[Note: This text is originally in Swedish. It has been AI translated and checked for errors. Traces of the translation may remain.]
What does the next level of welfare look like?
Such a question can of course only be answered through the participation and involvement of many people.
What we can do here and now is to begin drawing the outlines of a welfare society that touches upon all aspects of life, and that supports us in both our own personal development and in our relationships with one another.
If you have read my books, you’d know that I call the welfare society of the future the listening society. This is also the title of my first book in the series on metamodern politics. The listening society is simply the welfare society we would wish for—whatever those wishes turn out to be once we have tried them out and developed them through good, open conversations. Like the term metamodernism, “the listening society” is a concept that needs to be filled with many meanings, large and small, that together form a greater whole.
The listening society is a higher level of welfare than that which exists today. In contemporary welfare societies, like the Scandinavian ones, most of us are guaranteed basic material security and safety. We rarely have to worry about whether we will have food on the table, and we can feel confident that we and our loved ones will receive medical care when needed. At the same time, there are higher rungs on the pyramid of human needs that our society is unable to guarantee: to feel a deep and meaningful sense of community, to receive recognition, to experience good self-esteem—and, to feel that you are living out your dreams. The listening society is a welfare society where everyone is guaranteed not only survival and security, but also to experience a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development.
Conventional Welfare vs. The Listening Society
What are the contours of our existing welfare society? What does welfare mean today? And what might the word “welfare” mean in the future?
The welfare we know today is a fruit of the modern industrial society. When, for the first time in history, we were able to produce an abundance of life’s necessities—that is, food, clothing, warm and safe housing, and medical care—the question arose as to how this abundance should be distributed so that no one would have to go without these basic necessities. All across the industrial world we tried to find answers to this question: through government, through civil society or through the market. All modern democracies chose a middle ground of some kind between the state, civil society and the market, albeit with different emphases. For certain historical reasons, the Scandinavian countries chose, as is well known, to give the public sector, the state, a decisive role in the distribution of wealth and the guarantee of security. This model has proved successful in many ways.
Over the last thirty years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the common security and personal freedom that we have tried to create are under threat. We now live in a world which—due to a long series of changes in the global economy and in different parts of the world’s political landscape—has become so complex and opaque that industrial society’s answer to the question of welfare has become obsolete. We seem to need new answers to the question, a new level of welfare. Welfare can be reinvented and broadened—and above all, it can be deepened to meet the demands of the new era. Let’s take a closer look at the traditional welfare of the industrial society and how it can be developed to become more efficient and comprehensive.
You may recognize the figure above as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What the figure conveys is that our traditional welfare society seeks to guarantee only the most basic human needs of food, survival and security. In contrast, there is no explicit purpose to guarantee us a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development throughout life’s long journey.
The listening society, then, is the endeavor to include higher human needs in the guarantee that we give ourselves and each other. This is, of course, no easy task and must be seen as a long-term goal comparable to the building of the traditional welfare society—a process that went on for over a century. It is not self-evident how we should go about ensuring that the higher needs are met. What is needed here is a joint, long-term effort to find solutions in the various areas of social life: in public health and healthcare, in schools, in work-life, in social services, in every area we can think of.
Can the Listening Society Save the Welfare State?
But does it really make sense to try to broaden and deepen our welfare state at a time when the existing welfare is already under threat? There is, after all, an increasingly fierce international competition for jobs and investment. Would it not be more realistic to just focus on saving what can be saved of the existing welfare?
An answer to this is to be found in the link between our more basic material needs and our higher emotional needs. If we humans fail to form a good community with each other—how can we expect to guarantee each other’s security and survival in a dignified way? If self-esteem and recognition are too unequally distributed among us—how would we want to enter into communities with one another? And if we lack opportunities for meaningful and creative lives—how can we have enough abundance of will to compassionately engage in democracy and the common good? The listening society thus cultivates our collective intelligence. That collective intelligence is in turn the strongest guarantor of both strong, deep welfare state and a healthy, competitive market economy. The listening society is thus both an end and a means.
Let’s take a closer look at the questions we need to ask ourselves to secure each of the higher needs:
Far from everyone feels part of a meaningful community. Many children never experience good and reliable friendships growing up—we all know the stories: the adolescence boy who gets stuck at home in front of the computer, does not develop important social skills, cannot get a girlfriend, and then has difficulty adjusting to adult life. When we send our children to school, there is no guarantee that they will have friends and be allowed to form the social bonds they need for their development. But the same applies not only to children, but also to adults. Many adult men, in particular, lack deep friendships and go on long lonely paths through life, never talking about feelings or deeper issues with anyone, even though they may have a job and a family. Many adult women feel different and alienated, suffer from loneliness—especially in later life. Both women and men go through long, difficult years of being involuntarily without a life partner or other positive sexual relationships. Even within marriage, our relationships often do not exhibit genuine closeness. A similar situation exists in the world of work. Many people’s professional lives are devoid of truly rewarding cooperation with other people. Others struggle to even enter the labor market, to participate in social life: the unemployed youth, the tuckered out old man, the socially awkward and deviant. The lack of community is a companion of so many people. And the fear of exclusion is a driving force in so many people’s lives. Many of us die alone.
