What Is Emancipation Politics?

The first three forms of politics—Democratization, Gemeinschaft and Exist­en­tial—serve to spur subtle but pervasive transformations of society and every­day life, until we reach a higher equilibrium of human well­being, as we achieve a listening society. As I argued in the first part of this book, this follows a long-term historical trend of increa­sing inti­macy of con­trol: larger and larger parts of our minds, behaviors and bodies are co­ordinated in more complex and deliberate ways.

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. 

Emancipation politics, the politics of defen­ding (in)dividual rights and increa­sing the degrees of free­dom, seeks to counteract the new forms of oppression that can and will occur as the intimacy of control increases.

There is an intrinsic connection between any “hol­istic” view of society and the “totalitarian” im­pulses of many move­ments, the two words mirr­oring one another. If we want a society whose different parts harmon­ize and create coherence rather than nasty para­doxes and contradictions that wreck people’s lives (and civilization itself), we must deal with the inherent risks of relating to society in a more holi­stic man­ner.

Emancipation Politics must be animated by the longing for “another kind of freedom”, for the highest reaches of freedom. It must want more for all of us than the rather superficial and unevenly distributed freedom in today’s liberal societies: to climb the spectrum of judgment, to tran­scend the emotional regimes, to go beyond the hidden negative emotions that control us.

It is insufficient to simply denounce all holism and deeper integration as totalitarian and cast our­selves as defenders of freedom, pitched against “those control freaks”. As soon as people get what they want and enjoy freedom, new things emerge and thus complexity increases; and as complexity increases, there is a re­newed need to coordinate behaviors and organize things—and that’s con­t­rol, whoever or whatever system may instantiate and exercise it.

Higher freedom is paradoxically married to greater and more intricate forms of con­trol. If you throw out all complex coordination of behaviors, you don’t get absolute freedom, but simply fragmentation and alienation; things pain­fully fall­ing apart.

That being said, society must counter its processes of governance and integration with corresponding and principled defenses of the singular per­son, her uniqueness, her lived experience, her rights. In modern liberal democracies, this is guaranteed by the rule of law and independent courts—in theo­ry, powerful citizens can­not tram­ple even the meekest beggar because her rights will be prot­ec­ted by the courts. In theory.

New Sources of Oppression

But can the “legal rights” of the modern division of powers really protect us against the subtler forms of oppression that can and will arise from the new forms of politics as the intimacy of control increases? Here are some exam­ples of such subtler forms of oppression:

  • You go through school as a child and the staff use all kinds of psychological tests and diagnostics to see your likely developmental trajectory, and many of them think of you as a future criminal, which quietly but noticeably affects their treatment of you negatively. Adults talk behind your back and you are surveilled and judged beforehand, resulting in a vague but pervasive sense of having been violated and betrayed. This sense follows you throughout life.
  • You partake in a culture where people generally value deep authenticity of emotional bonds, mutual openness about vulnerability and spiritual goals in life—but you can’t quite “feel it”. Whenever people share deep emotions or talk about their spiritual or meditative experiences, which happens a bit all over the place, you feel pressured to do likewise, but it often leaves you with a sense of numbness, and you notice that people seem to disapprove of you whenever you honestly say you’re not quite feeling all that stuff they’re talking about. You then end up embellishing the truth just to fit in, which in turn leaves you with an icky feeling that follows you throughout life.
  • You are part of a society in which self-governance and participation is highly valued and you are pressured to partake in any number of panels, ballots and committees, even if you don’t enjoy it or think it’s very mean­ingful. Deep down, you know you’re wasting your time and not making a difference, but at least the people around you seem content. A part of you whispers that you should break free from all of these tokens of res­ponsibility and cultivate your own unique skills and projects, but these inner doubts are squashed under the weight of peer pressure to be a good democratic citizen. A subtle sense of disempowerment takes hold and follows you throughout life.
  • You go to work but your ideas and values are somewhat different than those of the people around you, including some of the nice and well-meaning leaders. It’s just that you know you have other ideas and talents that would take a longer time to explain and would require others to listen to you. But they control the money and decision-making, so you go for years and years and never quite act on your deeper intuitions and intentions.

