Of all the ideas presented in my book The Listening Society, this is the most important one: The average effective value meme of a population is the single most important factor determining whether it is possible for a society to progress to a new stage of development or not. If you don’t get it, then you haven’t understood The Listening Society or its sequel Nordic Ideology.
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.
If you’ve read The Listening Society, you may recall six such value memes, each of which builds upon the former, being a “later” or even “higher” stage of development:
- Postfaustian (or traditional)
It is hard to overstate how crucial it is to raise the average effective value meme. The most brilliantly designed constitution and all the best democratic institutions in the world are null and void if the majority of the population subscribe to a Viking warrior ethos; e.g. gravitating towards the faustian value meme. Likewise a listening society cannot fully materialize as long as the vast majority remains firmly imbedded within a modern, rationalistic worldview. It simply isn’t.
Your effective value meme affects whether you, for instance, consider the environmental degradation of the planet a primary concern, or believe foreign religions are the greatest threat to your existence. It affects whether you believe transnational solutions should be implemented to address the dire issues of our time, such as migration, global poverty, and finance, or consider increasing the military budgets of your own nation the best way to manage international relations. It affects the extent of your care and consideration towards others; the number of people and other sentient beings you include in your circle of solidarity. While people subscribing to higher value memes tend to be more concerned with the well-being of all humans, in all countries, no matter their background, people at lower value memes tend to have a much smaller circle of solidarity, usually those within their own country, often only of a certain kind, and rarely non-human animals unless they’re considered pets. And learning from the communist experiment, solidarity cannot be enforced from the top; it cannot be taught, and you certainly cannot force anyone to be solidaric. True solidarity can only emerge spontaneously and voluntarily from people’s hearts and minds.
Our values are derived from our level of psychological development and play a critical role in the way societies evolve. It sets the limits for how far society can progress, and it determines how well our societies function at the current technological level.
Please note, however, that the effective value meme is not considered an overall stage of cognition that people are functioning in accordance with. With effective value meme I simply mean the values of a particular stage of societal development, such as modern or postmodern, that a person appears to gravitate towards the strongest. This is not estimated by the complexity or depth of a person’s thought, but simply by determining whatever values they express sincere devotion towards.
This means, for example, that if a person considers gender equality, environmentalism, and animal rights more important than economic growth, freedom of choice, and private property, then they can be said to be gravitating firmly towards the postmodern value meme—disregarding whether they display any noteworthy existential depth beyond the ordinary, and disregarding whether they’re capable of deconstructing texts or conducting discourse analyses competently. This way of determining a person’s value meme is more precise, less arbitrary, and not as open for speculation as other models (for instance Spiral Dynamics). If a person expresses faith in a certain set of values, and if it can be confirmed with minimum doubt that these are truthfully what the person believes in, then those are the values she gravitates towards.
Every society has a kind of demographic where different percentages of the populations can be said to manifest and embody different “value memes”, each being more or less progressive and corresponding to different kinds of economic and societal environments. This changes over time, usually moving towards higher value memes as society gets more complex.
The different value memes can be seen as kinds of political-psychological stages of development. Larger and more complex societies require higher value memes in the population in order to function and be sustainable. The value memes aren’t really an exact measure of how a person is and how she thinks, but there are certainly clear differences between people of different value memes.
For instance, today’s Swedish population (generally believing in democracy, human rights, secular science, fair debate, gender equality and self-expression) have a “higher” average value meme than today’s Afghani population (manifesting more traditionalist values, particularistic religion, purity and sin, and emphasizing survival over self-expression).
When a traditional society modernize and people get wealthier, happier and more educated, the majority of the population will usually advances to higher value memes in a manner of a few generations. So there is a connection between prolonged periods of political stability and inclusive economic growth, and higher average value memes within a population.
As I said, higher value memes generally correspond to the functioning and needs of larger and more complex societies. For instance, being a fundamentalist Christian nationalist who thinks a woman’s chastity is more important than her education hardly helps in creating a sustainable order in today’s hypercomplex, interconnected, increasingly post-industrial global society. The “traditionalist” value meme and its moral intuitions are simply not compatible with the actual systems of today’s emerging global society.
The dynamic here is fairly simple and intuitive in a way. If a society is doing well and the games of everyday life become milder, fairer and more forgiving, people have the luxury to think in more universalistic, far-sighted, nuanced and complex terms. If people get the opportunity to spend years educating themselves and freely following their interests, they also explore more complex ideas and values. They can “afford” it, so to speak, and this generally spurs psychological and cultural development.
If things go poorly, people tend to retreat to being less trusting, mentally hinging upon simpler and smaller worlds and simpler and smaller circles of solidarity—naturally emphasizing short- or medium-term survival and avoiding personal risks. As we discussed earlier, the development of society always brings with it new challenges and backlashes, new nasty problems. Hence, the negative sides of societal development towards greater prosperity and complexity periodically cause pressures that decrease the average value meme in a population—as has been apparent with recent populist, anti-immigration uprisings in the West.