How do we ensure that no one goes through life involuntarily without good friendships? That as many as possible have a life partner, if they want one? How do we keep families together? How do we ensure that people feel part of society and have a sense of community at work or in their neighborhood? That no one has to grow old and die alone? A wide range of actions are needed, from pre-school age, through the school years, in adult relationships, in the workplace, and in health and social care for all ages. So many concrete situations need to be changed to better promote the formation of positive bonds between people. Emotional and social intelligence need to be developed at all levels.
Even more of us will never experience a lasting good sense of self. The “good girl”, on the outside well-functioning and charming, may suffer from severe doubts in the face of all the high standards of achievement and beauty ideals. Her doubts may turn into self-hatred and lead to destructive or self-harming behavior. Many of us struggle through a long work life without gaining real recognition and strong inner self-esteem. People need recognition, we need some kind of affirmation that we are good people and that we are valuable to others, both personally and professionally. A lack of self-esteem is often seen as an inherent weakness of the individual rather than a social and political problem. But lack of self-esteem is also a social problem of major proportions. It is common that socially excluded people struggle with their self-esteem, but it also affects many “successful people”. It is often this deep psychological need to get others recognition that drives them to push themselves to achieve what they perceive to be valued by others. This, however, often creates suffering and arouses feelings of deep resentment. Lack of affirmation and self-esteem can also affect our close relationships and, more importantly, simply make us afraid to follow our dreams.
What do we need to do so that no one has to feel like a bad, failed or unwanted person? How can we ensure that we are not just tolerated, but actually loved, recognized and accepted? Here too, efforts are needed throughout society: to actively and consciously build each person’s self-esteem from the earliest childhood.
Even fewer people have the opportunity to live truly exciting and fulfilling lives. How many people do you know who really follow their dreams in everyday life, who go their own way without having to ask for permission? More and more of us have creative and exciting careers, but for most of us everyday life never becomes the beautiful adventure we know it can be. Many of us carry a deep longing to use our lives to do something truly meaningful, something where we give a unique and beautiful gift to our fellow human beings and to the world. Too many of us feel that life is just passing us by, that what we deep down wanted to create or contribute to is getting further and further away. This can be heard in many people’s statements that “life isn’t that great after all”.
What needs to change for everyone to find good, meaningful work in life? How can we ensure that no one’s life needs to become a colorless hamster wheel? Or even worse, that people never get the chance to use their deepest drives and talents? We need a flexible working life that does not leave us out of the loop or lock us into particular roles. Furthermore, people need support for their personal development throughout life, not least in relation to life’s most difficult and profound crises.
When all these needs are met, all that remains is to deepen oneself, to find meaning and to try to do good for others and for the world. Finding deep meaning in life is therefore the top black triangle at the top of the pyramid in the figure above. But how do we get there?
Can these needs be met for more people than in today’s society? What would a welfare society look like that could guarantee something more than just security? Can our children be guaranteed psychological well-being and good social relations? Can we guarantee that everyone grows up with a good self-esteem that follows us through life? Can more of us use our everyday lives to create something that really matters to us? How can we create such a new level of well-being?
One way is to create a vision of the welfare society of the future that sets us in motion. Visions of the future can certainly blind us and make us careless. But at this point we can allow ourselves to think about what a society would look like where all people—as far as is practically possible—were guaranteed both a warm community, a good sense of self, and meaningful personal development. What would such a society look like? How would exclusion, ill health and crime be affected? How would mental health be affected? In what ways would everyday life be affected? Would even the first two steps (safety and physical needs) on the ladder of needs be better safeguarded? In other words: What would life be like if we succeed in making the listening society a reality?
It is only by finding many small and large solutions, by trying things out together, that we can find the answers to these questions. To create the listening society, we must cultivate, develop and make good use of our collective intelligence. By developing the capacity to listen to all citizens, we can use the collective knowledge and insights of many more people to improve society. So we need to use collective intelligence to create a listening society. A good start is to gather around new ways of talking about politics, to experiment with different forms of political encounters to create the good conversation.
The vision of the listening society also offers clues to what the next level of economy might look like: the economy of happiness. When the economy, consumption and working life are no longer driven by people’s desire to secure belonging and recognition, when people rest in themselves regarding these needs, it becomes easier for us to make truly free and informed choices. Today, much of the economy is driven by our insecurities: young people are afraid of having the wrong clothes, mobile phones or bodies, adults of having the wrong car or furniture. Many of us work at things that we know do no good to ourselves or others, but choose to adapt so as not to lose our position in society. Many of us learn early in our careers the importance of lying and deceiving to succeed—especially higher up in business and government. But we can find ways to describe, talk about, and measure progress in what matters most to people: that we live happy lives. This is a key to achieving socially and ecologically sustainable growth, growth in people’s well-being and self-fulfillment.
Here we are moving away from the “society of tolerance” and into the society of acceptance. Modern democracy is based on the idea of tolerance, that we must tolerate each other even if we disagree or have conflicting interests or values. By opening up to acceptance, we can begin building a society based on sincere feelings of community, respect and compassion. In a listening society, everyone would feel included, seen and heard. Everyone would feel deeply accepted for whom they are. Building the listening society is about making life richer for us as human beings, transforming our inner experiences. Here we are approaching a new form of economic thinking, where happiness and suffering are at the center rather than the growth and distribution of material resources.
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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.