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Relative Utopia

The problems of old have all but vanished, just as new ones have appeared—as dark clouds on the horizon, growing cracks in the walls, and new subtle knots within our hearts and minds. A metamodern society is one in which the problems that emerged in modernity—lack of sustainability, excess inequality, alienation and stress—have been resolved.

22nd November 2019

Chapter 1 of Nordic Ideology by Hanzi Freinacht

“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.”

—Parker Palmer

In a way, we’re living in our ancestors’ utopia. If they could have witnessed our lives today, they probably wouldn’t have believed their eyes: all the food you can eat, a minimum of hard manual labor, the expectation to see all your children reach adult age, and no drunken lords to abuse you—truly a paradise compared to what most of them had to put up with.

We have access to a large number of conveniences that in the past would have been the envy of even kings and nobles: modern healthcare, comfortable and speedy transportation, and safe, fresh food from all around the world, even during winter.

Few of us would want to switch our pleasant modern lifestyle with that of Louis XIV 300 years ago. After all, not even the extravagant Sun King himself ever flew to the Canary Islands during his winter holiday and sat on a beach without catching malaria while enjoying his favorite show on Netflix. And we would presumably soon tire of court jesters and pheasant dinners in leaky castles anyway.

We have become accustomed to a standard of living so high not even Moses parting the Red Sea would impress us. Why wander to the land of milk and honey when we can cross the seas in comfortable jets to places with much more interesting cuisine? Jesus too would probably have needed to up his game if he were to make disciples out of us modern people. Turning water into wine hardly competes with the marvel of a good 3D-printer.

Even in the social realm we have opportunities and privileges unimaginable in the past. A medieval farmer would not have believed it if he was told that his descendants would have voting rights, freedom of expression, property rights, police protection and the freedom to choose their religion. And a 19th century factory worker would have been dumbstruck by the life-conditions of common folks today: considerably shorter work hours, vacations, pensions, unemployment benefits and an abundance of cheap consumer goods that used to be considered luxuries. Lenin’s grandiose promise of peace, bread and land that made a generation of workers start a revolution is so modest and unambitious in comparison to all the things we take for granted today.

There are of course still people who struggle to make ends meet: single unemployed parents, paperless immigrants, people with mental illnesses, substance addicts, and so on. But overall, we must admit we have come very far. We may not live in a true utopia, but in comparison to the past, modern society is at least a relative utopia; truly utopian relative to what used to be.

But the word “utopia” actually means “nowhere”. It goes back to the proto-modern thinker Thomas More’s book Utopia from 1516. In this meaning of the word, we do actually live in yesterday’s Nowhereland, in a fairytale, a technological Shangri-La that in the past only could have existed as fiction. Yet, as things went on, the fictional became all the more factual.

As such, there is little reason to believe the metamodern society we are headed towards won’t be a relative utopia; that what is currently only conceivable as a fictional account one day will materialize and acquire ostensibly utopian properties—relative to what we’re putting up with today and take for self-evident conditions of life.

The “Both-And” of Development

Even if the argument can be made that traditional society was “better” than the modern one (as so-called “integral traditionalists” like Frithjof Schuon and Réné Guénon have argued: less pollution, more spirituality, a more enchanted sense of the world, less destructive weapons, less mindless consumerism and alienation, more independence in having the skills to produce what you need, more humility, etc.); this should not blind us to the circumstance that modernity largely solved all of the major problems of pre-modern society. Yup, pretty much all of them.

For most of recorded history, child mortality was high, starvation commonplace, slavery institutionalized, serfdom ubiquitous, wars frequent, violence a part of everyday life, monarchical oppression unquestioned, disease rampant, poverty the rule, literacy low, cruel norms limiting individual freedom prevailing—and so forth.

Yes, all of these miseries exist in the modern world too. In absolute numbers, some of them are perhaps worse than ever as the world population is so much larger. On the other hand—and this is the point here—all of these problems have decreased dramatically in relative terms. Indeed, if you look at the highly modernized, democratic parts of the world, there is an apparent decrease in all of these problems at least by a power of ten. Look at Sweden today: How many people are starving for each one hundred who starved in the 1700s? One? Probably not even that. When people are poor in the US today, they get food stamps and have to stand in line. In pre-modern times, they simply starved to death.

