The Listening Society

Recently I started a bookclub with a group of friends and started reading “the listening society – a metamodern guide to politics” together. We have now met for the first time and had a good discussion about the first part of the book called: “the new political landscape”. As part of the bookclub project I thought that I might as well write a blogpost about the book and try to sum up the discussion (seen from my perspective).

The new political landscape

In the prologue and introduction, the 2 authors presents the metamodern politics as what comes after modern politics – as a positive vision for future society and a roadmap for societal development. We are also briefly introduced to the character Hanzi Freinacht, who is presented as the author. Then the reader is asked to answer some fundamental questions (“what is human development”, “what is development of society” and “what is freedom”) after which the authors start to dismantle the readers possible objections to the book. The style of writing is presented as psycho-active literature, meant to affect and infect the reader. Lastly they present the metamodernist perspective as one of “sincere irony”:

“To “be a metamodernist” is to apply oneself to sincerity with religious fervor, while keeping an ironic smile at one’s own self-importance…” (p. 28)

In chapter one, the authors describe the Scandinavian welfare states as the most progressive in the world and how the populations of these states, because of the high standards of living, are increasingly driven by post material values. Furthermore, they describe how the “meta-ideology” of “green social liberalism” has come to dominate completely in these states and has increasingly made the political-representative system redundant.

“Don’t be fooled by…the politicians who have every interest in maintaining the image of deep divisions and conflicts…see the center for what it is – the total victory of one ideology over all alternatives. And then use it. Break its limits” (p. 47)

In chapter two they describe how the new political divide is no longer between right/left, but rather between “progressives”, the ones who are able to navigate in the post-industrial, digital and transnational world of today and the “outnumbered discontents” who has not been able to adjust to the premises of late modern life. They then go on to listing all the terrifying challenges facing human civilization these days and the many technological/social developments that are popping up in what they call the “crisis-revolution”.

“Economists are telling us that the economy we took so seriously was really a myth all along, just a story.” (p. 69)

Chapter 3 presents the political proposal of the authors choosing a “digitized, transnational post-industrialism and its structures and values, over the old industrial capitalist nation state”, what they also call Green Social Liberalism 2.0. The basic idea is a “deeper kind of welfare system that includes the social, emotional and psychological aspects of human beings” making the average person more secure, authentic and happy, which according to the authors will make these people better suited to solve the wicked problems of today. The basic point is that if we develop better social/psychological environments through “social technologies” and make people happier, we will slowly create a better world.

“The more you understand how society’s ills are caused by the psycho-social environment (i.e. the interplay of people’s inner lives and the arenas of everyday life) the more obliged you are to change and develop these realities.” (p. 83)

Chapter 4 goes into how to create the better social/psychological environments mentioned in the previous chapter and starts by mentioning a number of concrete examples such as: free access to therapy, meditation, gym/body coaching, dialogue training and sexual education for everyone. The authors make the claim that “everyone is suffering and that is what we call normal” and that the deeper issues that cause this suffering is currently not a part of the political/economical awareness – but it should be.

Furthermore they argue that while the Scandinavian societies are indeed the “best” in the world (as also stated in chapter one) they are still direly in need of improvement and that it is important to hold both of these truths and take an experimental attitude towards the future.

“If we deem all visions of a better future disrespectful, we are precluding all real possibilities of substantial, positive change that can come through intentional efforts.” (p. 106)

In chapter 5 the authors describe “The Alternative”, a new Danish political party founded on metamodern values (although they don’t know it or claim so themselves) and how they are trying to transform the Danish political scene by working more with how’s (the political dialogue) than what’s (political opinions), by transpartisanism, attempting to influence other parties rather than antagonizing them and transnationalism, represented in the slogan “A Denmark that is good for the world”.

The chapter ends by describing the “metamodern aristocracy”. The people who have started to bring about metamodernism and have both great privilege and a high level of personal development.

“The metamodern aristocracy is the playful vanguard of a new form of society in which people are free in a deeper sense than what everyday life in modern society normally allows.” (p. 121) and  rest on the central paradox of metamodernism “the deep, unyielding struggle for greater egalitarianism, inclusion and democracy – together with a renewed tolerance towards and understanding of hierarchy and elitism.” (p. 122)

Chapter 6 deals with the political philosophy of the metamodern project. First a discussion of “transpersonalism” (beyond individual vs. collective) and the understanding that individual psyches are fundamentally intertwined with societal structures leads to the point that society should be seen as a self-organizing system created by and consisting of “transindividuals”. The authors then move into a discussion about complexity the crudeness of many of the mental/political models of modern society that are producing bad guys.

“To the metamodernist, there are almost no bad-guys left, nobody and nothing to blame, not even an impersonal structure. With the view from complexity, there is only the painstaking tweaking of many small things that can help us fix the failures of our society and mitigate the tragedies of existence.” (p. 136)

The metamodern project is also “beyond right and left” in the way that it refuses to a priori assume that state bureaucracy, civil society or free market solutions will be better to solve a given problem and advice the reader to recognize and reduce her “political allergies” (our inherent dislike of particular political loaded words such as “market”, “solidarity”, “feminism” or “profit”). The authors opens for seeing the divisions of modern life as integrated without evil being inherent to civil society, state or market. “Solidarity, trade and competition” and similarly “equality, freedom and order” cannot exist without each other and the authors call for synergies rather than antagonisms in what they dub “fractal philosophy”.

