Fallen Empire of Liberal Metamodernism

This article series is for social reformers and activists interested in the metamodern political movement. This series will undoubtedly find appeal with those who have come to understand that the current values which drive global economy, those which we call ‘liberal’, are obstructing solutions to contemporary political challenges — in as much, those values are unable to guide a common activity beyond. Admittedly, the prescriptions herein are likely a mere articulation of what is intuitively felt across a large demographic — certainly those who have found themselves gravitating toward contemporary Nationalist solutions. Undoubtedly a bit of political agnosticism is required for digesting this series. Already now, the final recommendation can be teased. If we wish to nurture truth and authenticity then we require an economy championed under the name National Collective Intelligence.

Political sarcasm

Lyrical self-deprecation

Idolization of the apathetic and the cool

What conditions allow for the enjoyment of such aesthetics?

From the vantage of present time, it is undeniable that the sarcastic themes present in the comedy of George Carlin, John Stewart, and South Park have become transparent. Equally, the self-deprecation of Radio Head and Nine Inch Nails has not aged well. We can say something similar for the apathetic character of Donn Pearce’s Cool Hand Luke and Marshall Mathers’ Eminem. Undoubtedly, the popularity of the entertainment of the late second millennium indicates a generation coping with the symptoms of the giantism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The name ‘postmodernist’ has been used to described these works. However, it must be admitted that this name is only partially appropriate. This aesthetic does not so much celebrate a rejection of the ideals of later modernization, as it does romanticize the suffrage from with them. The spirit of postmodernism indicates a deep commitment to the ideals of the enlightenment — that of rationality, empiricism, and liberalism — but at the same time recognizes these ideals had realized in a perversion. Simply consider the idolization of the industrialization of knowledge throughout the scientific industries and journalism, but then also the distrust toward authority, ‘deep state’ conspiracy, and the appeal of populism. Looking at the early third millennium, we find the rise of a ‘conservative skeptic’ — one who doubted the corona virus data reported by the mainstream news. The same skeptical spirit took up flat earther theory in order to redeem the individual’s own world-disclosing personal experience. If we say that Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is the most pronounced expression of modernization and imperial value in science fiction, then Chris Carter’s X-Files must be the postmodern sequel.

Now, what might strike us as peculiar is that this twofold aesthetic periodization — the modern and postmodern — had been prepared for long ago. Already at the inception of the epistemological project, during the sixteenth century, Descartes’ meditations provide a wealth of material for science fiction novelists of the twentieth. Already then, the rationalist ‘subjectification’ of the world had been coupled with solipsism. No doubt, the insurmountable chasm which opened between the subject and his world had prepared for a primordial encounter with the uncanny. This tripartite unfolding of doubt, enlightenment values, and science fiction may today strike us just as uncanny as the estrangement itself. Recalling Descartes’ meditations we find,

“…and yet, what do I see from my window but hats and coats which may cover automatic machines? Yet I judge these to be men. And similarly, solely by the faculty of judgement which rests in my mind, I comprehend that which I believed I saw with my eyes…And in regard to the corporeal objects, I do not recognize in them anything so great or so excellent that they might not have possibly proceeded from myself”

“…To these it is certainly not necessary that I should attribute any author other than myself…”

In as much, we should not be surprised that Descartes is considered to have laid the metaphysical foundations for later modernization. From the vantage afforded us today, it is hard to imagine any other conclusion to the ideals of the enlightenment then postmodern suffrage. After all, anyone who has come to understand himself as the epistemological metaphysical subject, and who at the same time idolizes a totalization of the universal powers, will eventually realize that, even if this totalization could be completed, he would find himself a mere peripheral within a strange machinery. And anyone who then, at the same time, had come to experience the ‘Death of God’ would find himself alone in a world of cold mechanisms beyond his comprehension — a machinery which had no concern for his interest. And while Immanuel Kant’s epistemological project is said to have improved upon Descartes’, despite all his excruciating detail, we were left without a story of how a metaphysical subject transcends its own subjectivity in order to meet another subject — a story which might bring a ‘me’ into contact with a ‘you’. Of course, this solipsism did not go unacknowledged in the years following Kant. However, the problematizing of subjectivity hadn’t become explicit until the beginning of the twentieth century. Not until the works of Edmund Husserl do we find an explicit problematizing of what can be called ‘intersubjective transcendence’. And still, over the next several decades following Husserl’s pronouncement, the problem of intersubjective transcendence went unsolved. An indication that perhaps rationality (and along with it the epistemological metaphysical subject) had lost intellectual relevance.

