Neither game denial nor game acceptance is a consciously held perspective. They are, of course, mistakes we make because of unconscious biases and emotional investments in ideas and identities (“I am a radical anarchist!” invites game denial, etc.). They constitute subtle forms of self-deceit. The moment game denial and game acceptance are recognized for what they are it becomes apparent that they cannot be sustained. Everyone will vehemently deny their own game denial or game acceptance and claim to be a responsible “game changer” if confronted. What then, is game change? It is the productive synthesis of game denial and game acceptance: you accept that life is a game and you resolve to work to change it. It’s quite obvious when you think about it. Let’s take a closer look.
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.
Life is unfair because relations between sentient beings are layered in games for scarce resources. Through resources (of whatever form) we can reach for the sublime and approach our fundamental, unknowable God-nature: Through gaining access to food and favorable mates we escape the ever-present clutches of death and reach for immortality through reproduction. In human beings socialized within complex tribes or societies, death is defied by the extension of the idea of ego—my name, my recognition, my ideas, my deeds, my sacrifice, my devotion, my children, my ancestors, my style, my monument, my love, my passion. These are all, in their own ways, scarce resources, that are distributed, accessed and enjoyed through the playing of games.
The students of the psychology of death—a fascinating and promising field of empirical research that builds upon the heritage of Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death—have produced plenty of experimental evidence to show we become more eager players of games when confronted with our own mortality. Humans have a strong unconscious drive to cheat death. When reminded of death, even in a subtle manner, we latch on to our identities, our wealth and our worldviews more eagerly—and we judge one another more harshly. True story.[i] The intrinsic and inescapable fear of death distorts our cognition and turns us into game deniers or game accepters.
The bad news is that life is unfair. The good news is that life is a game and that its rules can change. These are two sides of the same coin. The question is not “game, or no game”, but the nature of our relationship to the game and the evolution of its rules.
Games produce dynamics of interaction. They give life in samsara a temporal, fleeting meaning: maybe we can be winners, or at least avoid being losers, or at least hide we “really are” losers. They give an experience of substance to the fundamental, pristine, empty meaninglessness of phenomenal reality. They produce a story, a drama, where stakes exist, moves are made, victories won, losses cut and bitterly remembered. Games produce results. They produce losers and winners. Just like you and me. We all know both sides, in different contexts, to different extents.
The major objective of the metamodern political project is to change the rules of the game. Our simple message is that everyday life as we know it can and must evolve. The game change position holds:
- Life is a plus-sum game with possible win-wins.
- Life is also often a zero-sum game with lose-win.
- Life is sometimes even a tragic dilemma of lose-lose.
- But the rules of the game can change, evolving into more win-win, less lose-win and less lose-lose.
- Nobody actually ever “deserves” to lose games and suffer defeat or humiliation. Seriously—would you tell a kid that she “deserves” to be crappy at school? To be ugly and lonely or poor? To starve? To have low self-esteem? To have a fragmented, anxious mind? To be part of the losing side of globalization? That baby turkeys in industrial butcheries get what they deserve?
- All injustices in the world are caused by the playing of games.
- Humans and other beings have no choice but to partake in games.
- In the last instance, no injustice or suffering is ever excusable or tolerable.
- It is our ethical imperative, without compromise, to change the rules of the game.
- Successful changing of the game is that which:
- produces more winners in life,
- produces fewer losers,
- softens the fall of the losers,
- increases the rewards of the winners, and
- makes people act kindlier and more fairly while playing the game.
The point is that winning in life is never enough. What if you become that successful? What if you get those hot young men? What if you save that many lives? What if you really save the world from climate crisis?
Then you’ll still have a kid, or somebody else you care about, who is crushed and humiliated by the same game you played and happened to win. The game is still on. Still grinding. For every winner, there is a loser. You were that awesome idealistic writer who pointed out injustice? You were a hero? The very fact of your moral victory means that you just trashed, humiliated and outcompeted somebody else. That somebody else could have been you. It could have been your own child.
And more fundamentally—it is you. Winning in life is fun. But it’s just not enough. Classical liberalism, neo-liberalism, conservatism, capitalism and fascism are all based upon accepting the game and an attitude of “may the best player win”. They are all defenders and upholders of injustice, cruelty and suffering that just cannot be ethically justified.
So what if I win? In a deeper sense, you have still lost. You must change the games of life. That is the only result that counts. That is the only victory worth keeping, because it includes everybody.
The game of life will still produce losers and winners, but the results will be determined through much less bloodshed and losing will come at a much lower cost. This will be a society in which people get more than one shot at glory.
Don’t hate the player, and don’t hate the game either. We need to love the game, learn to play it—and change it, because we love the players.
Multi-Dimensional Game Change
Game change means to admit the game, even to play it lovingly, but seeking to change the way it works. Games have dynamics and these dynamics can work in directions towards grosser or more refined games.
