Book Review: The Listening Society

A Metamodern Guide to Politics: Book One, by Hanzi Freinacht

I was drawn to this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, politics and philosophy are two of my favorite topics. Moreover, as a science fiction fan who is interested in the future and long-term thinking (I’m a member of the Long Now society for example), I am constantly asking myself the question, “What’s next?”

Until I read this book, I didn’t really have an answer to that question. Looking at our current political shenanigans and extrapolating forward, it’s hard to see what lies on the road ahead; the most obvious conclusion is either “nothing” or “more of the same”. Neither of those are particularly satisfying as a vision of the future.

Hanzi Freinacht provides a different, and much more uplifting answer: what’s next is something he calls “metamodernism” — a political and cultural stage of development that comes after postmodernism.

In the author’s model of history, human civilization has progressed through a sequence of “developmental stages”: Archaic, Animist, Faustian, Post-Faustian, Modern, Postmodern and now Metamodern. For example, the “Faustian” stage is the one in which humans invent agriculture, and form hierarchical, pyramidal social organizations in which it is possible for ambitious humans to quest for power over others.

Each of these stages is a response to, and a critique of, the flaws and weaknesses of the previous stage. For example, the “Post-Faustian” stage is one in which monotheistic religions and philosophies develop the idea of an eternal reality and a universal morality beyond the scope of human ambition, and this is a direct response to the cruelty, suffering, and economic dysfunction of the despotic empires of the Faustian stage. (This is not to imply that this cultural transition was in any way planned or conscious. It happened because the new system simply worked better.)

The world we live in today is somewhere between Modern and Postmodern, depending on where you live. Most people today are Modern in their outlook, but a sizable fraction of the population hews to more traditional (Post-Faustian) values, while another chunk of the population could be described as Postmodern. Similarly, our social institutions represent a mix of these developmental stages as well.

So what exactly is Metamodernism? Before I get into that, I want to take a short digression into the nature of deconstruction and reconstruction. To explain these concepts, I’m going to steal this wonderful illustration by Winston Rowntree which I found on tvtropes.org:

As you can see, the “original” version of the character or trope is very bright, cheerful, even painfully naive in its composition. However, many people grow up with this character and this is what they are familiar with, and they never question its assumptions.

In the second, “deconstruction” phase, people start to realize that the original concept wasn’t as sweet and nice as first thought — that if you really start to think about the implications, you find that there’s a whole lot of nasty stuff that has been swept under the rug. It becomes evident that the authors or creators of the original trope simply ignored the negative consequences of their creation. It’s not that the deconstruction is adding a bunch of “badness” to the concept, rather the bad stuff was always there, it was just invisible.

At this point, you get a lot of tension and acrimony between fans of the original and fans of the deconstructed idea. Those who adhere to the original concept see the deconstructors as disrespecting (“tearing down” or “spitting on”) their beloved icon, whereas those who prefer the deconstructed version see the original (and its fans) as hopelessly naive.

In the third phase, “reconstruction”, we have a new version of the trope — one which embraces both the qualities of the original and of the deconstruction. It takes the best elements from the original trope, but at the same time maintains an awareness of the potential downsides, and strives consciously to mitigate the worst of the negative consequences highlighted by the deconstruction.

Metamodernism is exactly this — it’s an effort to reconstruct modernism with an awareness of all the critiques of postmodernism. In fact, one of the foundational ideas of metamodernism is that it embraces rather than rejects all of the previous development stages.

Metamodernism is also a critique of postmodernism — that is, it’s a deconstruction of a deconstruction. The main flaw of postmodernism is that it never proposed any positive solutions of its own — all it could do was criticize.

However, this definition is insufficient — it only describes how metamodernism came about, or will come about, not what it actually is.

I want to be very careful here not to give too much detail, because these concepts are very complex and require a lot of thought to understand, and I want to avoid miscommunicating what the author said.

However, I can tell you a few things which will give you a general idea.

First, metamodernism isn’t communism, fascism or authoritarianism. In fact, it’s just the opposite — it embodies the ideals of modernism (freedom, equality, solidarity, and so on), only more so.

It isn’t capitalism or socialism either, although both of these systems are present within a metamodern society. From a metamodern viewpoint, capitalism and socialism are implementation strategies for achieving metamodern goals. You can pick whichever strategy you (and your fellow citizens) favor. Thus, there can be both “leftist metamodern” and “rightist metamodern” factions within a society.

Metamodernism isn’t a cult or spiritual practice (and the author has a very interesting chapter on why so many spiritual groups turn into cults). It is based on empirically validated theories of human psychological development (or at least this is what the author claims).

Finally, metamodernism isn’t just modernism — it’s not “more of the same”. Rather, it’s a refinement and deepening of the foundational principles of modernism, taking those principles to their logical conclusion. Modern society is comprised of individuals and institutions which are in competition, where relative success is determined by various metrics and Darwinian fitness functions (profit, stock price, popularity, votes, ratings, etc.) However, most of these metrics are rather crude, and are only rough approximations of what is really important — a society where each person can have their inner needs met and can develop to their fullest potential.

A “listening” society that actually listens to its constituents. (As opposed to merely trying to surveil or manipulate them.)

One thing I should warn you about is that the books are written in a fairly provocative and snarky style. The first two chapters are particularly bombastic, I almost stopped reading at that point — but I persevered and was rewarded with a lot of meaty ideas in the remainder of the book.

It turns out that this writing style is a deliberate strategy on the part of the author — because there are so many grandiose claims in the book, he wants the reader to be suspicious, to distrust everything he is saying, to not take anything at face value.

Also, the book “The Listening Society” is only part one. To get the full picture, you also need to read the sequel, “Nordic Ideology” (which I am currently half-way though and enjoying very much.)

I don’t know if the author’s predictions will come true. The author points to a number of real-world trends and events that suggest that we are moving in this direction (that metamodernism is an “attractor”), but the evidence is circumstantial at best.

However, like a good science fiction novel, the goal is not to prophesy but to inspire. This book presents one possible road ahead for human civilization — a goal to work towards. Even if we take this book as purely a work of fiction, I think it has great value.

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