, with the goal of reshaping all parts of society: sch­ools, the workplace, high­er education, the market, healthcare – even the personal rela­­tion­ships, sex lives, gender relations, worldviews and inner selves of the citi­zen. We are speaking about conscious and delib­erate social-psychological and cultural development.

As our power over nature grows, and as the social technologies allow us deeper access into the human soul, the political metamodernist takes open, deliberate and unapologetic responsibility for the psychological devel­­op­­­ment of all citizens.

It is my responsibility that they left home for the madness of the Syrian war. It is my responsibility that most people do not see the wrongs in how we let the farm animals suffer slavery, torture and mutilation. It is my responsi­bility that the integration of immigrants is working poorly, that so many young women suffer from anorexia, that so many people live their lives with a per­vasive lack of meaning and never truly work to im­prove the world.

I could have changed social reality, thereby changing the lives of these fellow beautiful creatures under God. It was me all along. It always will be. This is the commitment of the metamodern activist.

The political philosopher Elizabeth Cripps has argued that the citizen cannot hide behind her individuality in the face of collective ethical dil­em­mas caused by the actions of the many. One must act according to one’s abilities to change the collective, given that one understands the mechanism that cau­ses harm, and that one knows what actions can reas­on­­ably be taken. This moral obligation includes political activism.

Where­­as Cripps writes primar­ily about climate change, her ideas certainly apply to a wider context. The more you understand how soc­iety’s ills are caused by the psycho-social envir­onment (i.e. the interplay of people’s inner lives and the arenas of every­day life) the more obliged you are to change and develop these realities.

”Every day we must look deep into our own eyes in the mirror – are we becom­ing this technocratic man of system? This is not only a con­temp­lative question, but a political and analytical one.”

Accepting the Risks

Reaching deeper into the human soul (and organism), supporting its inherent capacities for development, is dangerous business. It can easily lead to breaches of the private and personal sphere, to subtle but pervasive forms of oppression. But it is a path that we have already travelled along at least since the 17th century; and it is becoming increasingly necessary, given how our tech­nology is evolving.

Such a cultural development requires millions of scientific articles and careful democratic debates, trial and error, effective measurement, cont­in­uous feedback and full transparency of information and decision making. Build­ing – or cultivat­ing – the next and deeper layer of social welfare re­quires the ongoing posing of two questions:

  • How can good conditions and prerequisites for human flourish­ing and “thrivability” be brought about?
  • How can this be done in a manner that is open, democratic, non-mani­pul­ative – without a “creepy” undercurrent of control?

The metamodern political activist lives by both of these questions, day and night, body and soul. It is a fulltime commitment because negligence in either one of the two questions can and will have terrible consequences.

If we fail to answer and act upon the first question it means that we are not using the best knowledge available to let people lead happy and productive lives. We are thus letting people walk lonely through life, lett­ing children be bullied, exploited and harmed in so many other ways, letting the public debate continue to be dysfunctional, letting the destruction of our environment cont­inue, letting the torture of billions of defenseless animals continue, letting people rot away during old age and die full of angst, confusion and regrets.

Failing to answer the first question does not only mean that we are reprod­ucing the inexcusable suffering prevalent in current society; it also means that we are making large global catastrophes much more likely, as insecure and afraid people, with poorly working social institutions, gain power over nano­tech, AI and the redesign of life itself. We are failing to evolve humanity to a maturity matching her newly won powers over nature that the inform­ation age (or rather: the multidimensional crisis-revolution) brings.

If we fail to answer and act upon the second question, we are under­min­ing freedom, democracy and human dignity – we are treating people like pawns, and contributing to a system of increasing manipula­tion and surveillance, where power over deep, psychological and personal issues fall into the hands of elites and bureaucracies. At the dawn of the modern age Adam Smith, the father of economics, warned us about the “man of system” who tries to arran­ge everything in accordance to his plans and ideas about the good society, but ends up creating unexpected consequ­ences and misuses of political power:

“…so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of govern­ment, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

Adam Smith, 1759. Theory of Moral Sentiment. London: A. Millar: paragraph VI.II.42 (Available at

You may have heard of the term “nudging”, Sunstein and Thaler’s behav­ioral-economic idea that people can be subtly “nudged” to make “better” choi­ces by means of “libertarian paternalism”. A “choice arch­itect” can arran­ge how food is presented in the school’s lunch line, thereby improving public health by facilitating the making of “better” choices.