Now, this article, part 5 in a multipart series on nurturing truth and authenticity, has been titled “Fallen Empire of Liberal Metamodernism”. It is here that the historical narrative of the economy of truth announces the failings of the epistemological tradition. However, the catalyst for this fall should not be confused. Neither subjectivity, nor intersubjective transcendence, is that which has signaled the end of episteme. And in all honesty, if the problems of the primordial actio of the ‘I command’ were merely of consequence to intellectualism, we would not find reason for social-organizational prescriptions. However, we can be sure this is not the case. After all, it is not by way of Husserl’s deliberations that we inherit the epistemological foundations of modernization today. To this we must admit a completely unintellectual source. It is, after all, by way of World War II and the victory of enlightenment values that we suffer from the symptoms of episteme today. While this claim may be discomforting to those who champion for liberty, liberation, and liberalism outright, at the same time, there should be little surprise. There can be no doubt that the name ‘liberalism’ is printed upon every banner of imperialism today. This project to conquer, disseminate, and appropriate has been achieved, firstly, through a liberation of private business enterprise (what has been called neo-liberalism) and secondly, through a commodification of experience. Both which have exacerbated market economy and cultural homogeneity by way of globalization.

Of course, evidence for the suffrage from within these values is easy to recount. If we look toward the last of the liberal achievements — that of a commodification of experience — not only can we find testimony in the intellectual work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but perhaps more powerfully, we have Robert Crumb’s autobiographical underground comix. Looking at the body of literature of this underground scene, we find characterizations of the suffering, sickly, and pathetic. Undoubtedly a self-absorbed retreat provided relief. However, in thinking on the satisfaction of this retreat — as a fulfillment of the diary experience — we find the suffering of these creators had then compounded. Recalling the movie American Splendor there can be no doubt these authors suffered within an economy of imperium by way of their own product and their own celebrity. And once removed from the haven of the underground, the rejection of imperium had become a mockery of itself.

Neither should we be surprised that from this period we read concern for something of a ‘meta-crisis’ — a description which refers not only to the anxieties of extinction-level ecological disasters but also (and more to the point) to the western world’s inability to identity itself. The nation-state of modernization and the entire western historical narrative had lost relevance. This period gave rise to many educators reconciling with a ‘sense-making crisis’ and those offering prescriptions for ‘awakening from the meaning crisis.’ (Jonathan Rowson, Zak Stein, John Vervaeke). Of course, the suffrage announced by these crises was compounded in that the liberation of market economy had also brought upon a certain delegitimization of the public sphere. This delegitimization was most pronounced at the hub of the liberal empire — the United States of America. For those who found themselves without public-serving infrastructure (or the backbone of the church) moral activism (political activism) took the place of democracy. Private business took advantage, and in doing so established an expectation — as they were now invested with the task of moral value execution. Following the death of George Floyd and the social unrest which followed, the narrative was clear — private enterprise was able to satisfy the public’s interest more than any government institution. The enlightenment’s ideal of institutionalizing democracy had died out some time ago.