So modernity, with all its technological and social advances, has practically solved all of the problems of all earlier societies: famine, disease, oppression, war, poverty, lack of education, slow and dangerous transportation, superstition. Yes, even war; even if we count the world wars, the risk of being killed by another human being was statistically smaller during the 20th century than at any time before. Steven Pinker wrote an often-cited book about it in 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and then another one in 2018, Enlightenment Now. Since the millennium, the number of people killed globally in violent conflicts has been extremely low compared to any previous period (in per capita terms).

Yet, of course, modern life is no walk in the park; it is still incredibly cruel and full of suffering—something that granny’s granny probably would have had a hard time imagining if we went on for hours about all the awesome sauce (I imagine I’d pause for a long time to describe what I get to eat, where I have traveled and so forth).

Hence, it’s a relative utopia: It really is super-duper mega awesome not to starve, to have modern medicine, to be able to speak and think freely, to have dominant sex with hot young men if you’re an old guy (I suppose granny might have had a problem with that part), to choose how to live your life and what to do for a living, to have internet and all kinds of abundance (even when unemployed, you can eat well and have shelter and use many of the technologies). It really is nice.

At the same time that doesn’t mean life has become “perfect”. So today’s developed societies really are utopian, but only in a relative sense. This is the both-and of development. They are utopian as compared to what came before. But that doesn’t mean today’s society has no problems. In fact, it has two very distinct kinds of problems:

  • Residual problems
  • New emergent properties problems

The residual problems are the percentages left here and there of the pre-modern stage of development: not all people are protected from curable diseases, some live in areas controlled by mobsters and are thereby still oppressed, some slavery still goes on (30 million de facto slaves is a figure people often bring up), and some people still starve or otherwise suffer from poverty.

It’s true that the UN Development Goals were met in advance and abject poverty is withering away as economic growth and ambitious, far-reaching aid programs take effect. But still, there are some residuals here and there, and they should certainly be accounted for; they still define hundreds of millions of lives. They are, however, not quite the products of modern society, as historical developments clearly indicate: Why else would they all be falling so sharply across the globe as the modern world-system progresses? Nay, amigo, they are residuals, leftovers. The most modern countries have the least of these issues.

The other category, which concerns us more in this context, are the problems showing up as a direct result of modern society: the new emergent properties problems. At a bare minimum, there are three such problems:

  1. ecological unsustainability
  2. excess inequality, and
  3. alienation and stress.

Notwithstanding that these are, on an individual scale, preferable to the wars, droughts and pestilences of yore, they are still quite serious. Sustainability issues like climate change, ecological collapse, mass extinction—not to mention the looming threat of nuclear holocaust and other increasingly tangible doomsday scenarios (haywire AI or nanotech, biological warfare)—can potentially cause miseries worse and more irreparable than even the black plague.

The inequalities of the world may seem bearable compared to the poverty of pre-modern subsistence farming, but nowadays we all live in the proximity of wealth and abundance, knowing for instance the diseases that kill our kids in fact are curable. Such knowledge can make our relative poverty even more bitter and insufferable than the harshness of pre-modern life. Indeed, it is one of the most robust findings of social science that income inequality correlates with violent crime, within countries and even more so between countries.

And alienation—a pervading sense of estrangement and existential angst—causes young people to suffer depression and commit suicide to an unprecedented degree. It causes people to live meaningless and empty lives amidst what superficially looks like freedom and abundance; lives in which we become increasingly stressed out and often experience burnout.

I remember spending seven years fending off suicidal thoughts, as a pervasive but unspecific anxiety haunted my young adulthood. This is not uncommon in developed, modern countries where the trends generally point towards rising mental health problems in adolescents and young adults. These are perhaps not as acute or severe as the challenges that people faced before modernity, but they still remain quite serious issues.