Lastly they present “non-linear politics” and the “transpartisan” position, the understanding that there is always a larger process that transcends your current partisan position and that whatever positions or opinions you are holding, they are flawed. Whatever plans you have, will not turn out the way you expect them to. You do not have the truth and you never will. Furthermore, there is no “innocence” to return to by being “normal” and choosing not to act. You can’t “just live your life” as our society is an “animal-exploiting, cruel, capitalist, alienating, unfair, oppressive…unsustainable society” and you are a complicit as you are partaking in it. However, when you act you will cause both good and harm.

“The cardinal of all such linear models in politics is the belief that “if only people were like me, had my opinions, the world would be alright”. This is the point zero of political understanding. If you have this feeling, you know nothing.

The point is that everybody already is like you – a very limited, vulnerable, hurt, single human being with almost infinite distortions and blind spots, working from within the narrow frames of her emotions, intellect and experience. And that is exactly why the world is a complete, utter mess. And because the world is a mess, you are a mess. You cannot trust yourself and your current conceptions and ideas.” (p. 146)

Some personal comments

I quite enjoyed reading this first part of the book and found the political perspective to be quite fresh and in many ways in accordance with my own. At many points I was struck by what I guess the authors would call “psycho-active elements” where I felt caught in my own “political allergies” or relatively unreflected value systems – particularly when it comes to discussions of power and hierarchies (not to mention “developmental stages”). On the other hand I read the book as being “left-leaning” even though the authors try hard to move the project out of the left/right dichotomy and would be curious to hear other perspectives on this.

The book presents a fundamental critique of contemporary politics from the vantage point of analyzing “the most progressive countries in the world”. A central claim is that the high standards of living and the safety and comfort in the Scandinavian countries are allowing people to move towards post-material values. A key point is that it becomes increasingly costly to improve quality of life through material means, the more material wealth people already have – it is thus quite easy to improve the quality of life for an indian farmer by material means, but quite hard when it comes to a middle class swede.

“extra wealth is simply a less efficient strategy for people to achieve fulfillment and happiness in these societies” (p. 40)

The authors propose that the only possible political stance in the Scandinavian countries these days is “green social liberalism” and that all political parties in effect are green social liberals. This “meta-ideology” has come to dominate and is heralding the end of liberal-representative democracy, which is becoming increasingly obsolete as it is approaching its own ideals.

I resonate with the Scandinavian countries being very progressive and the notion that post-material values seem to be on the rise. The analysis of the political spectrum also seems rather accurate for me – I usually find myself wishing for the “center” parties in Danish politics to end the rhetorical opposition to each other and just merge once and for all in one grand “politics of necessity” party.

Largely I would agree that the parliamentary system seems to be emptied of function (as the industrial cities has been in the last 30 years) and needs to be reinvented, but also find that there is a real risk of dismantling big parts of the system that has created “the most progressive countries in the world” if we are not careful and vigilant these days. I am fearful of the current political developments in Denmark, where the Scandinavian welfare model seems to be under attack.

When it comes to the global “crisis revolution” I am very much in accordance with the authors. We are at one and the same time in deep crisis and in a time of incredible progress and development – and the way we respond to this global situation will have very significant impacts on our potential futures.

At a more personal level, the introduction to “progressives” of different categories (“hackers” (technology), “hippies” (relationships and “social technologies” and “hipsters” (entrepreneurial)) and later “metamodern aristocracy” struck quite close to home. The alignment with post-material values, the call  for authenticity and the reliance on cultural capital are just some of the elements that I recognize in myself and most people around me.

“…fashionable, tattooed young female DJs play that music on the dance floor, and we dance under flashing lights in the darkness and get high and drunk and make out, as the reality we thought we knew is being torn down and we plunge into the sublime and the unknown.

And far out into the desert, under the clear skies of that luminous, open blackness lit by perfect stars, we find each other in an intimate, loving embrace. Without the slightest effort we converse for hours and all of reality melts away as we let go of our inner shields and become one. In that timeless moment of forgiving embrace we lose ourselves and find ourselves, both at once.” (p. 67)

I like the ideas presented of how to develop (welfare) society through a much stronger focus of the psycho/social well being of citizens (although I find that the authors underplay the material well being and redistribution of wealth). For me this perspective feels as a fresh and visionary approach that can help create a positive imaginary of the future to replace the dead ideologies, the retrotopia of the new right and the “politics of necessity” of the center. I also resonate with the necessity of experimentation and “evolutionary” development rather than trying to follow a revolutionary/utopian vision. The development and spread of new “social technologies” and ways of life seems to be at the core of this. The realization that we are not at the end of psycho/social evolution, but rather in the middle of the exploration of what we can be, individually and together is important.

“…most normal people are terribly socially inept” (p. 104)

What I miss the most in this vision of future society is multiplicity and I find that a call for multiple co-existing experiments with different realities of human life would probably be closer to the vision than a transition from “green social liberalism” to “green social liberalism 2.0” which both have a certain oneness to them. Will everybody really live the same way in this future society – or will we perform multiple realities?

I find that the action perspective of the book is interesting. The perspective of non-linearity (your plans will never be correct, because you are reducing a hyper complex world into something that is workable) in my perspective calls for a model of navigation that opens for constant sensitivity and responsiveness (respons-ability) in deliberation between different perspectives. Value creation is more important than whatever partial truth you start from, but also opens the question “value for who?”. Inviting someone on stage will always imply leaving someone else in the dark – inclusion of some perspectives implies exclusion of other perspectives.

It is impossible to do anything right, but we have to do something, so we have to constantly navigate in the mess that is the world and do the best we can based on our limited understandings…