And yet today, standing here in this very moment, we find ourselves in a ‘time between worlds’ — a time which is characterized by the very identification of this narrative. This is a time in which the conclusions of episteme, as the guiding actio of modernization, have become transparent. Episteme lays bare naked for everyone to see — in all of its grotesque features. A question. Can anyone bear this visage? No doubt, this series is for those who are provoked to reconcile with this picture. It is for those who will partake in the emergent human project — one which is defined by the desire to resolve the alienation, estrangement, and civic apathy which we have inherited by way of the imperialism, universalism, and giantism of episteme. Of course, this work is perhaps just one component in this initiative. And it is guided by merely two objects — truth and authenticity. Yet, these two objects are of paramount importance to the challenges. Nurturing either requires laying a foundation. And this foundation requires, firstly, that we redeem truth from the epistemological paradigm — rescuing it from rationality, empiricism, and liberalism — such that the creative human spirit, authenticity itself, may be liberated. This task alone defines this work. In as much, we return to our object, truth. We must follow it through this postwar storyline. In concluding this narrative, we will have accomplished  the first half of this article series—namely, the historical economy of truth. This concluding chapter of our story is necessary, after all, it is precisely from within this expedited project of liberalization that we find that seemingly universal public concern for relativism — a worldview consequent of liberalism — and at the same time, at-odds with our primordial experience of truth. Only here will we find peace with liberalism, such that the emergent human project can go forward, fully aware that liberalization has completed its primary task — liberating the human spirit from the dogmatic Christendom which overcame Europe during the medium aevum.

If we then turn our attention to the intellectual debate following WWII, we find a prioritization of disarming and depowering world institutions—even those far beyond the reach of the Nuremburg trials. The intellectuals who deconstructed authoritarianism during this period enjoyed public celebrity. These thinkers were invested with the burdensome task of reconciling with that metaphysical object which had been inherited by way of Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. However, this task only signals a quite unfortunately narrative for the object ‘power’. The weaponizing of atomic energy had not brought an end to this paradigm. Instead, the imperialism of liberalism internalized upon itself. We can epitomize this period by reference to the debate surrounding intellectuals such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida, among others. In a little-referenced academic paper from 2003 titled The Problem of Critique, Steven M. Feldman identifies this turn away from epistemological metaphysics and toward a certain ‘epistemological sociology’ by the name ‘metamodernism’.

“Metamodernism not only rejects epistemological foundationalism, but further dismisses these concerns as insignificant in comparison to other more pressing issues. Metamodernists tend to emphasize the operation and orientation of power.”

“Jürgen Habermas, for instance, unequivocally declares himself to be postmetaphysical.”

Though, this turn towards the project of a deconstruction of authority was not entirely healthy for liberalism. After all, as part of the deconstruction we find a commitment to abandoning epistemological fundamentalism — an idea ushered in by way of Martin Heidegger. In its place, these metamodernists adopted something of a socially conditioned understanding of the metaphysical subject — a social condition which Gadamer called ‘tradition’. However, in abandoning the solely accountable epistemological metaphysical subject, these metamodernists found themselves in the middle of a paradox. Feldman framed this paradox as ‘the problematizing of critique within the metamodern paradigm’. That is,

“If we are always situated in a communal or cultural context, then how can we criticize either a particular interpretation of a text or, more broadly, a societal arrangement or organization?”

That is, if there is no objective standard then “metamodernism problematizes critique”. And this problem “leads us into the political conundrum”. But what is exactly this political conundrum which Feldman announces? — well, nothing other than the problem of liberalism, outright. If all interpretation and understanding is not only affirmed and valid, but celebrated, and at the same time, conditioned by a tradition beyond the accountability of any individual, then how do we integrate into cooperative activity? How do we constructively build a thoroughly liberal and now globalizing society? What is the one-and-only liberal narrative?

This is a question which can be answer by looking roughly fifteen years past Feldman’s announcement of the problematizing of critique. It is here that we find metamodernism fully realized as the political movement. In 2017, Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friss’s Scandinavian school of political metamodernism continued the sociological tradition by way of adult development theorists Ken Wilber, Michael Commons, Don Beck, Chris Cowan and the like. Their book, The Listening Society, addressed the problem of liberalism explicitly; in as much, they inexplicitly addressed the problematizing of critique. Their solution? — what could be call ‘social value periodization’. The Scandinavians understand that humans throughout the ages have meet each other with common challenges. Those challenges, then, are something of a social challenge. In response, social values realize in order to mobilize solutions. In looking through the history of modernization, these social values can be mapped as a progressive journey — one which facilitates modernization itself. Of those value systems, metamodern is the most progressive, having succeeded both the modern and postmodern, which themselves have succeeded the Faustian values of pre-modern time, etcetera. No doubt, one of the most affirmative quality of the metamodern narrative is that it delivers us from the postmodern suffrage aesthetic.