There is nothing wrong with this line of reasoning in principle – but it begs the question about who such a “choice architect” should reasonably be. In Sunstein and Thaler’s discussion, the “choice arch­itect” comes eerily close to “the man of system”. At the very least, people should get to vote in a “direct democracy” manner, about how or when we want to nudged or not.

Every day we must look deep into our own eyes in the mirror – are we becom­ing this technocratic man of system? This is not only a con­temp­lative question, but a political and analytical one. In my book Nordic Ideology you’ll see how the six new forms of politics suggested create checks and balan­ces that work against the misuse of power, against manipulation and insensitive social engineering. The develop­ment of society and our inc­reas­ing knowledge force us to face, and to balance out, the man of the system at new and deeper levels. We have only begun to become acqu­ainted with this “man of system” – and this grey eminence will show his face in more subtle ways, even deep within ourselves.

The two questions go together. You cannot have the first without the sec­ond. And neither question has “one answer” – they are both open-ended, in that they will continue to produce new conundrums, dilemmas and riddles as society evolves and new challenges arise. They both require ongoing questio­ning and answering. They are, to use that hackneyed term, processes.

Many people take pride in not even attempting to answer the first quest­ion, because they thereby avoid having to answer the second one; a position I call the liberal innocent. From that position their hands are free to attack anyone who tries to make suggestions about how society might be different and better, by labeling them control freaks, arrogant or naive. These are the people who fail to accept the risks, and there­by make themselves complicit in the suffering of all who are muti­lated under the unacceptable cruelty of our prevailing society.

Higher freedom begets greater responsibility; and we are freed to­gether, or not at all. For those who do not accept the risks, who asks for freedom but does not take the respons­ibility, I have nothing but the most severe moral condemnation.

Possible and Necessary

A deeper expansion of social welfare – seeing to that all citizens (or as many as practically possible) grow up genuinely healthy and emo­tion­ally well-developed – is both possible and necessary.

”The listening society saves the welfare system, by being much more efficient and socially sustainable than our current syst­em, thereby being more affordable in the long run.”

Yes, It Is Possible

It is possible due to the new circumstances of the internet age, the robotics revolution and the sheer growth of production and knowledge of the global economy. As the economy continues to grow, and with the expan­sion of technology, society simply has much greater opportunities to employ people to work with subtler, more psychological and more long-term oriented – yet deeply meaningful – tasks.

We know that the costs of one kid gone rebel in the rich world are imm­ense, seen over a life span: not entering the labor market, taking up social costs, police work, courts and prison, causing harm to other citi­zens, reducing general security and causing surveillance and security costs to rise, making the public afraid and thereby more prone to dumb fear-driven politics, and so on. Lately econo­mists and social work resear­chers have increasingly argued that such “bad kids” should be singled out early on and get the extra support they need; a few years of support teacher salary is a bargain in comparison.

That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about something of a much greater magnitude (and ethically on less murky wat­ers) than sing­ling out 4-year old ruffians. We are talking about universal measures, guar­anteeing everyone more care, support and attention by redesi­gn­ing all of our major institutions to improve the quality of human relations, personal devel­opment and mental health. I beg to move:

  • Everybody should have the benefit of talking to a kind, listening prof­ess­ional therapist while growing up (just think of how the number of mol­es­t­ations would drop, how kids would treat each other better, how family life would improve).
  • Everybody should get to learn to meditate, both with mindful­ness and other techniques so that one can handle stress and get in touch with one’s own emotions.
  • Everybody should get a good gym coaching from early age so that they grow up to have fit bodies, good bodily awareness, positive body image, relaxed body language and healthy habits.
  • Everybody should be trained in dialogue and get the chance to par­ticipate in public debates or deliberations.
  • Everybody should get a year off once in a lifetime to go look for new purpose in life and make tough life decisions under profess­ional care and support – in a kind of secular monastery.
  • Everybody should be “nudged” and supported to consume both heal­thy and sustainable food that prevents depression and supp­orts long-term soc­ietal goals.
  • Everybody should be trained in social and emotional intelligence so that conflicts arise less often and, when they do arise, are handled more prod­uc­­­t­ively.
  • Everybody should have a proper sexual education from early on, knowing things such as how to tackle early ejaculation, tensions in the vagina, sexual rejections, making approaches in a charming but resp­ect­ful manner, how to handle competition and how to handle porn­ography or sexual desires that diverge from the norm.
  • Everybody should get some aid in managing the fear of death and facing the hard facts of life – to help us intuitively know that our time here is precious.

