Book Review: The Metamodernist Movement
The argument underpinning The Listening Society is that many of us are “living in our ancestors’ utopia.” We have abundant food, comfortable homes, modern healthcare, voting rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. The (fictitious) author, “Hanzi Freinacht,” invites us to appreciate our “relative utopia;” learn from how it came to be; and work towards applying those lessons to the struggles and suffering of today.
Freinacht believes we can use the insights, values, and principles of an emerging movement he calls “metamodernism” to address the contemporary challenges of global sustainability, extreme inequalities, and alienation. Political metamodernism’s foundational insight is that the key “to a good future society is personal development and psychological growth.” He suggests that we must grow towards “a civilization more socially apt, emotionally intelligent, and existentially mature” to tackle our contemporary challenges.
With this in mind, Freinacht delves into how dominant worldviews and values shift over time due to changes in social, technological, and economic conditions. For example, in the last two hundred years, a growing portion of Americans have shifted away from religious and traditional communities. They’ve also shifted towards scientific rationality, which has come with advancements in medicine, and arguably a crisis in meaning. Meanwhile, in the last fifty years we’ve seen an accelerating shift towards postmodern worldviews, a systemic critique of modernism. And, Freinacht argues, the latest step is the emergence of a metamodern worldview, which synthesizes and builds on the wisdom of traditional communities, the advancements of modernism, and the critiques of postmodernism.
Freinacht’s characterization of metamodernism often comes to mind as I navigate my large, densely connected Bay Area subcultures, populated by a mix of individuals who Freinacht would lovingly call hackers, hipsters, and hippies. Freinacht describes hackers as individuals who creatively combine “cultural capital and digital know-how” to “produce digital solutions and software that reduce the complexity of society and make it manageable.” Hipsters are the “artists, designers, thinkers, social entrepreneurs, writers and bloggers” with the cultural sensitivity and social capital necessary to create the symbols needed to navigate contemporary society. Hippies are those “who produce new lifestyles, habits, and practices that make life in postindustrial society happier, healthier, and, perhaps, more enchanted” through meditation, psychedelics, embodied experiences, explorations of new physical activities and diets, novel emotional and social practices, and the complexity of polyamous relationships.
Freinacht sees these hackers, hipsters, and hippies as “the creative class,” who increasingly lend their “innovation, creativity, ability to manage relationships, [capacity to] draw attention, [and] command over status symbols” to spread metamodern structures throughout the political system.
I felt exhilarated by the ways that Freinacht’s metamodern worldview honors and can speak to the value systems of other perspectives (traditional/religious, modern, and postmodern), while advocating for “the determined struggle for a deep, effective change in society.” The metamodernist stance towards opponents and challengers is friendly, open, and collaborative, with the attitude that “even if we don’t agree, we come closer to the truth if we create better dialogues and raise the standards for how we treat one another.”
Danish political party “the Alternative” exemplifies this stance. While grounded in “Green Social Liberalism 2.0.” (which Freinacht argues is table stakes today in Nordic politics), they’re less “about content, and more about the political processes that lead up to the best policies.” Their “six core values” are “courage, generosity, transparency, humility, humor, and empathy,” and their “debate principles” include listening more than they speak; approaching opponents with curiosity; acknowledging mistakes; openly considering pros and cons of potential policies; and staying grounded in their values. In a 2017 New Yorker article, reporter Masha Gessen noted that “Few observers in Denmark took the Alternative seriously when it launched, in 2013, but just two years later the new party was seated in parliament.”
In his next book, Nordic Ideology, Freinacht gleefully offends liberals and conservatives. He introduces the concepts of “game denial” and “game acceptance,” which he argues reinforce and maintain harmful status quos, and link directly back to some of the more murderous chapters of humanity’s history.
He explains that while “we inhabit a world of limited resources [where] our daily lives are full of zero-sum interactions,” some prefer to unsee or “wish away” these ugly realities through “game denial.” He claims that prevailing social pressures to “sound nice” and pretend that the world works by rules that it does not propel “liberal political correctness.” He believes this “game denial” in its most “extreme form” contributed to the millions of deaths under communist regimes. One implication of “game denial” in everyday life is that “the game cannot be described, taught, and learned,” which ends up fooling and frustrating those not in the know, and reinforcing the power of those privileged with insight into the rules of the game who can play to win.
Meanwhile, “game acceptance” is no better: It’s used to justify complacency in the face of injustice and actions that are harmful to others, while blocking “legitimate, necessary and very possible change.” Freinacht argues that “conservatives have a strong tendency towards accepting the games of life in their current, actual form.” He sees fascism as the most deadly manifestation of “game acceptance” — killing millions of people with its full-throated pursuit of the normally-repressed “drive for greatness, for superiority, for conquering death, for ascendance.”
