In larger and more complex societies, people seem to develop more individualized personalities, values and worldviews, not less. Or to be more specific and analytically correct, we could say that people in more complex societies develop more dividualized selves (borrowing the term “dividual” from Gilles Deleuze, which replaces the “individual”). An important aspect of this is that people develop into higher value memes and, despite their apparent individualism, also seem to develop more universalistic, inclusive and non-sectarian values. The people of welfare-jacked Sweden display much higher average value memes than their Afghani fellow world citizens. You will, for instance, find more environmentalists and animal rights activists in Sweden than in Afghanistan. This is due to the dynamic, dialectical and painful dance between two poles: (in)dividuation and integration, an idea that has been proposed—albeit in simpler forms—by many theorists.
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.
“It is often our highest hopes and dreams, the parts of ourselves that are most universal and most intimately held and cherished, that are not seen, heard, given recognition and successfully integrated into society.”
The classical sociologist Émile Durkheim famously observed that modern society progresses by increasing the differentiation of the division of labor, which in turn makes each person work with more and more individualized tasks, hence developing more unique skills and experiences. These unique contributions are then integrated with each other in a more refined economy. Accordingly, this was an analysis of what Durkheim called “differentiation” and integration.
Erich Fromm, the 20th century social psychologist, argued that the development of human personalities evolve as each person finds an individual path and relationship to life, which in turn always reasserts more universalistic values and strivings. Fromm used the word “individuation”—but since I believe in the “dividual” rather than the “individual” I’ll stick with “dividuation”.
You can find a corresponding idea in classical American theorists of social psychology and education, such as George Herbert Mead and John Dewey. And, of course, you find similar theories in contemporary social philosophers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. And all over philosophy, really. And there are even versions of it in complexity and systems’ science.
I would like to offer a similar but distinct bid for this theory, one that relates more closely to the present theory of the increasing intimacy of control and history’s developmental direction—a theory of “dividuation” and integration.
The idea here is, again, that richer, larger and more complex societies offer much greater opportunities for people to develop unique experiences, skills, ideas, relationships and perspectives. Societies that integrate larger quantities of human activities, natural resources and flows of information create fertile soil for the growth of a myriad of human perspectives and experiences. Greater economic and social integration spur higher dividuation: People are finding and recasting their “selves” and their relation to life on new, higher and more subtle levels.
The tragedy of the matter is that this increasing dividuation also entails a corresponding difficulty for each of these unique souls to find ways to really match their inner drives, hopes, motives, ethics, skills and distinctive gifts with the world around them. If you identify as a farmer, a family member and a good Christian, these identities are relatively simple to act upon and it is rather easy to have them accommodated by your social surroundings. If you instead become a vegan whose greatest talent is to write poetry and criticize society, your family members and colleagues are less likely to be as accommodating.
It is often our highest hopes and dreams, the parts of ourselves that are most universal and most intimately held and cherished, that are not seen, heard, given recognition and successfully integrated into society. Hence, more and more people simply feel alienated. It is not really that the world has become a colder, lonelier place. It’s just that the integration of these many unique souls is a more complicated and difficult matter. Because people have come farther in their dividuation, more people also feel estranged, lonely and subtly dissatisfied.
As alienated and highly dividuated people we naturally struggle to find new social settings and environments in which we can truly “be ourselves”—hence the obsession with this imperative in today’s culture. Sometimes we are at least partly successful in these strivings and feel we have “finally found a home”: in a particular social network of likeminded activists, in the expressions of certain forms of music, anti-establishment sub-cultures, more personally sensitive forms of business management and so on. We find ways to reintegrate our new selves into correspondingly new social settings. But by doing so, we have again increased the integration of society. We end up creating new and even subtler forms of oppression. From there on, we can dividuate even further, starting the painful cycle again: Our new homes help us grow, but eventually we may outgrow them and end up demanding even more delicate forms of integration.
Modern society, for all its mechanisms of intimate control, has produced more highly dividuated people than any former society. And, as a result, you have a whole army of sensitive souls who feel unseen and misunderstood. Society as a whole becomes increasingly emotionally sensitive and in greater need of more subtle, profound and complex forms of social integration. When such integration fails, life feels empty and meaningless. The road to greater freedom and higher development of the self is a beautiful—but also tragic and ultimately very lonely—journey.
As such, modern society suffers from a chronic lack of deeper and more complex forms of integration. Societal development spurs the growth into higher stages of personal development, but higher stages of development create an increasing pressure upon society to break the prevailing alienation.
