The title of this interview piece comes from Ronan Harrington’s twitter profile, a delightful typo that he decided to keep, and it is quite telling about the kind of person he is, someone who makes the best of a situation, who sees vulnerability as strength or the right in a wrong, and is hellbent on integrating complex, often seemingly opposed schools of thought, all the while being funny and fabulous.
Ronan founded Alter Ego a couple of years ago, a network of exceptionally fascinating individuals, most working on the intersection between new politics, spirituality, psychological development and cultural poetics. To date, two Alter Ego-curated gatherings have been held in the autumnal English countryside, a hybrid between, a political hackathon, summer camp, an arts festival and an academic conference.
Moreover, much of Alter Ego’s brainpower is fed by Metamoderna a philosophical Scandi thinktank that has crystallized much of its thought into one badass book, ‘The Listening Society’ that ‘attempts to revitalize the noble premise of politics — the representation of (all) people — by calling us up to a higher humanistic and philosophical plateau’. Ronan and I caught up in some southern English pastoral locale, where he’s known to wander and what follows is the harvest.
“Come for the hair, stay for the ideas.”
When I first met Ronan, I told him as a branding consultant, that I’d strongly encourage him to use a personal slogan along the lines of “come for the hair, stay for the ideas”.
Ivan: So what is this metamodernism I keep hearing about?
Ronan: Metamodernism is a new political ideology that is emerging, that looks at society and politics from a developmental lens. What I mean by that, is that it understands that the main reason that we’re not making progress is that we’re not looking at psychological growth of people and that is the key for societies to develop, as well as the key to overcoming polarization, in other words, transcending the tribal dynamic.
So metamodernism is a kind of phase of both psychological and cultural development and it is seen as this kind of step beyond modernism and postmodernism, which on some fundamental level are failing to bring us progress at the moment.
Embodying togetherness at the Alter Ego Gathering in September 2017.
Ivan: When you say we’re failing to progress, what does that mean by whose definition?
Ronan: Let’s take progress by the current conception of societies’ material development, so what do we have in most developed countries? There’s a welfare state, there’s a consumer economy and material prosperity. Is this the basis of a good society? Well, in terms of societal cohesion, because of the inequality it is generating (or failing to resolve) it's failing. On a basic translation of material prosperity into wellbeing, it is again failing because of the alienation and mental health condition created, and a runaway climate disaster scenario is also being brewed by this materially prosperous society. That vision of progress that was present for most of the century is failing and we need a new vision of progress, one that prioritizes psychological wellbeing and actually and truly makes people happy while also giving us more responsibility with what’s happening in the world.
Ivan: How is metamodernism different to modernism and postmodernism?
Ronan: Modernism is this vision of material progress and postmodernism is seen as the critique of that, saying that this vision of progress completely disenfranchised marginalised groups, and actually the society of today runs in the interest of the most powerful, and postmodernism is a critique of that power, so you see it in race movements, in feminism, in most activism and while it’s really helpful to illuminate those power struggles, it also has lots of tensions within it. It is alienating large segments of the population, thus one of the drivers of Trump and Brexit is this backlash, obviously there are economic drivers that people feel alienated because of globalisation, they feel they lost control. There is a sense that there is economic stagnation but there is also that feeling of alienation, from the group of progressive activists who are advocating where society should go.
Metamodernism comes along and says that it’s right, post-modernism says it’s right, progressive activists think they are right, metamodernism sees that both different political views are a reflection of their stage of psychological development and the stage of cultural development that they are at, and rather than shaming them and saying they are wrong or racist, which is hugely alienating and polarising, you should understand that this perspective is valid for that point of development, working towards a politics that is more emotionally intelligent and can really work on integrating and healing between the rift of different societal clusters whilst still having some vision of progress, whilst still addressing inequality, whilst still getting some kind of consensus on how to respond to climate change from the developmental perspective, whist looking at where the next wave of progress can be made in the psychological domain, whilst in the spiritual domain creating the conditions for really healthy flourishing, usually that correlates with people who are happier, have a greater sense of compassion and solidarity for people, so it’s almost the glue that can hold societies together in the 21st century. (Ivan: I had to go get Ronan an oxygen mask after he finished that sentence).
Ivan: Alright, so how do you make a racist, not racist? Can metamodernism help?
Ronan: How do make a racist not racist? Well, first of all it’s understanding that being racist that there are cultural and economic conditions that lead some people to be more racist than others, and there are those who are less likely to be racist. Rather than labeling them, you are racist, it’s about acknowledging that the context that you are in leads to a high likelihood of racism.
So if you live in areas of huge areas economic deprivation and poorly managed immigration it is more likely that you will find racist people there, so first of all it’s understanding the systemic and structural underpinnings of racism as a phenomena and then it’s about creating a space for people to be seen and heard.