This is just a very rough outline, so far. The point is that we need to shift the whole fabric of social reality, making the mental and emo­tional back­ground noise of anxieties and fears less prevalent and making every­day life in general saner and kindlier. This is not a superfluous or self-evident claim. In no exist­ing society does a corresponding level of welfare exist; not in the Swedish system, not in nice boarding schools, not in the “Gross Nat­ional Happiness country” of Bhutan.

If everybody did have a support structure resembling the one briefly out­lined above – all according to best practices – do you think that you would be more or less afraid of walking down the street a dark night? Do you think that you would be more or less likely to hurry past by a person in need? Would you feel more or less secure in sending your kids off to school? Do you think the integration of immigrants would be more or less hindered by prejudice and cultural tensions? Would more or fewer people become terror­ists? Would the average person feel more or less compelled to buy cool cloth­es and cars to prove their social status? Would people build stronger or weaker local comm­unities? Would mental and physical health be better or worse? Would society be more or less prone to violent overreactions during times of change and crisis? Would class distinctions be aggravated or leveled out, and would the hidden injuries of class be deeper or would they heal more easily? Would the average family be more or less harmonious and healthy?

The most reasonable answer is that, on average, society as a whole would be safer, saner and kinder – and that these effects would accumul­ate over dec­ades and generations until a new and higher equilibrium of happiness and lower suffering is reached. People would experience a much higher degree of free­dom and contentment. Life would be a lot more fun and exciting too, since much fewer people would get stuck in their lives, limited in their develop­ment by stress, anxieties or broken relationships. There would be more human bonds, trust and opportun­ities. This in turn would save humon­gous costs and let much more people spend their lifetimes in prod­uctive service of themselves and others. So the whole idea of a listening society is possible because, after its initial investments, it saves a lot more than it spends. It saves the increas­ingly pressured welfare system.

I will say it again, in case you missed it, because people really seem to have difficulties with getting this point.

  • The listening society saves the welfare system, by being much more efficient and socially sustainable than our current syst­em, thereby being more affordable in the long run.

What we are talking about is the deliberate, long-term management of deep, complex, social-psychological issues. These deeply seated issues affect all aspects of society in a great variety of ways that are difficult to predict prec­isely. But the effects are pretty easy to spot on a general level. Think about it – if the average person would just be more socially well-developed, healthier and kinder, would not society as a whole benefit immensely? How about the economy, the labor market, or the efficiency of demo­cratic govern­ance?

A deeper welfare, a listening society, is possible because we live in a post­industrial age and because we are now beginning to have the know­ledge to execute it successfully; new social technologies are being made available. And the knowledge about how to continuously improve upon the implemen­tation of such social technologies is growing.

The listening society is possible, moreover, because of the foundation created by the prevailing meta-ideology of Green Social Liberalism. However, in a country like the US, where universal health care, abortion and gay rights are still real issues, we don’t yet have a stable ground to build upon. A country (or other society) must first have reached a point in the devel­op­­ment of its political discourse in which a solid majority supports liberal, social and green values, allowing these to be used as a common ground to start from. This is to a much greater extent the case in the Nordic count­ries.

Once it has become a no-brainer that we want a free, fair and sust­ain­able society, and once the first steps towards this end have been achieved, it beco­mes apparent that all the current parties (all of which are de facto green social-liberal, as is the case in the Nordic countries, including even the nationalist parties that to a considerable degree defend the welfare state, emphasize gender equality as national virtue and at least pay lip service to the protection of the environment) have become stuck as movements. They no longer have any long-term visions for society, no utopias or future goals worth mentioning.

