October 27, 2018: This is the first of four or five blog posts. This first one introduces the idea of metapolitical practice and sets the stage for the posts to come. My goal here is to clarify my thoughts about metapolitical practice before weaving these core ideas into several projects. Thanks to Meghan Byrnes for her editorial eye and inspiring conversation.
Our situation today is marked by a “turn” to metapolitical practice.
I first heard the word metapolitics from Richard Spencer, a key leader of the alt-right and the white nationalists. When asked about specific policies that would be promoted by his political party, Spencer replied that he believed these kinds of political questions were less important than metapolitical ones, such as the rightful place of race and nationality in politics. He was saying that his group finds traction as a result of their offering new metapolitical narratives rather than policy recommendations. This is because metapolitical practices make conventional “politics” seem beside the point. Metapolitics puts “politics” in quotations, as human rights become merely “human rights”—merely a “political” gambit. If race and nationality are the pillars of future geopolitics, which Spencer takes as a metapolitical assumption, then a great deal of current “political” practice is wrongly conceived down to its very foundation. I could not disagree with Spencer more about the place of race and nationality, yet it is clear that he knows what he is doing. Metapolitical practice involves questioning the very frame of “politics” itself; it is a discourse about what counts as political (see: Badiou, 2006; Zaibert, 2004). Spencer is extremely wrong but has still managed to say something extremely interesting.
The recent cultural opening into the metapolitical is a major reflective step forward, but it is also disorienting and dangerous. The same cultural opening that allows Richard Spencer to hold a racist press conference that is duplicated and remixed across the Internet also prompts me to question the very nature of the left-right political spectrum with my writings on this blog. The same opening that has resuscitated the bad metaphysics of nationalism and race also provides an opening for unprecedented displays of planetary-scale consciousness and compassion (there will be more on good and bad metamodern metaphysics in future posts, but see also Stein, 2018). The widespread and growing emergence of metapolitical practices heralds a major epochal shift in the history of consciousness and civilization. Recall the wide-ranging and radical metapolitical reflections that characterized the transition into modernity solidified during the French and American Revolutions. The constitution of the United States transformed what was a modern metapolitical conversation into a new form of real politics. The revolution that created the Soviet Union did the same only more briefly and with a different emphasis. Neoliberalism encoded new hyper-modern metapolitical assumptions into the structures and habits of post-Cold War day-to-day politics, and thus life itself was set adrift on seas of fictitious capital.
Note that the alt-right has been clearly identified as a metamodern political phenomenon. See Abramson (2017) for a very useful view on this, and note also that this means “metamodern” is not a term of praise, like “integral,” but rather marks structurally identifiable aspects of current cultural evolutions occurring chronologically after the exhaustion of modernity and postmodernity. Metamodern metapolitical discussions are slightly different than the ones that preceded them. Today metapolitics is expanding out beyond the halls of rogue power elites where it has traditionally taken place (i.e., historically metapolitics has been the province of Turchin’s (2015) “counter elites”). Things have changed: counter elites used to secretly engage in metapolitical planning; now they are openly inciting widespread metapolitical reflection among the masses. Cases in point are QAnon, cryptocurrencies, and “post-truth” journalism, all of which appear to be explicitly deployed by political power players as a means to disrupt politics as usual. Metamodern political innovations are occurring in metapolitical spaces where power is wielded “outside” of normal political channels, with the explicit intention of eventually changing the nature of those channels themselves (for better and/or for worse).