It’s the people with the higher value memes who will tend, on average, to create and sustain institutions and practices that support (make possible, make sustainable) larger and more complex societies. This doesn’t mean they’re “better people”; just compare the spoiled and narcissistic brats in Sweden’s schools to the cute and kind, hardworking and grateful pupils of a girl school in rural Sudan. The late-modern Swedish kids are horrible, as any honest teacher in its liberal an unruly school system will readily attest. Can they put down their iPhones already? But still, the Swedish kids certainly do manifest higher average value memes.
The point is that there is a collective difference that has to do with value memes. It might work fine to have no formal laws and to believe in ancestral magic if you’re a tribe of 150 people. Being a global world-system of seven plus billion in rapid economic and technological transition and a host of ecological crises that may hit home in the coming decades and centuries—not so much. Rain dances, invoking spirits and performing passage rituals will only take us that far.
The Four Fields of Societal Development
If we zoom out a bit, we can see that the average effective value meme in turn is only one out of several factors that can be used to describe how “developed” a society is.
The effective value meme describes how a person or a population sees the world and intuits their own place in it, their moral codes, and so forth. This is, you could say, “psychological development”. But just as the value memes consist of four aspects, so does the development of society itself consist of four different, but intimately related, fields of development. The four fields are:
- Psychology (including, but not only, value meme)
- Behavioral development
- The system; systemic development
- Culture; cultural development
Hence, the value memes, the political psychology of a population, constitute only one out of four fields of development. So let’s describe and briefly discuss the other three fields.
The second field of development has to do with people’s actual behaviors, which have to do at least as much with the situations they are in, the interactions they partake in, which behavioral cues are elicited, what behaviors are rewarded, and so forth. The effective value memes of people need to be distinguished from their behaviors, as human behaviors are always affected by the situations they take part in. These concrete, observable behaviors can also be developed; they can be brought into new and more productive relations that together form more complex and resilient patterns.
But it doesn’t stop there. These overall patterns of behaviors can in turn be seen as part of a larger societal system: the flows of the market, the technological chains of production and distribution, the bureaucracy, transportations and communications; even the system of governance, educational system, media, judicial and healthcare systems—all of which reside within whatever frames the ecosystems and the biosphere allow. And these systems can in turn be developed: You can go from fossil fuel to renewables, from constitutional monarchy to parliamentary representation, from subsistence farming to industrial capitalism, and so forth. So that’s the third field of development.
Depending on how you see it, you can either view the systems as emergent patterns in the results in the concrete behaviors of many real, existing people—or you can see the many actions of individual people as determined and guided by the overarching systems, which are larger than the behaviors of any one person. Yet a cleverer way to view it is that behavior, psychology and systems continuously interact, or, more precisely, that they co-emerge; that they emerge together and determine one another.
And then there is the fourth field of development: culture. Here you have things such as norms, values, traditions, languages, art, philosophies, religious practices, gender roles, habits and customs of everyday life, shared imagined worlds, shared ethnic boundaries, cultural references, taken-for-granted facts, expectations—whole constructed universes of stories about the universe and our place in it.
The development of culture is the development of our symbolized perspective on reality.
Consider the difference between contemporary France and its medieval predecessor. Would you say that culture has developed? Do people have more words, more nuanced perspectives, more universalistic values? I think we can safely make that case.
I have thus mentioned four fields of development:
Figure: The four fields of development. The top two quadrants describe micro processes, the two lower ones macro processes. The left-hand quadrants describe “inner”, subjective development, the right-hand ones “outer”, objective development.
As you can see, there is one micro-macro axis (in this version it’s up and down, referring to things you study at the level of small, everyday interactions and singular people, vs. things you study on a massive scale: structures, statistics, averages, and so forth) and one interior-exterior axis (left-right; referring to things that must be known and interpreted, or that can be seen and described more “from the outside”). The two micro quadrants (psychology and behavior) study single people and their everyday interactions, the two macro ones (culture and systems) study society as a whole. The two interior quadrants study that which is felt and experienced (psychology and culture), the two exterior ones study “objective” realities (behaviors and systems).
Please note that this model actually has much more to it—I am merely giving you the very simple version.
You have early premonitions of this model already in the great American sociologist Talcott Parsons’ mid-20th century theory about “structural functionalism”, but it was not quite there yet. Since that time, a number of major thinkers have more or less independently come up with the exact model above: Jeffrey Alexander’s sociology (one of the top names in American sociology, which still insists that macro phenomena determine micro phenomena more than vice versa), Georg Ritzer’s metatheory (the number one walking encyclopedia of social science in the world, who thinks all four fields interact on equal grounds), Søren Brier’s cybersemiotics (Denmark’s coolest nerd star, who I once crashed a party to get to talk to, who found a more philosophically grounded model, by using an entirely different method), and Ken Wilber’s four quadrants (which is the one theory that is most clear on both the developmental aspects of all four fields, and their fractal relationship to one another). All four thinkers came up with more or less the same theory independently of each other within a period of fifteen years following 1980. Wilber’s theory is the youngest, but also by far the most elegant one.