This is an ironic turn of events; we have in fact never had greater pot­en­tial to develop new forms of everyday life than we do today. The resour­ces and knowledge at hand are simply staggering compared to only twenty years ago. The problem for the established political move­ments is that they all build upon ideologies that were founded during the industrial era. These ideologies are largely being aband­oned in practice (the Social Dem­o­crats no longer truly want socialism, and so forth). The industrial age ideologies are all bankrupted – they have all become pale, polite but­lers of Green Social Liberalism.

This leaves plenty of political and institutional leeway for new powers to emerge, offering an update upon the new political equilibrium of Green Soci­al Liberalism.

Look. Even if the socialists got everything they wanted, life would still be full of inequalities and misery. Even if the libertarians got their way, most people would not be free. Even if the Greens got their way, society would not be sustainable in any deeper sense.

By offering a bid for a “Green Social Liberalism 2.0”, one begins to build a new layer of society, on top of the modern society and its project of pro­gress and enlighten­ment. It brings up deeper, more personal and authentic issues that constitute the very core of how society functions. Such social-psycho­logical and existential issues are often what lie under the surface of superficial “societal problems” that we habitually think about and debate.

More and more people have begun to take interest in asking deeper quest­ions about life and society. People long for more depth and authen­ticity – and the inspiration that can come from answers in these domains. There is a demand for a deeper kind of politics, and thus there is political power for the taking. This new layer of welfare breaks the limits of mod­ern society. It beg­ins to transform the very quality of human relations. Nobody else is doing it, so whoever starts first gains a sharp competitive edge. That’s what makes it possible.

”We need people who are much more socially and psychologically functional for this new society to run smoothly in all of its crazed beauty.”

And, Yes, It Is Necessary

But Green Social Liberalism 2.0, and the listening society that it seeks to put into effect, are not just long-shot possibilities. They are, as I have argued, a moral imperative. And they constitute an institutional necessity. We are quickly moving from one kind of society to another, and failure to adopt a more efficient welfare system is likely to have very negative con­sequ­ences. Our current form of liberal democracy and welfare deserve all the respect in the world – but they are insufficient, and we must help them evolve. If we do not, our society can be expected to face increasing problems, even to the point of collapse, as our old answers and instit­utions persist­ently fail to tackle the challenges brought by the new era.

The cultivation of a deeper layer of welfare is necessary because the curr­ent system and its political visions are increasingly bankrupted under the globalized internet age. The problem is no longer to get food on the table or to manage the successful extraction of natural resources or the production of cars and medications (although these problems may come back as results of eco­logical collapse). What is lacking in our day and age is the ability for peo­ple to manage complex problems that require pat­ien­ce, knowledge, over­sight, creativity, mutual trust and friendly co-operation across sectors, scientific disciplines, cultures and subcultures. In a phrase: the management of com­plexity.

Similar social-psychological demands are also increasing for everyday choi­ces such as consumption and how we spend our time amidst all the dis­tractions. It even holds for personal relations, where new forms of love, fam­ily, friend­ships, acqua­int­ances, co-habitation and mixed work-perso­nal rela­tions are mush­rooming all over the world. We need people who are much more socially and psychologically functional for this new society to run smoothly in all of its crazed beauty. As a population, we are not ready to face up to and live in the society that we ourselves have created. We are out of our depth. Or, as Robert Kegan – the Harvard adult dev­elop­­ment psych­ologist – has suggested, we are in over our heads.

So basically, for people to function well as participants in the new econo­mic landscape, the demands for psychological wellbeing and good social net­works have become greater. A deeper welfare is necessary, one that increases our average psych­ological health and wellbeing and thereby our function­ality in this bizarre new global society. We need to be stable, flexible, mature versions of ourselves, because we spend our lives playing on an incr­ea­singly complex and multi-dimensional arena, where social skills and the quality of our relations make all the difference.

Collective and personal meaning-making is another big part of this. People need to be able to create their own life stories, their own narratives about the world, to find their own meaning. Life conditions no longer force you to go out and plow the field to feed your family and society no longer offers (and/or forces upon you) a coherent worldview written down by the gods – although we still of course inherit the norms of soc­iety, its language, etc.