QAnon has been referred to as the greatest conspiracy theory of all time, both in terms of the numbers of people who believe and contribute to it, and in terms of the scope of what the theory implicates. The whole thing is a metapolitical narrative that reframes American politics (Hall, 2018). It lays out a different set of metapolitical assumptions that make the goings-on of everyday “politics” appear uncanny and frightening. Any given “political” behavior (such as a speech by Hillary Clinton) appears to have very different meanings when read under different metapolitical assumptions. According to QAnon, Trump is a hero who is helping a group of counter-elites to overthrow an entrenched and deeply corrupt global crime syndicate mascaraing as a government. Of course, according the metapolitical assumptions of the Democratic Party, the reverse is true: it is Trump who is a criminal in political disguises, trying to overthrow a legitimate, transparent, and accountable American government. The difference is that Trump and his followers are willing to engage in explicit metapolitical practices (such as drawing attention to the fact the whole domain of “politics” is not what it appears to be), while the Democratic Party is unable to step out of “politics,” and so ends up protecting a politically correct status quo. The most radical form of Democratic metapolitical practice are the #metoo strategies of non-legal character assassination (i.e., convening trials in the court of public opinion through the press and social media that have the power to undermine/override whatever the official political/legal outcome is). The claim that #metoo is a bi-partisan movement for women’s rights that is class and race neutral needs to be examined; it is in fact a movement of wealthy, white, Democratic women. This is controversial to even say because of the new metapolitical assumptions encoded into social media by the #metoo movement (one such assumption being that men are not permitted to judge or speak about the value or tactics of the #metoo movement). In any case, groups on all sides are willing to suspend and question normal procedures of justice in the name of new metapolitical assumptions. In so doing these groups are changing certain aspects of “politics” as usual from a position that is outside what is strictly permitted as “politics.”
A suspension and questioning of “justice” is part of what it means to be engaging metapolitical practice. The calls by social justice warriors to suspend due process for certain types of crimes are based on the argument that the system itself is unjust and thus unfit to truly administer justice (rampant patriarchy seems to discredit our entire tradition of law, for example). Meanwhile conservatives call for the removal of environmental regulations and social safety nets based on arguments for “freedoms” and “ways of life,” which are supposedly threatened by our increasingly regulated, complex, and litigious society. A vivid and disorienting absence of moral high ground is part of the landscape disclosed in our metapolitical vistas. Metapolitics pull us “back” (or “above”) and into reflections about how one even identifies the high ground. The cultures of Western democracies are disoriented and anxious today because they are in the throes of a metapolitical maelstrom of collective reflection, which is being churned up intentionally by players on all sides due to a bipartisan consensus that “politics” as usual is broken.
Cryptocurrencies are comparable in their attempts to change the basic metapolitical assumptions about money, after first taking as a given that the current financial system and political economy are essentially broken. According to very long-standing metapolitical narratives, money requires a sovereign government and a mint; for centuries minting money was one of the first ways a new sovereign displayed and consolidated power. You need the US Government to back the US Dollar (and maybe all the gold in Fort Knox). But cryptocurrencies assert the power of the people to create their own money—no need for a government, a central bank, or a mint to make actually physical money. However, the project is not entirely ethereal, as many cryptocurrency pioneers realize what it takes to build and maintain the actual physical broadband and computer network. Changing the fundamental material basis of currency has far-reaching implications. At this point the political consequences of such a profound metapolitical reorientation are just beginning to play out. The point here is not what will happen when future political systems are built around a fundamentally different metapolitics of money. Rather, the point is that cryptocurrencies are not the result of a traditional political operation involving party “politics,” reforms, and policy wonks. Political futures are being shaped today by interventions in metapolitical spaces by metapolitical actors. To the extent that these actors become embroiled in real “politics” they are at risk of having lost the metapolitical edge that provides their advantage.
The “post-truth” journalistic landscape also marks a ratcheting up of everyday citizens into the spaces of metapolitical reflection. For decades in the US there were different TV channels with different news anchors and slightly different stories, but no competing metapolitical narratives (those only existed in “foreign” places). For example, during the American civil rights movement all of the major news outlets (eventually) covered the various stories in terms of the same metapolitical narrative. The racists writing for local papers in the South were overshadowed by the metropolitan broadcasters of CBS and NBC. There were not competing major news outlets with contradictory metapolitical narratives about pivotal historical events. There was neither CNN nor FOX news, nor an endless stream of bloggers, podcasts, and Twitter feeds. A reflective observer today is forced into metapolitical practice by the news media itself, as opposed to how it used to be, when the news media led the viewer into a deeper sense of the importance of “politics.” Viewers who become invested in the importance of “politics” today end up fervently believing that their own preferred news outlets are the one that has the real story while the others offer up only fake news. The disorienting realization that all the news is fake forces us into metapolitical reflection, often first appearing as despair, irony, and/or cynicism.