And then there’s a whole host of other, related, theorists who say other, but closely related, things: Jürgen Habermas, the late Roy Bhaskar, Edgar Morin, Fritjof Capra, and the Gulbenkian Commission… None of these people present this exact model, but they are all in the same holistic ballpark, saying roughly the same thing—and they all emphasize different parts of the story and work with different topics, of course.
And then there is another kind of thinkers who don’t necessarily like to divide things up into four distinct fields (because it can feel a little too mechanical and simplified, too much of Kant or even Descartes lingering), but who still say something similar; i.e. that the different kinds of social phenomena emerge together and are entangled in one another. Here you’ll find people like the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad, the political scientist Alexander Wendt, the political psychologist Shawn Rosenberg, the philosophers Bard and Söderqvist—and many others, depending on how far you are willing to stretch the argument. You can find versions of this model in psychology, psychiatry, and even medicine.
Basically I am saying, in some version or another, that this holistic vision of reality and society has taken a strong hold during the last few decades—the simplified one I presented above is not necessarily the best one; it all depends on what analytical uses you are looking for.
Taking stock of a few general implications of such a model, we can say that:
- Both interior, subjective experiences and exterior, material realities are honored and seen as parts of reality. So if you ignore one field or try to reduce it to the others, you “flatten” your view of reality. Hence it is a “holistic” view, as opposed to a reductionist view.
- Many forms of thinking reduce all of reality to one of these four fields. Marxism and much of the scientism mainstream think that “only” the material realm is really real, spiritual idealism thinks that only psychological (“phenomenological”) reality is real, extreme postmodernism thinks that only culture and discourses are real, and so forth.
- The different fields of development are actually interdependent upon one another.
- You can view the different fields either as different aspects of reality (different areas of concern or subjects to study) or as different injunctions into or perspectives upon reality: as the home bases of different sciences and other forms of inquiry.
But let’s not talk more about theory in general; let’s get on with the point: These four fields of development—psychological, behavioral, systemic and cultural—interact with one another. Indeed, they define one another—they make each other possible, they set mutual limits, they cause hard crashes and burns in one another. They emerge together: psychology, behavior, culture and system. They are in a perpetual developmental dance. They co-emerge. That’s the point.
By the way, by far the majority of professors in sociology, history, psychology, economics, cognitive science, philosophy and the natural sciences still do not understand this model. And hence they spend meaningless lifetimes of work trying to resolve questions that have already been resolved. With mechanical, relentless tenacity they systematically keep ignoring one or more of the four fields of development. They discuss, as if there was some great mystery here. They go on, and on, with long and purportedly intellectual discussions. “What could it be? Does culture drive the economy or the other way around?” And so forth. And so on.
At any rate, if you have actually understood this model and you are able to see its implications, you are now—in the department of general understanding of society and reality—far ahead of most intellectual and scientific authorities. Just like a fourteen years old modern kid is far ahead of the greatest medieval intellectuals, not because she is smarter, but simply because the medieval intellectuals were invested in (what are today) outdated symbolic code systems, in outdated ideas. Congratulations.
Metamodern philosophy eats modern philosophy alive and spits on its grave, just like modern philosophy did to all earlier worldviews. But that’s not what this book is about, except the appendix. So let’s get on with it.
Okay, so let’s try and see if we can solve the greatest murder mystery of all time: Why did communism kill a hundred million people? What was the murder weapon? It was the developmental imbalances between the four fields of development. Let me explain, dear Watson.
When Marx wrote, already before he became a full-fledged communist (the “Young Marx”), he displayed a number of traits that can safely be classified under what I have called the Postmodern value meme. (Note that I use the term “postmodern” rather differently from mainstream academics—I use it as a developmental stage. Mainstream academia thinks of postmodernism as rather being a strain of thought in the philosophy of the 1970s and onwards.) There was something about Marx, his way of thinking, of sensing the world, of grasping society, that might loosely be termed progressive: expressing values that correspond to a later stage of societal development than the one most prevalent in 19th century Europe.
As I discuss in The 6 Hidden Patterns of History, you can see this either as the culmination of a former kind of thinking (modernism) or an early form of the new kind of thinking (postmodern values). It’s either the pinnacle of modernism or an early form of postmodernism, depending on your perspective.
How is Marx “postmodern” in this sense? Marx’s vision is spiritual in a secular sense (humanity seeking self-attainment by knowing herself and becoming a consciously creative agent of the universe); it is egalitarian, dialectical (not one explanation or path holds the truth and reality isn’t seen as static and defined), relatively feminist (with a little help from his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels), and its circle of solidarity includes all humans.
With some racist blind spots here and there typical of the period, Marx and Engels at least strived to include all people in an increasingly rational social order—where such irrational things as “fetishism” (wanting money for money’s sake, or stuff for stuff’s sake) and “reification” (thinking that there was something inherently real in arbitrary human constructs such as God, money or our current political ideology) would no longer determine our lives and govern our societies.
Most of all, you could say that Marx in some rudimentary sense was “postmodern” because he wanted to create a society that was not pre-modern, but still built upon something else than capitalism, a system in which everyday life and activities revolve about something other than monetary exchanges, where we are not “steered” by money in our organization of, and participation in, everyday life.