In as much as the Scandinavian solution is developmental, we can say that the Scandinavian solution to the problematizing of critique is teleological. After all, social values which mobilize a people to overcome their challenges are healthy; however, those same values are unhealthy if they retard solutions to the next generation’s challenges. With such a social-developmental theory in hand, we are then able to both critique and affirm each local world-narrative. Liberalism and the problem of critique is solved by way of teleology. However, what should be plainly obvious is that teleology does not so much resolve relativism. Instead, it simply falls under the age-old imperial ideal of ‘progress’. For the Scandinavians truth is relative not between subjects, but to any particular point in history. It could be said that truth, in the metamodern narrative, is subjected to something of a ‘teleological relativism’. To be sure, the Scandinavians admit as much. Metamodern truths are not the final stop for humanity. Those truths are ‘provisional’, merely ‘the best we have’. And as always, there is a certain nihilism lurking in the halls of relativism. It might be wise to remember the discontents which relativism had previously produced.  We only need to recall Arthur van den Bruck’s discontents with liberal nihilism—those which, utterly premature, came under the perversion of Nazi imperialism. And yet, the nihilism of relativity might be the ‘softer’ critique compared to the charge of imperialism.

No doubt, from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, to Jürgen Habermas, as well as Ken Wilbur and the Integralists, the metaphysical subject of the epistemic tradition speaks from the position of the omniscient world-observer. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the Scandinavian’s solution has a taste of the universal imperium. The Scandinavians appeal to something of a ‘metamodern aristocracy’ — an exceptionally progressive group which can hand-guide the world to global governance. While this aristocracy was undoubtedly a device use for rallying their cause, this appeal also holds a toxic approach to life — one which promotes the position of some omniscient observer above the ‘subjective truthers’. On this account there is an apparent antagonism between the ‘every man’s philosophy’ and the Scandinavian’s marketing. Of course, here it might be wise to take heed of Martin Luther King Jr.’s critique of the epistemic project, its totalitarianism and imperialism, when he remarked that from within Hegel’s “exposition of the coming to be of knowledge”, “the many are subsumed to the one”. Of course, none of this is to say that the Scandinavian’s appeal to teleological relativism is irrational. After all, the disclosure of any relative truth worldview realizes when the spirit of ‘getting along’ surpasses the spirit of an authentic shared understanding. If we understand that the global crises are, in fact, the paradigm of the future, then our efforts today, if they are going to have any meaning whatsoever, must mobilize a globally coordinated project. What should be considered then is whether we believe the ‘the global’ is that which will inspire solutions in the coming paradigm — namely to alienation, estrangement, and civic apathy.

Of course, no one can yet can answer or decide which horizons will afford answers in the emerging human project. Likely the best we can do is revert to our own instincts. No doubt, each of us has the ability to turn toward our inner space and ask, in all honest, if we believe that our future challenges can be solved by way of an idolization of objects such as ‘the global’, ‘humanity’. In taking up such an exercise, what we must recognize is that these universal abstractions are spoken from a spirit which stands in direct conflict with a formidable opponent—the very nature of language. After all, language is that which defines by division—by drawing a circle around phenomena in order to have ‘what is’ from ‘what is not’. Therefore, it should be no surprise that these objects ‘the global’, ‘humanity’ often produce discomfort. And, after all, this is a very founded and healthy response. ‘Humanity’ is not some epistemic story which we can force down upon each other, one which can be had by ignoring all that makes social life interesting—the possibility of encountering the exotic. Oneness is an ontological condition. It is this condition which provides for the disclosure of not only a ‘you, but a ‘me’, and the very world itself. The ‘discovery’ of ‘any one’ is conditioned by that primordial discourse with nature, that ‘wheeling and dealing’ with nature. This ‘nature’ includes not only the earth’s elements, but also every phenomenon to which we later attribute consciousness—whether that be animal, man, or machine. The evidence of such pre-intellectual conditioning is the appearance of the very world itself, as it is articulated in each moment of disclosure—since without it, no agreement or social activity would be made to effectively contend with it. It is through this condition that we grow towards diversity. In as much, we understand our innate disgust for the intellectual story of ‘humanity’—from Hegel to the Scandinavian metamodernists. But to give that disgust a more articulate description, we might say that any epistemic story of humanity is only a distraction—one which is overly patronizing—and in as much, obscures action on the real and interesting.