Underneath the racism is a set of emotional needs, a need for belonging, a feeling of lost control, a feeling of disorientation - create a space for people to feel seen and heard and what you find is that in those democratic spaces people become less racist and really become empowered with more agency. The thing that you shouldn’t do is label them as racist and ignorant, which has been the kind of implicit and tacit approach of much of the progressive activist movement -which has categorically failed.
"The thing that you shouldn’t do is label them as racist and ignorant, which has been the kind of implicit and tacit approach of much of the progressive activist movement -which has categorically failed."
Ivan: And who is going to create these spaces for them to be heard and empowered?
Ronan: I mean ideally, I think they probably come from forward-thinking city states and municipalities, where you have pioneering mayors or pioneering political movements who realise of some level this adversarial political debate between parties fuels that binary, right versus wrong dynamic, and actually more of an emphasis on participatory spaces that aren’t just about figuring out how do we run this city or how to do we govern society, but actually how do we renew a sense of us, and actually how do we conduct a kind of deeper restorative work or healing; and so it’s about democratic conversations and actually having a component of personal and cultural renewal and I would say that it’s unlikely that municipalities are doing that until people are pioneering that in the city, so I think this is kind of an era of modeling this connection between personal, cultural and political renewal of new democratic spaces. (Ivan: I turn the air valve quickly clockwise to release more oxygen).
Ivan: I might be wrong here, but I’m seeing that political participation is not at its highest worldwide and people are not very politically engaged, they seem to be more politically disillusioned than ever, and on top of that, the areas that need the most work are the ones that are economically deprived, meaning that people have all these additional burdens and structural obstacles within their lives and so putting additional demands on them via participatory system, isn’t that just going to fail as well?
Ronan: I mean that’s a really valid criticism that there are fundamental blocks in terms of people’s time and energy and processes at the same time it’s maybe not giving them an additional burden or quest to now to take part in this quite annoying democratic process but rather why don’t you come together in a community conversation for example the German music producer Seed ran a national campaign where they brought together people of opposing views to have a discussion about the wave of immigration that Angela Merkel facilitated and the million refugees and migrants and actually the key to that was bringing in two people that were notable in these communities that held opposing views but were open minded and they became almost an attractor to the conversation that didn’t feel burdensome but almost gave a sense of belonging and empathic relatedness and actually if you look at this underlying driver and need for a greater sense of connection and actual political conversation rather than being seen as alienating to facilitate that.
Ivan: Alright, so metamodernism, how do we get it into every home?
Ronan: I think probably the way metamodernism won’t appear in any home, is the academic route, in the same way no one has a fucking clue what postmodernism is, but rather it’s the impulse that lies behind metamodernism that will start appearing in every aspect of life.
A core concept of metamodernism is the idea of emphasizing our emotional needs in terms of the mainstreaming of mindfulness, in terms of a greater emphasis on vulnerability so that this isn’t just a political philosophy, it’s kind of a way of being. What we are seeing slowly emerging in society is that there is a greater recognition of what’s going on inside of us and what is the thing behind the thing that emerges in our own personal lives as we struggle to cope with anxiety and daily digital overloads.
What occurs in our families that are stuck in these dysfunctional dynamics occurs at the community level as well as in our institutions, and this is something that’s occurring naturally and all that metamodernism is, is a label and a narrative that helps us make sense of it, but it’s a particularly helpful one because it has people understand that the kind of work that needs doing is a kind of deeper personal transformation isn’t just some new age psych show but actually the key to progress in society.
Ivan: Ok, so what about all the populist movements that are being built around rage and aggression and violence, such as the alt righters, they are labeling ‘the left’ as snowflakes and as being publicly vulnerable, how will metamodernism integrate that side? Vulnerability in public space is still perceived as a sign of weakness and is used to undermine women in politics, does she have the emotional capacity to lead a country or does the cut-throat entrepreneur have the pertinent skill set? So in terms of what people prioritising and valuing how does metamodernism reconcile that?
Ronan: I think that you’re right that the kind of vulnerability that is currently being expressed is probably deeply off putting particularly to many young men that quite enthralled by the alt right movement and actually if you look deeper into this phenomenon actually what they are looking for is a strong assertive male father figure in its most dysfunctional form. It’s the ‘strong man’ of Erdogan in Turkey or Trump in the U.S. and maybe in a more nuanced and sophisticated form it’s Jordan Peterson and actually what’s being called for is the presence of the strong masculine and modeling of what that looks like in a progressive sense especially with Jordan Peterson what a strong conservative masculine father looks like that is assertive but ultimately telling you that you don’t have to worry about power and privilege or any kind of sense of inequality (in a cultural sense) and you just have to tidy your room and take care of yourself.