And since capitalism and modernity are inherently intertwined, the striving for a post-capitalist society is inherently postmodern: it is that which, by definition, comes after modernity.[i]
The “real socialism” that followed during the 20th century was a kind of “state capitalism”, hence never achieving the non-capitalist ideal—in practice, everyday life still revolved around money, materialism and consumption. But still, Marx’s values rather accurately reflect—or herald—an early form of what I call the Postmodern value meme; this certainly includes the vision of a society that is free from alienation and excessive inequality.
In Marx’s time, there was really no research on developmental psychology—and certainly nothing that would resemble a four-dimensional political developmental psychology like the one presented in The Listening Society with the theory of effective value memes. Sure, you had some early glimmers of such developmental thinking, all crafted by Romantic thinkers: Rousseau’s stage theory of children; Schiller, Herder and others played with adult stages of psychological and development (recycled later, and more famously, by Kierkegaard).[ii] But none of this amounts to a political-psychological research program that can track and describe the overall development of larger demographics and societies.
Today the situation is very different; we finally have good and ample research to support the idea of people being at different developmental stages—even if the scientific program is still, to our day, rudimentary. But we have something that Marx didn’t: a science of developmental psychology. This changes everything.
Let’s bring this puppy home. What am I getting at? Well, look at what Marx wrote about. He wrote about how he thought the economic system develops, and how that in turn affects other parts of society and people’s psyches.[iii] Marx wrote about economic theory, about the economic system above all. He believed that he was working for a society that would come after capitalism, one that would be non-capitalist: what he termed “communist”. Notwithstanding the limitations of his analysis of the economic system (there were some, even if he correctly predicted a number of developments), he failed to understand that a post-capitalist society would require a corresponding post-capitalist psychological development of the population in order to function, or even to emerge in the first place—as well as a corresponding behavioral and cultural development.
Hence, Marx was blind to three out of four fields of development. And so was the communist movement that followed. They had their eyes gouged out by materialist reductionism.
That’s the Marxian Blindness. Don’t let it infect you.
The Psychological Prerequisites of Socialism
What, then, would a political psychology of a genuinely functional “socialist” population look like? Here’s a rough estimation; they would need to be:
- extremely egalitarian, unimpressed by wealth and power;
- extremely peaceful, non-violent; prone to resolve issues by dialogue and compromises;
- extremely tolerant of differences and accepting of weaknesses in others;
- capable of taking in and harboring a multiplicity of perspectives, and viewing the perspectives as enriching one another, being non-judgmental towards others with differing views;
- capable of autonomous critical thinking that goes beyond following the current norms, being able to recognize and bust autocratic, totalitarian tendencies and see through populist “simple solutions”;
- prepared to change their own opinions if good arguments are presented;
- focused on non-material and secular-spiritual issues in life, rather than material wealth and comfort, working for other rewards than money;
- prepared to view themselves and their own interests in relation to a larger system, preferably one in which all humans in the world are included;
- skilled at being inclusive in dialogues, with a battery of good techniques for democratically dividing speaking time, listening to one another and generally being sensitive interlocutors;
- generally emotionally fulfilled and mature, hence difficult to manipulate, seduce, provoke or bribe, and generally less prone to emotional overreactions;
- in an emotional position where one is not driven by either economic fears, nor fear of military threats, ideally not even personal/emotional fears;
- capable of understanding, acknowledging and actively counteracting privileges and stigmas of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disabilities, class background and even personality types.
- identifying with other things than nationalities, religions, ethnicities and your own status in society;
- emphasize long-term stability and ecological sustainability of the society they live in.
So that’s the kind of people who would need to be around for a socialist system to work at all. Lots and lots of them. Depending on other factors, you might need up to half of the adult population to fit this description.
As much as all this sounds like, I am not describing some “super-perfect impossible goodie-two-shoes”. These people do exist in reasonable numbers around the world today. You can check off all of the above boxes for a lot of people, without them being impossibly perfect. They are the highly functional, well-to-do, highly educated liberals—at least as these people often turn out after a more self-indulging period in their 20s. In other words: people at the Postmodern value meme.
In the most advanced countries in the world today, like the Nordic ones, you have about a quarter of the adult population at this value meme. In a country like the US, the share is lower, unless you zoom in on New York or California.
Marx himself was at this Postmodern value meme. Not so strange really: He was privileged, self-made, intelligent, sensitive, successful, a leader; his wife a noble, his father-in-law a mentor and supporter, his professor a world-class philosopher, even by world-historical standards (Hegel), his best friend the son of a factory owner and also at genius level of intellect. Not that Marx lived a very easy life, but his was a privileged life that could spur his personal development into a higher value meme. He was ahead of his time. How many people like this were around in his days? The percentage is almost zero, even in London, at the heart of the modern world.
If you grow up like Oliver Twist, the Postmodern value meme is just not going to happen. It’s just not. You are going to be angry that they beat you as a kid, concerned with getting food, be easily seduced by promises, care little about foreign cultures, have little democratic fiber and skills, be prone to want quick reliefs for your aching body and soul, be very anxious to get much richer by any means possible, not have the opportunity to educate yourself. That’s how I would function under such circumstances, and you probably would too.