You get the point. I’m sure we can come up with a multitude of nasty scenarios that are more or less plausible and could affect different parts of the population in different aspects of their lives. The common denomina­tor would be that people are somehow subtly oppressed, in the sense they are being held back, pressured into things, feel suffocated and manipula­ted, or just aren’t treated in a dignified manner. It is impor­tant to under­stand that such oppression is not only a theoretical future risk, but some­thing that goes on in all contemporary societies. We’re just not very used to thinking of these things in terms of oppress­ion, but we will become more acquainted with them as the intimacy of control increa­ses. With more intricate forms of social self-organization come new sources of opp­ression.

Except for such subtle and indirect forms of oppression, we are of course likely to see renewed oppression in obvious and gross forms as the means for state surveillance and manipulation increase with abundant surveillance came­ras, advanced AI systems for facial recognition, online activity monito­ring, DNA tracking, new forms of censorship, you name it. In crimi­nology, Gresham Sykes and David Matza famously formulated the “neu­tralization and drift” theory of delinquency and crime, in 1957. Basically, they argued that people be­come crimi­nal offenders by inventing a large number of excuses or “neut­ral­izations” for their behaviors and that they “drift” into increasingly crim­inal behaviors and criminal social envir­on­ments. With today’s explosive develop­ment of technological means for surveillance and manipu­lation, it is not difficult to see pathways towards criminal and oppressive governance that go via “neutralizations”, trivia­lizing breaches of per­sonal integrity and “drifting” towards full-fledged oppre­ssion of dissenting opinions, prac­tices and ideas.

New subtle oppressions derived from a new layer of “metamodern” politics and new forms of gross oppression pertaining to the technological properties of the information age—these are two categories of human mi­sery that make necessary a corresponding level of emancipatory strugg­les.

The idea of Emancipation Politics is to create a permanent framework for society’s ongoing debate and dialogue about freedom and oppression: If new forms of oppression emerge, in whatever subtle or obvious guise, there should be a forum for bringing this to the public eye and a frame­work within which new solutions and responses can be discussed and devised.

Rights Reloaded

There is a profound connection between emancipation at this abstract and subtle level and the ongoing negotiation of negative human rights in society—and corresponding responsibilities (because your rights are ine­vit­ably my responsibilities and vice versa).

“Negative” human rights (or negative freedoms) in­clude such things as not being arbitrarily imprisoned, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, profession, trade, etc. These freedoms or neg­ative rights were relatively straightforward when applied to the powers of early modern states: don’t tell people what to bel­ieve in terms of religion, don’t threaten them, don’t throw them in jail and torture them, don’t crack down on the press, and so forth. And as we have seen, from there on—from the establishment of the mod­ern state—the complicated and difficult quest­ions in established democracies have to do more with delineating sound social rights or positive freedoms: should someone have the right not to starve, even if they don’t work, or right to education, right to have a job? Modern politics of Left and Right have lar­gely been about finding a reasonable and sustain­able level of social rights, whereas only extremists and totalitarians have ser­iously sought to infringe upon the negative rights.

As we begin to understand the new political landscapes of the global­ized, digitized and postindustrial era, the discussion of negative rights is reborn, if you will, on a new and higher level of abstraction. We can all agree that we, as citizens, should be free from threats of violence on behalf of the state if we speak out against some perceived injustice. But what about the vague but real threat of Islamist extremist terrorists, or the right not to have our “free will” manipulated by technocrats and special inte­rests, or the right not to be brought into social situations in which we are “out-depthed” and feel utterly confused and horrified as a result, or the right not to be subtly held back by narrow-minded definitions of the societal system, or the right to not have our attention span invaded by a thousand addictive smart­phone apps and commercials?

This is where a renewed and revitalized discussion of rights is in order. And not only should there be such a discussion in the civil sphere, but there must also be a strengthened institutional framework to define and/or contest claims for such rights. There must be clearly defined are­nas in which we can defend such rights, try to under­stand which bounda­ries are being trespassed in what ways—where we can design counter­measures that will either hold people and authorities, companies and em­ployers directly re­sponsible, or (more likely and more often) remedy the harm that has been done, while preventing further harm from occurring.