Make no mistake: there are better and worse news stories, and the best still offer what could be considered “facts.” The problem is that “facts” are beside the point; their collection and interpretation depend upon metapolitical narratives which makes for “my facts” and “your facts” rather than simply “the facts.” The term “post-truth” is misleading. Competing claims to truth based on different metapolitical narratives should not be confused with the claim that there is no such thing as truth. The idea of your truth vs. my truth will cause us to fight. But if we both think there is really no such thing as truth, what would we be fighting about? The so-called “post-truth era” is better thought of as a “hyper-truth era” or an era in which “truthiness” is seeping into everything. The problem is not that nothing is true, it is that all kinds of new beliefs are being placed in a position where they might be believed to be true. We face not the absence of truth but an excess of it. Everyone has “their truths” and no one appears to be living as if they are without them. Except, that is, for the brave metamodern souls who understand what is being said here: all the news is fake, but that does not mean it is all untrue. We have to sort out the various truths from the staging, set pieces, and lighting effects that constitute the performance of it.
After this realization we begin to seek a metamodern constellational approach to the curation and creation of media metanalyses, such as those offered by Seth Abramson. Somehow we must learn to live inside of this metamodern moment of metapolitical refection, which means admitting that we don’t really know what is going on. We don’t know because nobody does. To be clear on this last point: lots of people (including me) know a great deal about certain aspects of what is going on. What nobody knows is the true meaning of the historical moment; this will be decided by the outcome of the metapolitical practices currently underway, which are seeking to set new terms for defining what it all means. There is no “official” metapolitical narrative any longer, only a bunch of elites vying for hegemony in attempts to create the new one. An admission that one lacks certainty about one’s convictions is a sure sign of a metamodern metapolitical orientation in the making. The next step is to get beyond uncertainty and into collective learning and sense-making, but that is ahead of the story.
There is a certain amount of “insanity” and “injustice” in metapolitical practice by definition. Day-to-day “politics” decides what is reasonable, and thus what constitutes sanity and justice. Metapolitical conversations involve reflecting on the very terms used to consider justice and sanity, and usually seek to create new ones. Ancient cultures would view our notions of human rights as a kind of insane hubris, while we would see their “politics” as dangerously metaphysical and inegalitarian. Incongruent metapolitical narratives often involve profoundly different metaphysical frameworks and related value systems, as I will discuss in future posts. Therefore, when someone makes important metapolitical statements they are often unwelcome to the point of appearing dangerous or insane. Metapolitical practices implicate what you are not permitted to talk about in polite political discourse, but which nevertheless constitutes that discourse. This is why Trump was seen as being authentic and sincere when he offered up quasi-conspiracy theories about the Clintons and Obama: he appeared to be calling the whole thing “a rigged scam,” which everyone secretly knows to be true, but no one is permitted to say. Bernie Sanders did the same thing in a more reasonable way and then became almost as bad as Trump in the minds of many Democrats who simply wanted to embrace “politics” as usual. Metapolitics is the realm of critiques that pull the carpet out from under accepted realities. This is why metapolitics is also found in the realm of “politically incorrect” science and theory, where our assumptions about human nature and the universe are being put into question so profoundly that the metapolitical implications can barely be spoken.
Instead of getting into “political” debates, the metamodern move is to engage in metapolitical reflections about the nature of the realm we call “politics.” This involves rescuing human rights and other sacred cows still grazing in the now desolate wasteland of modern “politics” by leading them into richer and more diverse metamodern pastures. The metamodern approach begins in the realms of the metapolitical and only later comes back to consider the next best steps to take in terms of “politics.” In the blog posts to come I address three of the areas where metapolitical reflection is required during our historical moment:
1): the metapolitics of planetary-scale computation and measurement;
2): the metapolitics of existential risk;
3): the metapolitics of human nature.
1): Humanity has been slowly building a planetary-scale measurement meta-structure for thousands of years. Generations living today will likely witness a 1.0 version of this perennial ambition as part of the newly emergent (and largely accidental) planetary computational stack (Bratton, 2015). The first manifestations of planetary-scale computation have resulted in measurement systems that are encircling the Earth in unprecedented matrices of abstract representation. Much of what is measured remains what has always been measured, including materials, commodities, and their price. But the Internet of Things is also becoming an internet of people, who are being turned into things after being objectified through measurement. The measurement of psychological traits (including beliefs and values) has emerged as a powerful vector in the proliferation of sensors, assessments, and behavior tracking backends. I propose a framework for a metapolitics of planetary measurement, which is based on my previous work building an integral metatheory of measurement (Stein, 2015). Examples from efforts underway in the so-called Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) serve as signals of a hyper-measured future in which no person, thing, or movement escapes measurement. I argue that the implied idealized state of totalized planetary measurement (i.e., of an omniscient measurement meta-structure through which the entire Earth is “seen and tagged”) is both absurd logically and undesirable on ethical grounds. I then propose specific metapolitical parameters that could help to ensure humane futures for planetary measurement meta-structures.