All three of these problems are caused, in one way or another, by the dramatic expansion of our industrial productivity: sustainability because we produce and consume more than our ecosystems can endure, inequality because this wealth is distributed in a series of “scale free networks”, where the most central positions gain a larger proportion of the wealth, and alienation because of the abstractness and distance that shows up between our everyday activities and their benefits for ourselves and others: Many of us lose a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. (Of course, there’s a lot more to the story on each one of these, but we’re just sketching here to get on to the point).

We have finally created a land that flows with milk and honey; literally, vast amounts of highly nutritional substances flow from the taps of industry—yet it’s making us and the planet sick. The paradise of yesterday is great, but it carries with it a number of unexpected pathologies that need to be dealt with in tomorrow’s relative utopia.

Beauties Lost and New Heights Reached

Beyond the two categories—residual and new emergent properties problems—we can add two more to the list of troubles of today’s society. The third category I’ve called “beauties lost”. It entails all the good things that were prevalent in pre-modern societies, but for different reasons diminished as societies became modern.

A good example is “community”, or what the classical 19th century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called Gemeinschaft (modern life, at least in its later urbanized stages, generally offers little cozy, genuine community in which you continuously relate to a wider group of family and neighbors).

As an example of Gemeinschaft lost, compare the expansion of electronically available music—millions of bands, artists and orchestras available online to be played with marvelous sound systems—to the fact that most of us have stopped singing. In all pre-modern societies, people got together and sang, pretty often too. The individualism and performance oriented attitudes of modern life somehow nudge us to shut up, unless we’re alone in the shower or partake in a formally organized choir. Music gained, but singing lost.

Another example of a beauty lost is “simplicity”; that life had a kind of directness and straightforwardness which allowed a certain modest satisfaction. Other such beauties lost are the “connection to the soil”, appreciation of the small things—perhaps a well-crafted tool—or the via contemplativa of monastic life; the calm, ascetic life in service of spiritual goals. You get the picture.

These “beauties lost” have been brought up by many reactionary movements and romantics of all kinds (I mentioned the integral traditionalists, for instance). With each beauty lost, a part of us is left empty and aching. But the romantic and nostalgic longing lends itself to exaggeration—to overvaluing an imagined past, a yesteryear that never quite happened. What we should do instead is simply to acknowledge that all societal progression into later and “more advanced” stages entails some beauties lost, and that there may be good reasons to figure out how some of these can be regained and reincorporated without trying to turn the clock back.

The fourth category of problems is more important. We can call it “new heights reached”. There are problems that are perhaps not directly caused by modern life, but whose solutions only now come within reach. Only when we acquire greater capabilities can we begin to see them and direct our attention towards them. In the old days, we simply didn’t have the luxury to worry about these problems; now we can. We have reached new heights and hence we can begin to tackle higher issues. The soul always wants more; it is never contented. You never get to the end; there is always a new horizon after this one, and another.

What are these new issues then, these “new heights”? I would like to mention four of them.

The first “new-heights issue” is tied to alienation, but still distinct from it: the lack of meaning and fulfillment. What happens in a society where you already have food, shelter and abundance? People begin to worry that they might be squandering their lives; that they may not be making the best of it; that something is still lacking; that life has become boring and too predictable.

The second new-heights issue has to do with struggle and heroism; how can we align our own petty lives with the overarching story about humanity, the world and even the cosmos? How can we be something else, something more, than just an average Jane or Joe consumer? Now that we have relative safety and autonomy, how can we make it worthwhile? Once we have achieved a comfortable villa life, there is still, lingering in our hearts, a visceral longing for greatness within us. How can we transcend ourselves; how can we serve something greater so that our lives become imbued with crisp, clear moments of intense aliveness?

The third higher issue pertains to gender equality and freedom of identity: Can we be sexually emancipated, not only in the sense that we can be women with equal rights as men, but that we can be truly sexually and emotionally fulfilled? Can we experience erotic fulfillment and intimacy both at once? Can we be gay, transgender, or otherwise experiment with and create our sexual and gender identities? Women’s liberation and the other gender/sexuality issues have come within our grasp in modern societies, but they are not conclusively solved by it.