So Marx wanted to create socialism in a place and time where there were, frankly speaking, no “socialists”. Heck, most socialists aren’t even socialists. Think about it; significant demographics at the Postmodern value meme have only showed up in the most privileged and stable countries, and only after a hundred years or more of capitalist industrialism and social reforms. By far the most people of the 19th and 20th centuries were at the Modern or earlier value memes.[iv]
In terms of psychological development, there were almost no true “socialists” around. Should it then surprise us that all the “real” socialist countries that showed up—Russia, China, and so on—in which populations were generally well below the Modern value meme, ended up reproducing crude and autocratic systems?
And how many people at the Postmodern value meme would it take to run a “socialist” (genuinely postmodern and post-capitalist) society? Even the almost 25% of Sweden is not nearly enough. It’s not just that you need a majority, or at least a strong minority, to get your policies through in a democratic manner (so that you can shape the institutions in a corresponding manner)—you also need an army of highly functional postmodernists to man all the key functions in such a society. You need teachers, politicians, community organizers, bosses, judges, police officers, administrators who all genuinely embody the Postmodern value meme.
They need to be everywhere: much like people at the Modern value meme are needed to man all the positions in today’s modern societies.
Too Dumb for Complex Societies?
A significant limitation to all this may be, to be fully functional at the Postmodern value meme, that you also need to be a relatively complex thinker—one who uses the postmodern values in an encompassing, nuanced, context-sensitive, systemic way. And as we discussed in The Listening Society, the cognitive stage of a person’s thinking may have substantial genetic or hereditary causes (much like IQ, really). Only about 20% of a normal adult population seems to develop to a stage of sufficiently complex thinking, one that truly matches the postmodern ideas (this cognitive stage is called “stage 12 Systematic”, according to The Model of Hierarchical Complexity).
This means that the Postmodern value meme, once it becomes dominant in a society’s culture, is often used in “flattened” and simplified ways that can become oppressive, or at least quite annoying, for most people, rather than genuinely inclusive and democratic.
In the Nordic countries today, you have a lot of people using flattened and simplified versions of the Postmodern values, and the result is often suffocating and alienating to many. For instance, you get excessive “political correctness” and simplified versions of cultural feminism as people apply simple, linear, “flattened” versions of the purportedly sensitive and inclusive norms, or when they apply these “sensitive norms” as ways of promoting their own moral worth at the expense of others. This, quite understandably, leads to resentful populist counter-reactions.
Just to underscore this, let’s take a look at how intelligence (here measured rather crudely as IQ) relates to political ideology and value memes. In Book One we talked about “cognitive stage” instead of IQ, but this is the best we’ve got research-wise. Apparently, childhood IQ scores predict future voting behaviors. Here are figures from the United Kingdom, about 6000 people, in 2001.[v]
|UK Party||Voter IQ Average||Comment|
|Green||108.3||Clearly based on postmodern values and environmentalism.|
|Liberal Democrats||108.2||The social-liberal party, “third player” in UK’s largely bipartisan system.|
|Conservative||103.7||The large center-right party, mostly modernist values.|
|103.0||The large center-left party, mostly modernist values.|
|UK Independence (UKIP)||101.1||Eurosceptic, right wing populist, modernist/ traditionalist values.|
|British National||98.4||Nationalist, postfaustian/traditionalist values with some faustian (fascist, etc.) undercurrents.|
If you look at the difference between the leaders of the IQ-league and the ones with lowest IQ, you clearly see that the scores map perfectly onto the value memes. The parties that embody the later, or “higher”, value memes seem to attract the more cognitively endowed parts of the population and the lowest value memes the less intellectually gifted. The progressive parties have an IQ score five points above the mainstream, which in turn averages five points above the regressive parties.
Whereas there may be many different mechanisms at play in this stratification[vi] process, we can glean the tendency that higher value memes require more cognitively advanced people; except that they do not gather around the attractor point of socialism, but around Green Social Liberalism, which has turned out to be the real attractor or late modern society—hence the concentration of smarts around the Greens and the (social-) liberals.
Obviously, IQ does not in itself “cause” political progressiveness (in which case Hong Kong and Japan would be full of green social liberals, these being higher IQ populations) but it does, without doubt, interact with it in some way. The point here is simply to show that more progressive views may have higher cognitive prerequisites and that a lot of people fall short on this measure.
In The Listening Society, we saw that over 60% of a normal adult population seems to reach the cognitive stages necessary for successfully understanding and operating the norms of a “modern” society. When it comes to postmodern society, we are down to about 20%. For metamodern society—which is the main attractor ahead, as we shall see—we’re down to about 2%, at least in purely cognitive terms (how complex your thinking is).
What we’re looking at is a disparaging challenge to our very biology: We are creating a society which we are biologically unequipped to grasp and thrive in. Up until now, people have been smart enough for society. These days we are, as it were, running out of cognitive fuel. We’re not sufficiently cognitively complex to productively relate to the society that we ourselves have created—or rather, the society that has emerged, self-organized, as the complex result of our ongoing interactions.