If you can entertain the idea that an idolization of globalization obstructs future modernization, by way of the impotent anxieties following objects such as ‘the global’ or ‘humanity’, then you must also admit that the Scandinavians are not so much wrong in their historicizing, as they are simply bad role models. However, for those who may be on the fence, perhaps on account of the global existential crises of climate change, we can revert to a book written in 1970 — a quite biblical text by E. F. Schumacher — Small is Beautiful. To this day, it remains relevant not only for answering commodification and market economy, but also for resolving the liberal-industrialization project generally. At the height of its influence, this book became a cornerstone of Green Movement literature. There can be no doubt, laying behind the printed words of that text we read of a spirit championing for a complete reversal of episteme. In as much, this article series, How to Nurture Truth and Authenticity, could correctly be billed as something of a sequel — one which is now fifty years overdue. Therefore, it is only fitting that the second half of this work be introduced by repeating a few passages — ones which should be kept in mind as we come closer to prescriptions for social-organizational reform,

“…Instead of overcoming the ‘world’ by moving towards salientness, man tries to overcome it by gaining pre-eminent wealth, power, science, or indeed any imaginable ‘sport’…He is driven to build up a monster economy and to seek fantastic satisfaction, like landing on the moon…This economy of giantism is a left-over of nineteenth-century conditions and nineteenth-century thinking and it is totally incapable of solving any of the real problems of today.”

“An entirely new system of thought is needed, a system based on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods…and what was neglected in the nineteenth century is unbelievably urgent now. That is, the conscious utilization of our enormous technological and scientific potential for the fight against misery and human degradation — a fight in intimate contact with actual people, with individuals, families, small groups, rather than states and other anonymous abstractions. This presupposes a political and organizational structure that can provide this intimacy.”

If we now recount what has been gained through the first half of this series— we find a completion of the historical economy of truth. This narrative has taken us from the Roman appropriation of Ancient Greek άλήθεια to the industrialized sciences by way of Latin verum. We have also made clear the current project in which truth finds service to an economy of imperium — liberalism. At the same time, we have brought into question liberalization’s ability to nurture the safety and security which the creative authoring spirit demands. What is now required by the second half of this work is, firstly, an understanding of truth which can ground an organizational structure providing for such authenticity. To do so, we must turn toward a foundation beyond doubt, beyond episteme, and beyond the intellectualism of knowledge outright.

If we allow ourselves to come back to the ‘less pressing’ issues of the epistemological sociologists, to metaphysics, then we return to the problem which the metamodernists took for granted — that of intersubjective transcendence. In the work of Gadamer, we find words which echo our challenges to liberalism’s position from the omniscient world-historicizing observer,

“Anyone who takes seriously the finitude of human existence and constructs no ‘consciousness as such’, or ‘intellectus archetypus’, or transcendental ego’, to which everything can be traced back, will not be able to escape the question of how his own thinking as transcendental is empirically possible.”

Here Gadamer appeals to that primordial experience of the world which has been studied under the name ‘phenomenology’ — a discipline which starts with the very appearance of phenomena, and proceeds to understand the conditions for any definitions which follows. It is this discipline which will offer insights for materializing the prophesies of Small is Beautiful. In drawing upon phenomenology, we will meet with that aesthetic experience which we call ‘the beautiful’ — an aesthetic which presences by removing the unnecessary and superfluous — those complexities which suffocate human affectivity. This is a beauty which accompanies simplicity by way of logic’s ability to “release complexity” from the world (Bonnitta Roy) such that human affectivity can be put in motion. No doubt, we will find such beauty in localizing the horizons of human economy.

Justin Carmien, July 8th, 2020

Justin Carmien

Lecturer on Philosophy at Spinderihallerne, Vejle Denmark. Philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, metaphysics, and political metamodernism

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