In short…

  1. as society’s complexity increases,
  2. this also creates pressures to increase the reach and density of governance,
  3. and this creates new sources of oppression (both the increased complexity of society at large and the new layers of governance),
  4. and this creates an increased need to expand negative human rights and freedoms, i.e. the right not to be subjected to a host of new oppressions,
  5. and as these new negative rights must be of a subtler and more abstract nature, they will be harder to define, defend and make sound and socially sustainable,
  6. which thus makes necessary an ongoing political process through which information is gathered, rights and obligations are perpetually discussed and tested, and new institutions are created in order to defend people against new forms of oppression.

And that process (point 6), is Emancipation Politics.

It’s not a binary “thing” that you can do to “guarantee freedom”. Peop­le aren’t either free, or not. As we have noted, freedom is a scale, both at the level of the single person and for society as a whole—and it develops together with order and equality. Even new (in)dividuation will eventually lead to new forms of oppression.

And since society’s dev­elopment is full of paradoxes and contradic­tions, it is unavoidable that efforts to improve the human condition can and will create new forms of oppression. The point is that this emergence of new oppression should be preempted in the best possible manner and be made visible and a subject of public debate and political agency.

That’s what would be going on at the Ministry of Emancipation: All forms of oppression that people experience in their lives would be gath­ered as data and analyzed. There would be public discussions about the inter­pretation of these data, and there would be an ongoing debate about what can be done to defend people, according to what rights. Human rights will no longer be enshrined and taken as religious absolutes, but be recognized for the social constructions and social deals they really are. What rights do you have, and whose obligation is it to uphold these rights, under what cir­cumstances? This will become an ongoing and central dis­cussion in meta­modern society.

Just as a key difference between modern and metamodern society is that in the former, the system of governance is a given, and in the latter, it is an ongoing developmental process, so it is with human rights and civil liberties—in modern societies these are seen as nat­urally given and immu­table background variables, in the latter they are seen as a productive field of expansion, development and critical re­straint. This is human rights re­loaded.

In today’s society we are already slipping into this redefinition of rights within many areas: culture wars, identity politics, issues of migration, ex­pensive health­care (do we have the right to medications that cost milli­ons, if these save lives?), nud­ging, environmental impact, basic in­come, free speech and false infor­mation; all of these seep into every part of politics and the media—who has what rights, who is oppressed and in what ways, and who has what oblig­ations. But as things stand today, there are only weak and haphazard inst­itutional frameworks for dealing prod­ucti­vely and syste­matically with these issues, which results in a host of pathologies: liberal polit­ici­ans pur­suing un­tenable expansions of peo­ple’s “rights”, single court deci­sions getti­ng too much power over major societal issues, people being att­racted to extremist positions on both ends of the political spec­trum.

Our societies need a “human rights 2.0”, an ongoing updating of which rights apply in which contexts, and an ongoing cultivation of frameworks which counter any new forms of oppression that may arise as society pro­gresses into a metamodern stage. Consider this: You have the “great stretching out” of value memes, i.e. more people encountering one ano­ther across all of the different value memes than ever before, under the increased ability to monitor and control one another, not only technologi­cally but also psychologically. Do you really think that a static set of given “individual rights” can and will protect everyone from oppression in all of its forms and guises? That would be a terribly naive belief.

As we create a new layer of dividual rights or transpersonal rights, these will need to be less static than the human rights of e.g. the UN Declaration: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”, etc. They will be less formulated as rules and more a “meta-rights”, and they will need to be more case sensitive. I will leave examples aside at this point, but I hope to discuss the matter in future Hanzi books.[i]

The cultivation of such Emancipa­tion Politics—and the gathering and coordination of eman­cipatory and libertarian forces of society—is a nec­essary counter­weight to the integrative forces of the other forms of poli­tics. Gemeinschaft Politics, Existential Politics—just imagine how wrong these things can go. And yet, necessary they are.