The fourth and last higher issue is animal rights. Of course, a big part of the problem with the abuse of animals has to do with modern phenomena such as industrial farming. Animal suffering is exacerbated by modernity, even with the increased legislations for “animal welfare”. There have been some pre-modern examples of principled concern for animals in the Eastern traditions (Buddhism and Jainism), but even these have not quite resembled the modern-day animal rights movement. In Jainism, for instance, concern with animals grew from a general non-violence principle, which is not quite the same as a modern philosophy of “rights”. In modern life, we can now create an abundance of vegan and synthetic solutions that allow us to live without animal slavery and exploitation. Hence, veganism becomes a new issue within our reach.

So, sorry for tricking you into thinking we had only two categories of problems under modernity. We have four, these being:

  • Residual problems (left-overs from before modernity).
  • New emergent properties problems (caused by modernity).
  • Beauties lost (qualities from earlier societies lost under modernity).
  • New heights reached (problems that simply weren’t viable to try to solve before, but now have come within our reach).

Yep, that’s it. Modern society is truly utopian, truly glorious. Except it has these four categories of problems.

Now to the point we’ve been working our way towards. We live today in what to most earlier generations could only be described as sheer utopia. Yet, we hardly wake up every morning to what we feel is a utopian society. It is a utopia only in a relative sense: The problems of old have all but vanished, just as new ones have appeared—as dark clouds on the horizon, growing cracks in the walls, and new subtle knots within our hearts and minds.

What about metamodern society; is it a utopian project? Yes. It is unapologetically utopian. A society can be described as metamodern if, and only if, all of the problems of modernity have been more or less resolved, meaning that they have been reduced by at least a power of ten.

In other words, metamodern society is defined as one in which the problems that emerged in modernity—lack of sustainability, excess inequality, alienation and stress—have been resolved. So that’s what we’re going for. Fucking utopia.

Fucking relative utopia, that is.

New Miseries Worth Fighting For

Metamodern society can and will follow the same pattern of relative utopia as modern society has. There will be:

  1. residuals of the modern problems: still some inequality, environmental issues and alienation (whereas the pre-modern residuals are reduced by yet another order of magnitude);
  2. and yes, there will be new, emergent problems caused by metamodern society itself (some of which we will discuss in this book in an attempt to preempt them);
  3. and yes, some beauties of modern life will be lost along the way;
  4. and yes, new dark clouds will form on the horizon, new bold challenges to civilization that come within our grasp.

And yes, in some sense, these new problems will be preferable to what we have today; but strangely, they are likely to somehow be even more serious than the challenges of modern society.

So that’s the notion of “relative utopia” for you. We are trying to achieve a self-organization of society that is happier, in a profound sense of the word, than anything that has gone before it. But we’re not saying it’s going to be a perfect world. In fact, we’re saying it’s going to be as messy and risky as ever. More complex. Why should we expect anything else, when history—cultural, geological and astronomical—has thus far meant explosive increases of complexity?

It shouldn’t surprise us that future society will manage issues that today may seem insoluble, out of reach, or downright impossible. That’s what modern society did. It let steel float and fly, it saved us from disease, it conquered the moon, it brought peace—and so forth. Is it really wrong to think that future society, the one that comes after the modern, industrial one, could do what seems unimaginable today?

Somehow, modern life—and its relative utopia—was possible. Perhaps metamodern life can be too. A simple reason to assume this is the fact that so many intelligent people are working so hard, in so many different ways, to solve the problems of modernity: sustainability, inequality, alienation. Pretty much every smart and idealistic person is grappling with at least some aspect of one of these issues. It’s all over the sciences, all over policy making, in the arts, even on the market—whoever can solve these problems is most cherished, most appreciated, even well-paid. Are we being pulled in some direction, towards a new great attractor point, upon which a series of attractors converge?

So I’ll say it again. We go ahead with sincere irony, pragmatic idealism, informed naivety and magical realism—to entertain the potential of a relative utopia.

In the end, we still live in a tragic universe; as we noted in Book One, existence has us “eternally by the balls”. But there are new miseries on the horizon, miseries worth fighting for. And there is fun to be had along the way.

Relishing in cow dung really is a hundred times better than banging one’s head against the invisible barrier of the window. It really is. But it’s still cow dung, and we’re still flies, with our controls set for the heart of the sun.