Having established these two concepts, Freinacht argues that we must change the games played throughout society in order to make everyday interactions “fairer, kinder, more transparent, more inclusive, more forgiving, more sustainable, more rational, [and] more fulfilling.” To do this, he advocates for letting more people in on how the games are played (he believes transparency will make them fairer), raising the baseline of material well-being throughout society to reduce the incentives for the cruelest “games” (such as conning someone out of the life savings), and shifting cultural norms to be more ethically grounded such that it becomes unacceptable to take advantage of others in professional or personal contexts in order to fulfill our own needs or desires.
Sex and romance is rife with “game denial” and “game acceptance,” which generates “gender antagonism,” measured by “how bitter women are with men and how hateful men are towards women.” Freinacht argues that much of this “gender antagonism” is generated by the sense of scarcity and desperation many experience while struggling to fulfill their sexual and romantic desires. This incentivizes unhappy pairings and cruel “games,” such as stringing along a sex partner who wants a deeper connection, or abusing and controlling a romantic partner. His charmingly straightforward solution is to raise the average level of social skills and emotional groundedness in the population in order to expand the pool of attractive mates and increase the quality of the average liaison.
Freinacht shares a vision for a society where “many more people would grow up with secure psychological attachment patterns, thereby being better partners and lovers once they grow up.” In one of several vivid descriptions of a not-yet-realized “relative utopia,” he asks us to imagine a generation of parents and grandparents, each with twelve years of meditation practice integrated into their education, who apply emotional regulation and spiritual insight as they raise the next generation.
I originally picked up The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology because two friends who I deeply respect recommended them in response to my question, “Have you read much about adult development levels like Spiral Dynamics, Integral Theory, and Kegan Levels? It seems like there’s something there, but I don’t really get it...”
As I raced through Freinacht’s two books in two weeks, I felt my own worldview reflected back to me, with much more sophistication and coherence than I’ve encountered in the past. I was delighted to uncover an optimistic, plausible take on how we might be able to support the emotional and social flourishing of individuals needed to shift our civilization towards our next “relative utopia.”
Editor's Note: Who Is “Hanzi Freinacht?”
sidenote by Lydia Laurenson
According to his Amazon bio, Hanzi Freinacht is a “political philosopher, historian, and sociologist,” and “much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps.” It’s unsurprising that Freinacht is a loner, given that he appears to not exist.
The pseudonym represents a two-person team, Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friis, two Nordic gentlemen who have gone to the trouble of making a Hanzi Freinacht Facebook profile and sprinkling photos around the Internet that purport to show his face. I did a reverse Google search on one of the Facebook photos, a handsome blue-eyed man with a bushy white beard. It’s Paul Mason, a model in his mid-fifties who goes by “Fashion Santa®️.”
Daniel Görtz’s actual Facebook profile lists his job as “In-House Philosopher at Glimworks.” The Glimworks website says: “At surface level, we create complex IT solutions in a broad sense, including the support and development around these solutions. On a deeper level, however, this story changes. We travel together with you, as a partner, helping you on your Hero’s Journey.” (When “Hanzi Freinacht” recently appeared on Jim Rutt’s podcast, he was voiced by Görtz.) Meanwhile, one of Emil Ejner Friis’s gigs is “Unicorn Whisperer at Metamodern Arts Festival Kyiv,” while another is “Theory artist at Metamoderna.”
The Metamoderna Facebook Page says it’s a “think tank.” There’s a website at Metamoderna.org, which does not look like a think tank website (on the other hand, think tanks are basically unregulated, so why not?). The website offers a bio for Hanzi Freinacht and a “Donate to Hanzi” link. This enumerates Freinacht’s daily activities, such as meditating and wrestling “emotional and existential demons,” and concludes, “If you think that rogue scholars on the edge of respectability (perhaps, even, the edge of sanity) have a vital role to play in steering the world right in these troubled times — or if you just find Hanzi’s playful struggle amusing — this donation channel is for you.”
It took very little effort to unearth this info, which is a good reminder that Googling authors can be both fun and useful! Notably, none of the (over a dozen!) people who told me about this book mentioned that Freinacht is a pseudonym. I’m not sure how many of these folks are in on the joke.
[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
Aurora is a senior product manager at Emtrain, a mission-driven company using data science and insights from organizational psychology to improve workplace culture. Previously, she was managing director at ClearerThinking, which aims to close the gap between insights from research about human behavior and actions in the real world. Her interests include mindfulness, restorative justice, community-building, and history.
This article was edited by Lydia Laurenson. There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.