For metamodern society to materialize, it must ultimately always prio­ritize higher freedom and creativity over equality. But such a priority can never be a concluded affair. The ghost of totalitarianism can and will show its face again and again in the coming period, in increa­singly subtle and seductive guises, within ourselves and in the cracks of our reas­on­ing.

It may be tempting to claim that we, as humanity, will find freedom beyond the political realm. But even in such utopias, if they were credible, people would still need to coordinate their actions on a large scale, and to do so successfully would require inescapably subtle forms of self-organi­za­tion: co­ordinating deeper and deeper parts of our psyches.

The answer, then, is not to avoid deeper integration of human agency and further dev­elopment of the intimacy of control, but to put the strug­gle for deep emancipation—a principled defense of dividual rights—at the heart of this development. Failure to do so can and will set us on a drifting course towards totalitarianism.

Integration and (in)dividuation are in a perpetual dance. Emancipation Politics can never by itself create higher (in)dividuation. You can’t “do poli­tics” on someone and make them advance to a higher stage of perso­nal development. Such processes of development must always belong to the person or group themselves who find new ways of acting, thinking or feeling indepen­dently. As such, (in)dividuation can only occur spontane­ously at so many local and unique sites, at specific historical micro-events. Micro-revolu­tions—acts or insights that reassert autonomy—happ­en in people’s lives much like fall­ing stars appear in the night sky. Such things cannot be con­trolled or governed.

But Emancipa­tion Politics can stop the systemic suff­ocation of such instances of (in)­div­id­­ua­tion. If people are failing to find their inner voi­ces of conscience or to devel­op their unique talents because they are being pressured or manipulated or made invisible or syst­ematically ignored—this can be made visible for the public and measures can be taken to coun­ter­act the forces of oppression.

La Résistance, Direct and Indirect

We have mentioned that Emancipation Politics can, in practice, take two distinct forms in terms of measures taken: direct and indirect defenses of freedom. Let us examine what Emancipation Politics can look like more generally and these two forms of defense specifically.

The Ministry of Emancipation should monitor trends of experienced opp­ression in society, publicize its data for public discussion, gather ex­pertise about the possible sources of such opp­ression and organize fora in which different competing interpretations can be put forward.

Such monitoring can take three different forms: 1) quantitative data gathered through surveys, web analysis of big data and the like, 2) quali­tative data gathered through ethnographies and undercover participatory studies, analyses of current discourses in society and so forth, and—most importantly 3) people’s own filed complaints. This last instance would be made possible by a new public framework of civil service, which has the obligation to listen to complaints and try to see if their experienced oppre­ss­ion can be resolved. So: measure, define, publicize, discuss, remeasure, com­pare trends over time, discuss reasonable solutions, remeasure…

Some­where in that seemingly tedious process, awaits higher freedom, ready to bloom—more so than on top of any barr­icades I can think of.

Questions that must be answered on a yearly basis are such as:

  • What unhealthy and unwanted dependencies do people feel control their lives?
  • In what contexts are people afraid to speak their honest opinions, and for what reasons?
  • In what contexts are people being held back from legitimate initiatives and through what means does such holding back take place?
  • What levels of personal (in)dividual freedom do different groups of the population have, if we use the 1-9 scale suggested in chapter 5 of this book?
  • What hooks and points of leverage do people have upon one another and how do these things play out in their lives?
  • In what contexts are people being limited by bureaucracy and red tape?
  • In what contexts have single persons or small groups been rolled over by collective or stronger group interests?
  • In what contexts do people show obvious unwillingness to take personal responsibility, and what are the mechanisms causing such learned help­lessness?
  • What uses of authority can and should be questioned within policing, criminal care, healthcare, psychiatry, education and social work?
  • In what contexts are people being manipulated and treated as means to an end?
  • In what contexts do people feel pressured by civil society and family relations, and what are the consequences?