All games have evolved from something else. When modern Western people compete for spouses we usually don’t even reach the point of verbal confrontation. Lions fight and kill each other’s cubs.
Our game is more refined, and its rules harder to learn. But obviously, games for sex, identity and partners have evolved. Just a few hundred years ago, intrigue in Europe would habitually involve physical violence and duels to the death. Nowadays it rarely does.
Game change is a developmental affair. It has to do with making advances into higher stages of societal development.
So, to sum this up, on the next page is a simple model of a holistic game change—presented as five-step process:
Can you see how the inner development of people is interlinked with the development of society as a whole? That society’s function fundamentally relies upon the personal development of its citizens?
You can’t just develop society by means of “imposing” a certain political system or changing people’s values. Game change occurs by means of systemic change, psychological development of the populations, changes in habits and behaviors, and through cultural development. These fields—system, psychology, behavior and culture—develop together, as described in Appendix B of Nordic Ideology.
Of course, many other interactions than the ones presented in this feedback loop are possible, but it gives us an idea of what it really means for society and humanity to develop.
Don’t you ever dare tell me that dramatic and positive change is not possible. If you can’t change people’s behaviors, you might change something in the systemic incentives. If that isn’t possible, you can always bring up new issues and find ways to change the cultural discourse. If that fails, you can always find a few people and help them develop their values so that they can form a new competitive social structure.
There is always a “chink in the armor”. Somewhere there is always at least some leeway in any apparent grid-lock of society, which in turn opens up new possible developments somewhere else. There is always a promise of further development.
We are looking to create new contexts, new historical situations where what was impossible before now becomes possible. This is, needless to say, a dynamic process in which we need to let the different forms of development support each other. We’ll squeeze in developmental leaps where people didn’t think they were possible—so that we can make possible the transition to a metamodern society; one that is fit for the global, digital age.
For ardent readers: If you want to see how game change relates to some classical political philosophers, consult this footnote: [ii].
Thus: Let go of game denial and game acceptance—and go for game change.
There are different levels of game change, some more fundamental than others, but all are necessary. There are many different “levers” to pull. Here are some general suggestions to get us started:
- Studying the rules of the game and teaching them to as many actors as possible (Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Neil Strauss’ The Game). This actually makes the game fairer because it works against game denial and towards a more even distribution of knowing the game. But emphasizing this side alone can land us in the cynicism of game acceptance.
- Change the game settings by changing the supply of resources. In richer societies where resources are more equally distributed, the games of everyday life are generally less cruel since people have more of what they need and thus feel less tempted to take advantage of others.
- Change the game framing by changing ethical discourses. What is considered acceptable or not in order to get ahead in the daily games of life can be altered by making new ethical guidelines more prevalent; and if everyone tends to follow the same rules, people will be more inclined towards “playing nice”. Even who is to be considered a “loser” can be changed, for instance by making it ok to be poor or uneducated.
- Evolve the game by increasing cognitive capacity for social perspective taking (higher cognitive stage and value meme, as described in The Listening Society). This makes the whole game fairer, where people at higher cognitive stages accept John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” (not knowing who in society you will be). Yet higher levels of complexity breed even more refined games, like accepting solidarity with all sentient beings and making room for different kinds of consciousness in the public.
- Gathering stronger and wider monopolies of violence (states can uphold rule of law, but the lack of global polity or transnational governance sets limits for how far solidarity through rule of law can reach). A big and strong monopoly of violence stuck in a crude game can of course cause a lot of relative suffering (Fascist states caused more suffering than representative republican, capitalist, meat-eating societies, even if they managed to gather considerable monopolies of violence). But a strong state simply makes it more likely that interpersonal misdeeds are penalized, that people’s lives and property are protected, and hence that losing in the games of everyday life doesn’t entail death or absolute poverty.
- And last but not least, changing the lived relationship to life and death through increasing contemplative insight, hence changing the needs and wants that the games are played for. This changes what goods are ultimately seen as most real, most substantial. Goods that are deeper, more immaterial, are easier to distribute more fairly (insight and bliss, vs. food and oil, etc.). This affects the economy of roles to be attained for enactment of imagined immortality. In an “economy of happiness” where power over others is the ultimate fantasy, people will have to play for roles like “supervisor” or “great dictator” or even “conqueror” and these roles will be the most desired, resulting in very dire games where only few can win and only through great cruelty. In a richer “economy of happiness”, people may play for roles such as “the wise person”, “the saint” or “the trustworthy friend”. That will still produce losers and winners, but the results will be determined through much less bloodshed and losing will come at much lower costs, with more than one shot at glory.
I urge the reader to look at these suggestions and to compare them with our current political reality—which levers for changing the game are we currently using? Even critical social science seems to take the game too much for granted, seeing too few levers for changing the game.
If we stay on our current track, we will miss valuable opportunities for changing the game, for changing the logics through which our social interactions function.