But—and this is a big but—every attempt to create more intimate integration risks becoming a new source of oppression. Whenever people try to relate to one another at a deeper and more intimate level, including larger parts of our authentic emotions and inner selves, to some it may become suffocating and pressuring.
New oppression—albeit on a higher, subtler level. When we, for instance, create new playful ways of organizing our corporations, in which everyone is invited to partake more authentically, we also share larger parts of our inner selves and are expected to show up more “fully” and to be more emotionally involved. But some are bound to not quite “feel it” and will necessarily feel pressured and subtly manipulated. When we create greater social engagement and caring, those who are unable to experience the same emotions feel suffocated and that unrealistic expectations are being shoved down their throats.
New oppression. When we democratize governance and more people get involved in decision-making, many of us feel stuck in endless discussions. When we introduce mindfulness and yoga at work, some will feel they are expected to waste their precious time with meaningless woo-woo. When we make our organizations more personal, some of us feel stuck in more personal issues and conflicts in which our vulnerabilities become all too apparent. When we create greater transparency, some feel more surveilled.
New oppression. When we use “nudging” to promote sustainable and prosocial behavior, some will feel that others are pulling their strings. When society becomes more tolerant and multicultural, some of us feel confusion and estrangement as we are expected to successfully interact with people from more varying cultural backgrounds—and may be shamed as racist if we fail to comply. When social movements adopt more profound communication techniques (such as Art of Hosting and Theory U), people can easily feel drawn in farther than they had expected or wanted. When spiritual and “self-development” communities create more intimate ways for people to share their inner lives, some feel pressured to overshare and end up having their intimate secrets used against them.
When we feel alienated, we seek reintegration. Metamodern politics, and the listening society, must empower people to reintegrate the parts of life that have been spliced into shards: the personal, the civic and the professional. We must be allowed to live as whole human beings. We need to live fuller lives. We need to be able to show up as a vulnerable, real person at work, and do work that is meaningful to us in terms of our values and views of society.
But the dark side of deeper reintegration of the spheres of life—the personal, the civic and the professional—is the emergence of new and more subtle forms of oppression. Integration is necessary for more complex societies to function, but it can always, sooner or later, become controlling or even icky and creepy.
This is the tragedy at hand: a painful wheel turning from integration, to oppression, to resistance and emancipation, to greater dividuation and alienation, back to new integration.[i]
The different political strands of mainstream Western politics relate to different parts of this wheel of dividuation and integration. None of them have successfully identified the whole process.
Socialism is largely an integrative movement, seeking to create greater integration by means of democratically governed bureaucratic measures, working against alienation—beginning already with the pre-Marxist socialists. Libertarianism and neoliberalism defend the rights of the individual against oppression, but they largely lack an understanding to balance out the alienating effects of modern society and its way of turning everything into a matter of money, material gain and calculated exchange.
Fascism and populist nationalism can be viewed as integrative over-reactions to the alienation of modern society, seeking to revive obsolete forms of community and belonging (corresponding to earlier value memes). And ecologism is largely an integrative movement, seeking to reintegrate human life into the biosphere and often into local communitarian initiatives.
The metamodern view is to support the necessary reintegration of highly dividuated modern people into deeper community—or Gemeinschaft—but to do so with great sensitivity towards the inescapable risks of new, subtler forms of oppression.
Hence, the task is to balance out and support the forces of integration and dividuation. This is what the listening society must be able to do.[ii] Nobody said it was going to be easy. But there it is: The increasing intimacy of control is linked to higher personal freedom, though in a difficult and painful manner that easily spirals off into oppression. We must relate productively to this dynamic.
See the model below for a graphic summary:
If things go well, the turning of this wheel—for all the pain and complication it involves—leads to higher freedom, to a profound kind of societal progress. We dividuate as people and integrate in more complex ways, and this changes the nature of society, which in turn affects who we are as human beings. If it goes poorly, it leads to oppression and/or alienation—and sometimes fierce overreactions against these.
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]. All of this is interspersed, of course, with periods of disintegration and conformism, when things fall apart and people revert to earlier stages of development for a period of time—and by renewed resistance and struggle. Far from all emancipation and integration projects are successful and sustainable.
[ii]. To make matters more complicated some authors, like Daniel Siegel, use the word “integration” to mean both differentiation and linkage. In this vocabulary, then, integration is the overall process whereas its two components are differentiation of different elements and their interlinking. The way I use the term, it is juxtaposed with differentiation.