Luckily, there is a lot that can be done about this matter. One part of it has to do with “transhumanism” (changing humanity via genetics and technology) but that topic falls outside the scope of this book and is discussed at length by authors like Oxford philosopher David Pearce. And of course, transhumanist development comes with considerable risks, which should best be discussed elsewhere.
Another part, which is more relevant to the metamodern political activist, has to do with creating a society that realistically manages all the different value memes and people at different levels of complexity and personal development—as well as working to support the long-term advancement into higher value memes.
As you can see, a “socialist” society is completely implausible to create in any genuine or sustainable manner unless you also have perhaps over 40% of the population genuinely at the Postmodern value meme, which may be achievable only if we manage to surmount some developmental limitations in the population at large.
Murder She Wrote
I’d like to present three more reasons why socialism never worked and no postmodern, or post-capitalistic, society ever materialized.
Reason One: “Pomos” creep others out. People at the Postmodern value meme are likely to alienate, creep out or otherwise provoke people of the earlier value memes. Their world, their society and their morality often seem abstract, exaggerated and suffocating to moderns and traditionalists, just look at how they often rage against “political correctness”, “social justice warriors” and identity politics.
One of the main differences between pomos (postmodernists) and the “memos” (metamodernists) is that the latter include the perspectives of the earlier value memes and empathize with them (since the memos have a developmental, hierarchical perspective which the pomos don’t). The pomos just think there is something wrong with moderns and traditionalists, and that they need to “open up”, stop being so dogmatic and greedy, or that the spell of “bourgeois ideology” must be broken and so forth.
And indeed, this was what Marx and Engels wrote about when they used terms such as “ideology” and “false consciousness”; workers were not socialists because they were, in effect, brainwashed by their oppressors. Similar schemata show up again and again in postmodern thought: there is a structure or ideology that fools people into being non-socialists, non-vegans (“carnists”), non-environmentalists, non-feminists, mindless consumers, and so forth. With Rousseau, the pomos all believe some version of the idea that their own way of thinking is default, logical and benevolent and that other people have been fooled and that something is preventing the underlying goodness in them to surface. This idea about demasking and criticizing ideology is married to an underlying assumption of Rousseau’s “noble savage” (that modern humans essentially are corrupted by society and deep down actually subscribe to all these nice-guy postmodern values), and it comes in so many forms: critical cultural studies, feminist epistemology, discourse analysis, narrative analysis and so forth.
There may be considerable explanatory value in many of these research fields, but they tend to entirely miss the point about developmental psychology. Pomos are unaware of the developmental stages and hence assume that all humans are inherently postmodern unless some external force prevents them from being so, and hence they try to shake people and wake them up: “What’s wrong with you!? Why aren’t you acting in your own obvious interest!?” This, of course, only rarely works, and it antagonizes and provokes folks who are modern and traditionalist. It puts psychological demands upon people that cannot be met by their factually existing minds.
That’s what metamodernists don’t do. They respect people’s stage of development and have solidarity with the natural occurrence of their perspectives and developmental journeys. This is to become all the more important in the years to come as the pomos are going to make up a growing proportion of the population.
In order for a majority pomo society to be genuinely “socialist” (here just meaning inclusive, fair), and not creep the hell out of over half of the population, it would still need to be led by a minority of memos who subtly but effectively snatch many of the key positions in society.
For pomo-land to exist and function at all, you need to have a significant number of memos to man the steering wheels.
None of this was included anywhere in Marxist thought or in any of its heirs. Lenin had the notion of an avant-garde, an idea which he had inherited from other Russian radicals, but he did not describe the developmental psychology of such an elite. And he thought he could simply reprogram people to be socialists by means of a combination of education, propaganda and violence.
Reason Two: Socialist values require postindustrial abundance. But the problems with socialism don’t end there. Where do the pomo populations of the world start showing up in significant numbers? Again, only in highly developed post-industrial countries. As long as life in general still revolves around industrial production, and most people still must endure hours every day in boring factories and partake in other menial, soul-corrosive work, there’s just no way that people are going to become postmodern post-materialists. Why would they? If you get rich, it means you can stop wasting your life doing something extremely boring. So you’ll want to get rich. And if your work is that unrewarding and uncreative, of course you’re going to be in it for the money, to want compensation for your troubles. You won’t become post-materialist.
Hence, the precondition for significant parts of the populations to display the necessary psychologies is that you need to have a genuinely postindustrial society. But—and this is a big but—you also need the system to function on a massive scale, preferably on a global scale. Just some islands of relative progressive values cannot create a truly postmodern society. This is because they still function within a larger modern, industrial capitalist world-system, which means that you need to make serious concessions to that same system.
Looking at some central parts of the current economic world-system, you have post-industrial islands which trade machine-made goods and abstract services to others, but the world-system as a whole is still largely industrial. Hence, we can hardly expect the Postmodern value meme to take over on a global scale anytime soon, which would be necessary for anything like “socialism” to function. I’ll get back to this part of the matter in my upcoming book Outcompeting Capitalism.
Phew. And we’re still not done.