Actually what we need are really strong male leadership figures that are brining a progressive vision but also modeling what it means to be a man and I think that that can deeply speak to people’s emotions, people who are enthralled by these political movements.
In some circles there is a push for an over-feminisation of progressive counter culture and this is deeply important because of the lack of these qualities historically but what we need to see even more of now is a balance and an integration of the best of femininity and the best of masculinity in our progressive political leaders.
Ivan: So you say there aren’t any examples that we can rally behind yet, in which we can see the best of the masculine and the best of the feminine, progressive?
Ronan: Not really, I mean you get glimpses of it, for example Russell Brand is a really amazing example of a masculine energy that is modeling vulnerability being really painfully honest about his addictions, for instance to pornography, which is hugely liberating and even inspiring for men but I think we have yet to find a more grassroots masculine presence emerging from the communities that are least represented and that’s partly because of a disconnection that exists between the progressive activist spaces and working class communities, so I haven’t seen any, maybe you have?
Ivan: Nobody truly emblematic comes to mind. I have seen a lot of gems but I know no male grassroots activist that truly offers a model for feminised, neomasculinity and has galvanized a radical political movement.
Ronan: This is a huge problem. Without these role models or someone to emulate, that would hopefully lead to a new breed of politician, as well as what it means to be a politician, we’ll be left with a big gaping hole in leadership.
Ivan: What about going back to what seems to me a fundamental problem, economic inequality, which is leading to increasing societal fragmentation and all the figures about the widening gap between the 1% and 99%, these figures are already becoming household buzzwords. What is the solution to the rift between the privileged few and those struggling in an incredibly overworked overstressed competitive market based economy, where people lack time and space for all that stuff that you’re talking about; emotional expression and the ability to pursue wellbeing aspects of life, what’s the solution there in terms of politics? What is the politics that would advocate for a restructuring of that?
Ronan: Okay well, one way to think about it is individualist narratives versus the communal, collective narratives. So I would say there is definitely a populist story to be told, about forgetting this division between men and women and the difference between races, it’s an important conversation yes, but actually the major issue at stake is all of us and the relative economic and political power we have, counterbalancing to the people who truly hold that power. And I think there is a lot of work to be done here, just on a purely movement organising basis, focusing on that populist story of vast financial power of corporate elite and really dismantling that, and the mass political movement that is required to do that; and you’ve been seeing elements of that with the momentum of Jeremy Corbyn. Despite his flaws, we see at least a political attempt to reassert the traditional working class analysis, in a refreshed leftist perspective on politics.
Yes, living under massive inequality where everyone is busy and stressed out and it’s difficult to see how a real solution, but the accelerationist argument may hold validity, we are seeing symptoms of system failure and that will probably require some kind of major crisis for a large-scale awakening to happen and there are also historical processes where movement formation and a new kind of economy will free people in a different way. So there is a degree of agency to which we can actually change things but there is also a degree of historical processes that are game changers, usually the best way to address inequality and really level the plane is war, that’s kind of the classical historical process by which an attempt at equality happens but we have to work with both strategic political movements and focus on the central problem, isn’t about what men have more political power, yes that’s important but also in a broader sense that there is a massive disparity of power between the elites and everyone else and working with this kind of wider future, to get the society we want and give people more space and time for themselves.
Ivan: So does metamodernism offer any kind of compass, direction in terms of going beyond left and right? What kind of politics is metamodern politics?
Ronan: Metamodernism is essentially advocating post-tribal politics. It's an understanding that we have a huge attachment to binary, left and right wing politics and we need to examine their underlying values more closely. That holds the key to grasping the complexity of society and recognising there is a way of building bridges and actually building some kind of deliberate collaborative politics and even recognising that at the same time power structures need to be challenged so I would say that there are indications of how we can overcome polarisation and escape the fact that there has to be a challenge to the power that some people hold and therein lies the paradox.
To this end, Ronan founded Alter Ego and is working, oftentimes with unlikely allies who don’t often rub shoulders, to prototype these new, deliberate collaborative politics, through deep discussion and rebelling against ego-driven decision-making.
Check out the latest vid from the Alter Ego network unpacking some of these ideas here.
Adventures in Activism
A defiant column letting you in on who the coolest cats of today's rebel alliance are, why grassroots movements matter more than ever, and what radical systemic re-envisioning is being done by badass activists around the world. Discover more stories here.
Ivan March is an activist, storyteller, alternative events designer and Sci-Fi nerd. He is the Communications Director at the grassroots-movement-supporting Guerrilla Foundation, Campaigns Coordinator for the Psychedelic Society & European Steering Committee Member of the EDGE Funders Alliance.