Evolving Markets, Polities and Civil Spheres
A concluding comment. In The Listening Society, I argued that neither the market, nor the state bureaucracy, nor the civil sphere (including our associations, clubs, media and personal relationships) can be seen as inherently “rational”, “free” or “humane”. Rather, each sphere can be more or less intelligent and display varying degrees of collective intelligence.
They develop together and depend upon each other for their proper functioning. In this view, it makes less sense to be a classical libertarian, socialist, conservative or anarchist because each of these positions is inherently biased towards and against market, state and civil sphere solutions. They each have “political allergies” and infatuations that limit their perspective upon all things political. In this sense, it is necessary to go “beyond Left and Right”, letting go of irrational allergies and infatuations.
There are different analytical “fractal triads” that are becoming increasingly intermeshed and re-integrated in the digital, postindustrial economy that relies more upon sustainability, creativity and innovation.
These fractal triads are:
- The systems:
- the market,
- the state,
- the civil sphere.
- The spheres of life:
- the professional,
- the civic (citizen and public engagement),
- the personal.
- The political base-suppositions:
- The basic political values:
Each of these triads develop as triadic fractal systems; their constituent parts develop together or regress together—even if there may be times when one aspect can and should be emphasized over the other two. The triads can be intelligently weaved together, or their parts work against one another and cause mutual harm. And, more fundamentally, the parts depend upon another in their logical structure. Fractals.
The game deniers tend to dislike and deny the aspects of competition and trade that are in fact logically necessary parts of life and society. The game accepters tend to deride and underestimate the very real aspects of solidarity, moral concern and love, trying to explain these by reducing them to the “underlying hard facts” of political realism and crude economic interests. They think that competition is the most real.
The game change position avoids such biases against markets, states and the civil sphere, or against solidarity, competition and trade. Rather, the idea is to work for game change across all of these: to see how they interact, how they strengthen and/or impede one another.
The idea is not to eradicate competition from life, but to transform and refine the nature of competition in all aspects of life: on the labor market, in work culture, in the political deliberations and elections, in the games of love, sex and family, in peer groups and in research and education.
So again—don’t hate the player.
And don’t hate the game, either.
We need to love the game, learn to play it.
And change its rules.
Because we love the players.
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]. Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., 2015. The Worm at The Core. On the Role of Death in Life. London: Penguin Press.
[ii]. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously assumed that the system is good and the individual is bad—roughly speaking—because he saw the effects of institutional decay during the English Civil War, which broke out in 1642. In 1651 Hobbes published Leviathan, his magnum opus, which became a cornerstone of political conservatism. When Hobbes wrote of the “state of nature” (when there is no sovereign or law, no ruler or polity) and claimed it was a brutish place where the strong exploit the weak and “there can be no industry”, he was in fact overgeneralizing a kind of developmental imbalance which he had failed to notice. It is true, that if you have ten million people gathered, and you then remove the state—carnage will ensue. In other words, if you remove the system that had hitherto made a certain stage of societal development possible, you get chaos and conflict. Hobbes was a proto-conservative (writing before “modern” conservatism fully emerged), and he arrived at this position by failing to see the four fields (Appendix B) and their interdependent and developmental nature. He didn’t see the whole picture: he thought that institutions are good and institutionless people are bad.
When the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke in the early 19th century wrote his critical commentary on the French Revolution he was noticing a related but distinct aspect: that you cannot just force a system into being without the corresponding psychology and culture within the population, lest you will experience a huge backlash. But Burke, too, overgeneralized. He was noticing another developmental imbalance and took it as universally applicable. But in reality, dramatic shifts of systems have been made successfully throughout history. It’s just that some are sustainable because they match the development in the three other fields, while some aren’t. The political systems that aren’t based within all four fields simply lead to severe pathologies: planned economy without a socialist (postmodern) population will lead to breadlines and oppression, an industrialized society with a modern bureaucracy governed by faustian principles of dominance and war will lead to nazism.
And the radical Rousseau mused in the 18th century, that humanity was corrupted by the institutions and that a free and fair life was possible (as did the utopian socialists and anarchists that followed him). He, too, got the handle of yet another developmental imbalance: when people’s psychologies develop ahead of the culture and systems in which they live—i.e. when they grasp for greater universality than what is supported or expected by their current society. This is where you find the “righteous rebel”, the post-conventional ethics of sensitive citizens, beautiful souls and daring minds who experience severe alienation in the society they are part of: so barbaric, so insensitive. But he too was “true, but partial”. What Rousseau described was, again, a developmental imbalance. He too overgeneralized his own experience: thinking that all people were “by nature” as his own moral-philosophical intuition indicated.
This is the source of Rousseau’s ressentiment, the French word for “resentment” as employed in psychology and philosophy. Rousseau and his game denying left-wing descendants are stuck with a bitter non-acceptance of reality, with a perpetual denial. They don’t recognize their critique is only an expression of a developmental imbalance. It is a kind of violence against reality itself; but reality always fights back with full force and the denier is always defeated—by logical necessity.
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