Reason Three: There simply aren’t enough pomos around to uphold the Postmodern value meme throughout society. For people to function within a postmodern society, you would need to have a culture that corresponds to this value meme. You also need the “cultural code” of postmodern society. You would need to have what we called “symbol-stage E Postmodern” readily available for people to “download” and then use in their everyday lives—i.e. people must gain access to the postmodern ideas and learn how they function early on in life. And this generally requires at least some higher education within the humanities and/or critical social science.
But other than that, you must have an army of artists, writers, poets, comedians, professors and others who recreate and transmit this cultural code—being critical, inclusive, multiperspectival, and all the rest of it—who make these ideas and symbols active and alive within society.
And even if you manage to institute a system of production that is non-capitalist, you must have some clever way of self-organizing people’s efforts, time and attention in an efficient manner that works on a transnational scale—something other than the capitalist markets. You need a very efficient information processing system to uphold such an economy—one that is more receptive to instant feedback processes, than is modern capitalism, rather than less. How else will you successfully coordinate the everyday work and activities of millions and millions of interconnected people on the world market? This our Marxist friends never offered us.[vii]
Alright. Now, dear Watson, can you see the murder weapon? Imagine you try to create a postmodern economic system, like “socialism”, except:
- there are almost no genuine socialists (in a political-psychological sense of a corresponding effective value meme),
- it is not sufficiently economically and technologically developed,
- people are all stuck in games and incentives for non-socialist motives (making money, gaining power, etc.), and
- there is no postmodern culture that would support an inclusive multiplicity of perspectives.
What would happen? The society would simply fail to materialize the way you imagined. You would only be able to create it by force, never by spontaneous self-organization. And once you use force, people resist, and they get oppressed or killed. And once you have instituted the system by force, none of it behaves as you would expect, because in its very DNA, it is non-socialist. Hence, you get shortages, corruption and collapses. And you must respond with a reign of terror just to keep things in place, at least somewhat. And lots of people die.
Mystery solved. Murder she wrote.
A Diagnosis of Our Time
All of this brings us to an understanding of what is fundamentally wrong with the world of today. It’s quite simple really. It’s, again, a developmental imbalance. Can you guess what it is?
It’s the obvious fact that we have an economic and technological world-system that has developed far ahead of the three other fields. We live in an increasingly global, transnational, digitized, postindustrial world -system, with an increasing number of “disruptive technologies”, i.e. inventions that redefine people’s lives dramatically. But we lack a corresponding global, transnational, digitized, postindustrial system of governance. So the system goes haywire and creates large pockets of economic, social and cultural losers around the world: the working and middle lower classes in affluent societies, the exploited poor in poorly governed and failed states, the animals suffering under industrial farming, the disenfranchised urban immigrant populations in ghettos and banlieues, climate change refugees and other desperate migrants, the tribal and traditionalist religious populations who suffer from confusion and alienation, the fish and other aquatic animals, the biosphere itself.
But this issue would be self-regulating if the populations, economic agents and leaders of the world were up to pace with the recent developments. The issue is that we are not. That’s the issue. That’s what’s wrong with the world.
We lack a cultural sphere and understanding of our time, an overarching narrative that matches this new economic and technological order of the world. We, as a global humanity, lack the corresponding value meme. And we display behaviors that are unsustainable and downright destructive, given the current systemic circumstances. In other words, we have fallen behind in cultural, psychological and behavioral development. As noted in Book One, we live in a “retarded world”; we have developed to slowly—mentally, culturally and emotionally.
Immense quantities of human and animal suffering are at stake here; if we fail to actively and deliberately generate the conditions that foster personal growth, new behaviors and new cultural understandings, we cannot expect the coming age to be a fruitful transition to a postmodern or metamodern society. We can expect confused and limited overreactions that worsen the maladies of people and animals around the world.
Today, the world-system, for all its wonder and power, is not functioning in a socially, economically or ecologically sustainable manner. We, the global community, have in some sense become as the Soviet Union—a global bronze colossus on feet of clay.
Thus, we must orchestrate an extensive moral, emotional and cultural development. I am not saying, as some idealistic observers think, that we should “follow our hearts” and “return to our moral intuitions and shared values”. The point is that our moral intuitions and shared values betray us; they can and must evolve.
To master this situation, to navigate the ongoing global “multi-dimensional crisis-revolution”, we must look to the subtlest and most intimate details of what it means to be a developing human being in an evolving society.
It is an ironic twist of fate that, in order to solve the hard and large problems of the world-system, we must learn to look inwards—into our emotional lives and into the nature of our intimate relationships with ourselves, one another and our place in the universe.
And we must do so, not as an individual matter of personal seeking, but as an inherently political issue that involves all members of society.
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]. Of course, there were postmodern ideas and values that had yet to emerge in Marx’s days. For instance, Marx was ostensibly anthropocentric, which means he did not sufficiently include animals or the biosphere in the circle of solidarity. The “young Marx” touched upon an environmentalist understanding, in his discussion about “metabolic rift”, but this was not central to his ensuing works. And he didn’t really venture into animal rights, as discussed in Gary Francione’s 2000 book Introduction to Animal Rights. For the appropriate passage in Marx, where he tries to defend human supremacy, you may consult The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844; in Robert Tucker’s Marx-Engel Reader, you can find it on page 75.