2): The essential causes of existential risk have been identified as deep structural properties of our contemporary civilization. Day-to-day “politics” is self-terminating by design (Schmachtenberger, 2018). Threats to the survival of the species as a whole and the biosphere itself are metapolitical by their very nature, as they threaten to disrupt the basic assumptions of modern “politics.” History is about to deepen as catastrophic and existential risks of planetary scale will provoke unprecedented widespread questioning of a metapolitical nature. We will see strong arguments in favor “getting over human rights,” because what rights can individuals really claim during climatic cataclysms in which choices will need to be made that amount to planetary-scale trolley problems? We will also see “political” arguments for suicide, slavery, and genocide issue from the mouths of leaders in the first world. And we will see profound acts of self-sacrifice and compassion, going viral in a metamodern planetary public sphere racked by tragedy. Metapolitical practice in this domain involves getting out in front of the cultural and political crises that seem to be simply waiting to happen (they are actually already happening in slow motion). Groups need to begin foundational metapolitical theorizing now about key scenarios involving a range of risks. This work needs to be made public as part of fostering a metapolitical consilience between key geopolitical actors. Getting beyond today’s “politics” requires creating a new and unprecedented form of planetary metapolitics from which can emerge the innumerable local innovations that must somehow be woven together into the fabric of an anti-fragile civilization.
3): As already mentioned above, specific sciences are continually breaking down the underpinnings of our most basic intuitions about humans and the universe. Modern humans have ended up dissecting themselves to death. Once psychologists put the human soul on the examining table it was only a matter of time until humanity itself was disenchanted entirely, and along with it, humanism, democracy, and other modern “political” staples. Evolution as understood by neo-Darwinians contradicts the idea of human rights point blank, as social Darwinists have been arguing since the Origin of Species was published—hence the current “political science,” which would justify human rights in terms of game-theoretical calculations. While there are evolutionary arguments about group selection that appear to support the idea of protecting certain individual rights, these arguments mostly fail. But they are beside the point anyway. In a universe that is supposedly totally meaningless matter in motion with no natural moral law or God, what are we really doing when we speak of protecting our humanity, or of “crimes against humanity?” (We are lying, Carl Schmitt would say). But even trying to reconcile Darwinism with human rights is beside the point if all human action and awareness is reducible to causal mechanisms in the nervous system. The problem of free will has also been put on the examining table thanks to recent advances in neuroscience and genetics. The point is not that some scientists will convincingly solve the problem of free will with an fMRI scanner (they won’t). The point is that some scientists will convincingly claim to have done so and this claim will reverberate throughout the lifeworld, setting off a cacophony of metapolitical reflections. At this point modernity has come so far that the “human” itself is a problematic category; modern science is displacing the abstract self-interested individual currently at the center of our modern “politics.” I propose metapolitical practices based on an explicit “return” to metaphysics in search of new frameworks for understanding humanity and the universe (Stein & Gafni, 2015; 2017).
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Badiou, A. (2006). Metapolitics. New York: Verso.
Bratton, B. H. (2015). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hall, J. (2018, September 1). “Making Sense of QAnon.” Medium.com. [link]
Schmachtenberger, D. (2018, June 16). “Solving the Generator Functions of Existential Risk.” Civilizationemergeing.com. [link]
Stein, Z. (2015). “Desperate Measures: Global Crises of Measurement and Their Meta-Theoretical Solutions.” Paper prepared for the 4th Biannual Integral Theory Conference. Sonoma, CA. [link]
Stein, Z. (2018, August). “Love in a Time Between Worlds: On the Metamodern ‘Return’ to a Metaphysics of Eros.” Integral Review, 14(1). [link]
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