It is a major challenge for people to stay sane in this world full of contra­­dictions, temptations, distractions and stressful yet devilishly vague demands. No meaningful story is given beforehand (unless you are part of some reli­gious sect, but even these positions are increasingly precarious). Not only must we stay sane; we must find and keep direction in all of this; we must stay active, even as our activities are rarely “necessary” in any direct, con­crete sense. If we fail to do this, we can easily land in socially and econo­mic­ally precarious situations. Many of these challenges require us to devel­op higher stages of personal develop­ment, as described in my book The Listening Society.

Consider the changing nature of professional work. The freelance part of the labor market grows and the relatively stable structures of the indus­t­rial age companies melt away (along with their employments), which means that the average person must think and act much more indep­en­dently in order to thrive and be productive. And no, this does not happen because of a neo­liberal conspiracy pulled on us, start­ing with Thatcher and Reagan, but because of the internet revolution, robotics and post­indust­rialism – and the mech­anisms of globalization (which, of cour­se, do deserve their fair share of criticism from the Left).

We are leaving behind the economy in which you were defined by your profession. Increasingly, people are defined and acquire their social value through a wider array of identities, including civic, personal, aesthetic and exi­stential ones. This has two major implications.

Firstly, people will need much more emotional support in order to grow into maturity and to be able to play with the many possible and con­fusing identities – instead of taking them too seriously, or clinging to one job desc­ription and be crushed if one is suddenly out of work. As men­tioned in the parallel discussion above, this necessitates a deeper form of welfare that supports self-knowled­ge and a rich life beyond the labor market.

Secondly, many new professional roles need to be invented to match the transformations of labor, as robotization and digitalization progress. “New jobs must be created”, to speak that horrid language of our current leadership. Many of these jobs can and should be concerned with the meaningful activ­ities involved in creating a listening society (a huge amount of work is needed helping kids, designing public spaces, support­ing life stage transitions, im­pro­v­ing upon diet, organiz­ing citizen deliber­ation, evaluating and develop­ing all of the above, and so forth). So the listening society is necessary both as support to the citizen and as a new source of meaningful, productive work opportunities.

Moreover, the listening society is necessary as a competitive edge in the global economy. The regions that will be able to create the most fertile soil for the blooming of human relations and wellbeing, are also likely to have much higher productivity in the postindustrial economy. It is well esta­blish­ed that things such as flow state and intrinsic motivation are conduct­ive to creat­ivity and performance of complex tasks. Confident, happy people, who can manage more abstract and long-term goals, and who are more self-secure and thus better at taking in negative feedback (and adjusting to new inform­ation), will simply out­com­pete other people in the scramble for capital and central positions in the new world economy.

This is a cynical part of the argument, admittedly, but an important one. It is not just that the listening society is kinder and more ethical. The listening society is, plainly, much more powerful in a digitalized global economy, than is the cap­italist liberal democracy. It saves so much tax money, it boosts enterprise, entrepre­neurship and innovation, it attracts talent, and it att­racts capital in different forms – and it grows human and social capital. We have seen similar macroeconomic effects with HDI-rankings (Human Devel­op­­ment Index): human develop­ment drives eco­n­o­mic growth. In the inter­net age, a deeper and more complex form of human develop­ment is highly likely to drive a deeper and more com­plex form of economic growth.

The deeper welfare system is necessary because, without it, you will be outcompeted by other, more listening societies, where citizens truly do thrive. Luckily for the future of humanity, this dynamic sets the world-system on a positive feedback cycle towards greater sensitivity and care, rather than a race to the bottom.

So we go ahead to sincere­ly building a listening society, a deeper kind of welfare, a new kind of politics and economy. We go ahead with informed naivety, with an ironic smile at our own self-importance.

In my book the Listening Society you can read about the crucial insights about human psychological development required to commence the realization of this momentous task, and in the sequel Nordic Ideology you can read how we accomplish it.

Let us do it,
For all the kind, intelligent
And sensitive people
Who bow down
And break down
Under the existential pressures
Of modern life

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.