As a society, we should have institutions, arenas and fora for collective­ly thinking about freedom and oppression in society—and for implement­ing solutions to reduce oppression and increase the degrees of freedom. That requires the development of a language for speaking about these matters and a strong basis of knowledge and expertise about the sources of opp­ression. That’s what Emancipation Politics would aim to provide: an im­proved collective awareness of freedom and oppression throughout society, a richer shared self-understanding.

The direct defenses of freedom would have to do with citizens’ legal rights and things that can be treated by courts. If someone steals our information, subjects us to unjustifiable surveillance, or excises undue medical authority, or limits our speech through forms of censorship, or actively threatens us to adopt social or political views lest we lose our un­related job, or if someone unfairly has manipulated the stream of infor­m­ation that reaches you; such matters—at least some of them—should be able to be treated by courts or similar (e.g. a hospital might have its own system for receiving and dealing with complaints).

If the “new layer of negative rights” is defined too sloppily or widely, this will quickly devolve into a society bogged down with ridiculous amo­unts of legal cases, as everyone will feel oppressed by everyone else. The main issue here must remain that people should have at least some lines of def­ense against the growing powers of states and corpor­ations as these gain ever greater access to technology. But to begin with, we must instit­ute Emancipation Politics so that a discussion can be held about what such new rights should entail in the first place. Again, we’re talking about a developmental process, not a set destination.

The indirect defenses of freedom are all other measures that are taken to support citizens and hinder oppression: regulations, supportive servi­ces, scr­app­ing regulations, changing governmental practices, trying to str­e­ng­then weaker groups, increasing the monitoring of those who have power over others, increasing transparency and accountability, limiting the powers of authorities—and so on.

Any suggestion motivated by an attempt to hinder some kind of opp­ression that has been identified in society—governmental or not—and which does not specifically bestow people with rights they can then use in order to take others to courts or file direct complaints to be rectified, is an indirect form of Emancipation Politics. Sometimes emancipation can be as simple as lowering a tax rate or removing a regulation—but it often won’t be that simple and will require elaborate plans.

It is not easy to know beforehand how all of these policies and practices should look like and work because it is all so contextual and must build upon gathered data, expertise and public dialo­gues. But we can know that without a serious and ongoing such process, many new oppres­sions will sneak in and wreak havoc as society develops, and many oppor­tunities for empowering and emancipating peo­ple will be missed. If we’re serious about raising the average level of (in)dividual and collective free­dom bey­ond what has been known to modern societies, we must make emancipa­tion a central concern to metamodern politics.

Four Dimensions of Oppression

Lastly, I would like to offer a simple map of four categories of oppression within which new emancipations will be necessary in the future. Being oppressed can mean quite different things, and the different forms of opp­ression should be treated and prevented in different ways—the four dim­ensions, if you will, of Emancipation Politics.

The first category has to do with being oppressed by external state and/or market structures, and this is perhaps how we conventionally think of oppression. If someone hinders you from expressing your opini­ons, spies on you, forces you to say words you don’t believe in, or unfairly drives you into poverty and degradation by ruin­ing your means of in­come, all of these things are diff­erent forms of direct oppression by the system or the collective, of you as a single person. You are being violated or suffocated by the formal systems of society. In such cases, negative rights should be there and be defined clearly en­ough so that you can fight back against your oppressors. But not only can the singular person be oppressed by the system—the system itself can also be oppressed, when it is hindered from functioning according to its key principles of univer­sality.

So we need to look beyond the old narrative of innocent individuals stuck in a big nasty system; that’s not necessarily the case. Many forms of systemic oppression stem from the fact that the system is hindered in its func­tioning. A lack of good accounting and the disorder it causes also creates leeway for many unfair power relations to emerge, and hence for opp­ression to show up in unexpected guises.

The second category has to do with the limits of everyday life inter­actions, the cultural forms of oppression. For instance, if you are of a dis­dained minority group and people habitually ignore or downplay your perspectives, opinions and interests, this is also a form of oppression. Or if you are of a lower effective value meme than most of society and you are pressu­red to take on a straightjacket of morality requiring an inner depth and cogn­itive complexity that you simply lack, this feels like oppression. You try to be a good person, but even if you try your best, people keep attack­ing and degrading you for being shallow and evil, and you never quite see it coming. In such cases, you are being culturally oppressed. Of course, higher value memes can be oppressed by lower ones as well, like when the Nazis went after “degenerate art” or when today’s speciesist society pena­lize people who don’t think we should torture two-year-old toddlers to death (vegans being against factory farming).