Marx’s (admittedly anthropocentric) environmentalism in the 2000 book by John Bellamy Foster, titled Marx’s Ecology. This book challenges the popular reading of Marx as being tied to an industrial-materialist thinking, as in Jean Baudrillard’s 1973 book The Mirror of Production.
[ii]. Andersen, L. R. & Björkman, T., 2017. The Nordic Secret. A European Story of Beauty and Freedom. Falun, Sweden: Fri Tanke Förlag.
[iii]. To be sure, Marx allowed for some back-and-forth interactions between these different fields, but he did not explicitly formulate the four fields of development, nor did he lucidly develop upon their interactions. Rather, we were left with many vague loose threads.
You probably know how the story goes from there; Stalinist “diamat” (dialectical materialism) insisted that you primarily need to change the economic system, and all else will follow; the Italian radical Antonio Gramsci felt that culture and cultural “hegemony” (the dominant, taken-for-granted culture) explain why people don’t become socialists; “humanist Marxists” focused on people’s psychologies and personalities (Erich Fromm) or on social-psychological aspects like alienation (Joachim Israel) or blamed the TV (Theodor Adorno) or even the book clubs (Jürgen Habermas—even if he, of course, later updated the view of society to something much resembling the four fields I present here); and a few crazy people like Jean-Paul Sartre focused on agency, upon revolutionary action itself. And then you had some few geniuses, like the early Soviet thinker like Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1927), who, in his foreseeing attempt at a “systems science”, intuited a shift of perspective towards a more holistic one that includes all four fields.
None of these thinkers quite did it. None of them hit a homerun. The worst of all these was of course the Stalinist diamat. Here you have the idea that the material conditions (the means of production and who owns them, and by what structure they are governed) in the last instance determine all that “softish woo-woo”, like culture, behavior and psychology (even if Stalin, like Marx conceded that ideas and theories also affect society). In this view, it is hardly surprising that these people believed—including Leon Trotsky—that if you can change these “hard” or “material” conditions, all else can and will follow. You will have a fair, free and non-exploitative society, if you only make everything publicly owned: at any price! So that’s why these people are prepared to purge and kill others and disrespect any traditions and cultures and social structures. They believe that all of these “superstructures” are made of clay, whereas economic conditions, the “base structures”, are made of steel.
But the exclusive emphasis on concrete behavior might be even more murderous. Sartre’s ideas, reworked into an anti-colonialist theory by the angry young Haitian Frantz Fanon—and with clear parallels in Mao Tse-Tung—held that struggle, the concrete action of struggle itself, is most real, and that a just society flows from it. This led to some of the most mindless “revolutionary” activities and mass killings, notably in China’s Cultural Revolution and Cambodia in the late 1970s.
Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouges, was arguably the most brutal site of the 20th century, looking at per capita kills: some 20% of the population dead in four years (contested figure, though). Pol Pot, the nicknamed Cambodian dictator, spent his student years in Paris forming a separate Cambodian communist party there. He wasn’t very smart, but he read, I believe, Mao, Sartre, Fanon, Stalin and Marx. Maybe—as some historians have argued—the US carpet bombings in Cambodia (which took part during the Vietnam War) played a part in the rise of this brutal power, the Khmer Rouges. But so did, indisputably, poor Marxist and pseudo-Marxist theories about society.
What unites the spectacular failures of these theories? It is the fact that they don’t see that society consists of (at least) these four different fields of development—psychology, behavior, culture and system—and that you cannot spur development in the three other fields by forcibly driving the development in only one field, but not the others.
[iv]. Friedrich Engels sought to describe the workers in the urban factories as potential socialists—he noted, in his ethnographic work, that they seemed to abandon their religious beliefs once they had moved away from their villages. There were also some significant workers’ movements and short periods of impressive solidarity and self-organization. But was he describing people at the Postmodern value meme? No. The impressive displays of solidarity and self-organization only show up when there is a clear common enemy (such as during a period of major strikes). The only time self-organizing syndicalist (anarchist) socialism has functioned on a somewhat larger scale was during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, where there was a very clear common enemy: the grim rise of the fascists.
See: Engels, F. 1845/1969. Condition of the Working Class in England. Moscow: Institute of Marxism-Leninism.
[v]. Dearya, I. J, Battya, G. D., Galec, C. R. 2008. Childhood intelligence predicts voter turnout, voting preferences, and political involvement in adulthood: The 1970 British Cohort Study. Intelligence. Vol 36, Issue 6.
[vi]. “Stratification” means that society is divided into strata, such as classes or other grouping.
[vii]. It’s true; there have been some attempts made. One Scottish computer scientist, Paul Cockshott, has teamed up with an economist, Allin Cottrell, and tried to work out what a computer-driven communist system might look like for the European Union. Computer algorithms would coordinate the economy. But this is not a very convincing move unless they can show us the institutional analysis of how we get from here to there (i.e. unless they show us the societal attractors and how they work). And it’s highly questionable if these two writers got the algorithms right; indeed, if it is possible to do so. That’s a lot of trust to put in faulty single human minds.
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