Cultural oppression includes such things as language structures: Words have connotations (consider “a fat nigger” or “a cheap slut” and a lot of unflattering things about our culture come to the fore). Language can also be too poorly developed; we may lack the words, expressions and social rituals to express certain commonly held experiences or feelings. As I have men­tioned, there are empty rituals as well as unritualized emotions. In these cases, culture itself is oppressed. Here, much of the emancipatory potential may lie in the arts and other forms of experimental cultural expression. And some may lie in critical resistance to the discourse (as proposed by e.g. Chantal Mouffe and Erne­sto Laclau).

The third category of oppression has to do with other people and their behav­iors more directly standing in your way. On the crudest level, this means things like someone forcing you to live at their apartment and have sex with them, but there are any number of oppressive relations that come in diff­erent levels of directness and severity.

Ideally “your freedom should end where mine begins”, but—as I have argued earlier—in actual social reality, people and their everyday lives are always layered in social relations: parents have power over their kids, larger family groups over sin­gle persons, bosses over em­ployees, tea­ch­ers over pup­ils, bossy and manipulative peers over peers. Your free­dom doesn’t start at my outer border, but at the center of my heart. You try to express a new interest or idea, but you’re pushed aside, ridicu­led, threat­ened or silenced. You try to affirm your autonomy, but people use what­ever lever­age they have over you to put you in your place. You try to start a business, but your competition sabotages your efforts. All of these are direct, inter­personal forms of oppression. They cannot be view­ed as origi­na­ting from the system, or from culture at large (even if they do of course interact with these cat­egories), but simply from the behaviors of others—from spec­ific bullies in all their forms and guises. A society full of bullies and oppress­ors is, natur­ally, less free than one in which we don’t play such roles in the lives of one another. An Emancipation Politics worth its name should work to reduce the prevalence and severity of such bullying and oppression thr­oughout all of society.

The fourth and last category of oppression has to do with our own inner oppression of our­­selves. In the last instance, freedom is always dependent upon us having sufficient skills and faculties to act freely and make use of what resources we have for the benefit of ourselves and others. For instance, if we cannot recognize what emotions and deeper motives arise within our­selves, we will be slaves to motives that lie beyond our conscious aware­ness—often being stuff such as greed, envy, power hunger, or an unreaso­nable sense of insec­urity. And others will have grea­ter leeway to manipu­late our perceived needs, wants and motives to serve interests that we may not even be aware of.

Or on an even more basic level: If our minds spin and we can find no inner peace, we cannot be happy and feel free even if we have all the riches in the world at our disposal. And when people have trampled our wills and pride many times over, eventually we will stop ourselves from acting upon our higher impulses and deeper wishes; we internalize the oppres­sion of others and begin to oppress ourselves. This last category links us right back to Existential Politics: Obviously, there is an intrinsic connect­ion between our relationship to existence and the deeper freedom in our lives.[ii]

Political metamodernism holds within itself the best means to defeat the other strands of political metamodernism. Be the power—fight the power! Both and. Let the struggle for higher freedom commence, and may we defeat the demons of oppression that a deeper and more intimate poli­tics un­avoid­ably brings to 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.

[i]. You have some initial systematizations of what such meta-rights or “meta-norms” might look like in: Görtz, D. P., Commons, M. L., 2015. The stage-value model: Implications for the changing standards of care. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 42–43, pp 135–143.

[ii]. As you may have noticed, we just went through the “four fields of development” (system, culture, behavior and psychology) from Appendix B but zoomed in on how oppression works. Emancipation Politics is a matter that works across all four fields. Don’t enter the information age without it. And then climb towards higher freedom; emancipate us from the regimes of emotional control.