Theorising systemic life affirmation (for a Millennial Generation)
Spring Break, a season of freedom can paradoxically also be one of focus, introspection, and reimagining. This is a treatise on the untapped, near boundless potential of human cognition; with specific reference to addressing social systems spinning out of balance. It aims to analyse our current ways of doing, collectively expressing, and individually thinking. By identifying systemic oversights we may recalibrate our doing, expressing, and thinking through consensual processes and optimising institutions. This essay is the first step in a journey, a collective conversation, to fill in the contours of our potential with the detail and energy required to unleash it. It calls for philosophising with hammers, but chiselling with them precisely, subtly, and organically; with the clinical precision of a well-applied science, and an artistic appreciation that such tools are in the service of human living, not just survival. This simply cannot be for their own sake, with the stakes so high.
To avoid implosion, we must better understand ourselves, our systems, their histories, and how they must change — in ways that do not tax cognitive, cultural, and material capacities unreasonably, so as to be actionable. It is only with precision and simplification (not necessarily delivered here, as this is a broad picture) that we can eventually make such existential knowledge succeed. The idealism to unleash our better angels is essential, but it must meet serious realism in confronting our collective demons. This is with particular reference to the Millennial Generation, as a call to incisive and strategic, restrained and emboldened action. Failure to presciently act invites atavistic disaster. Success depends on facing complexity with confidence, in style and substance.
We face, Janus-like, a Dusk of disaster, but also a Dawn of deliverance from it. This essay is structured around these two paradigmatic destinies. The dynamic tension between such outcomes helps us to better reconcile reality to our ideals; innovative solutions are already taking shape that promise success, requiring us only to grasp them with vigour and reason. This essay unfolds in 5 sections, progressively running through material, cultural, and psychological dimensions. These are ordered in a loop, running down them first as problematic trends, and back up again to note how they might be made into powerful social solutions:
First, the wicked socio-economic problems are outlined, in material form. This provides context to the suboptimal political systems that both emerge from them, and sustain them (co-constituting each other).
Second, those suboptimal political conventions are unpacked. The combinations of ideas and emotions, as they fall in a cultural schema that characterises the West, contextualising our responses to the material monsters. They enable or constrain both imagination and erudite planning for alternatives to our encroaching decline.
Third, these suboptimal cultural and political responses are located in our psyches. Taking them as cognitive scripts and schema, their emergence from biases leads to motivated reasoning at systemic levels. This arises as much in individual reasoning as in society, culture, and politics. Our implicit predispositions to instrumental, not epistemic rationality mean biases and emotions often exert imperceptible (hidden in our subconscious) and destructive (harmful to ourselves and others) influences. These are our demons.
Fourth, these emotions and cognitive shortcuts are inverted into solutions. By systematically explicating them, liberating ourselves from those that lead to irrational fear (paranoia), needless social strife (unnecessary aggression), and inattentiveness to danger (ignorance) we can retain those that make life worth living. These healthy emotions, and cognitive heuristics that remain will be shortcuts that are self-empowering, ethically conducive, and enjoyable. It is thus we can start to transform fearful Dusk into hopeful Dawn.
Fifth, steps are taken toward an integrative philosophy that coheres these insights. It is necessarily devised for (and by) a Millennial Generation, but it does not exclude any age from its essential work; it repudiates coercion and dogma, instead stimulating dutiful dissidence to create, rather than simply discredit collective values. It starts with perspectival meta-epistemics, and pragmatically attempts a synthesis of the psychological philosophy of the individual (from a phenomenological angle, particularly Nietzschean) with analytical theorising of the collective (in the Rawlsian, liberal egalitarian tradition, but also drawing on Habermasian deliberative democracy), the result being a systemic meta-political philosophy. Thus Dionysian and Apollonian modes of reasoning are cohered in Odyssean form: a meta-framework of pragmatic political and epistemic theories that creates, as well as delineates, in pursuit of a collective modus vivendi.
Sixth, speculative institutional reforms are outlined, to instantiate these principles. These are derived from psychological ‘facts’, and work through cultural schema. Consistent with the evidence we have, these pursue ideally-optimised decision-making — personal and political — to better material conditions and organically enable resonant cultural practices. Approached pragmatically, in pursuit of consensus and feasibility, these are actionable but audacious in their speculation.
To conclude, this treatise declares Spring Break a Millennial Season of Life Affirmation.
The External Evidence of Existential Crisis
What are we facing? How have we arrived at this Dusk, a sunset on human activity before it has barely begun? How have things gotten to the stage where young people are in more debt, less work, and greater depression than ever before? Productivity and living standard increases are fitful; we have maxed out individual and collective credit, with the spending threatening to drown us (both figuratively and literally) in unfulfilling excesses and resultant environmental and social spillover.
We begin from a generally-Western, but focally-British perspective, the United Kingdom being where I am writing from. Nonetheless, discussion encompasses greater breadth and depth than this. It is of global relevance, reaching psychological foundations of universal importance. Clean separation of material problems from their ideological and psychological substrates is difficult, but in pursuit of clarity this treatise is structured so. Nevertheless, we must always remember that material reality is shaped by us. As the most intelligent and cooperative species on the planet, we have no competition to our goals besides ourselves, and no grounds to deny this fact. Since we have already made land from sea, and drained the seas from land, such ill-gotten modesty would be illusory.
Below, collective risks in current trends are prioritised, identifying creeping political reaction, widening inequality, and climactic environmental tipping points. Respectively, these presage corrosive stagnation, dangerous social division, and catastrophic changes in sea levels, aridity, food supply, and refugee flows.
All are on the horizon. All are in many ways connected, making them wicked problems — trying to fix one separately only worsens another. In the second half, this essay also aims to calibrate our rewards better, so that curtailing these risks becomes more enriching — to our minds, cultures, and material outcomes. In so doing, we stand a chance of having some fun fixing them, therefore increasing the viability of objectives by making them more attractive to all. Unaddressed, these threaten a perfect storm, corrosive to collective trust, self-confidence, and economic activity. Such a storm will delimit hopes and dreams radically. It is a unique set of problems for a uniquely connected world, one that is more vulnerable than ever — proportionate to our growing power without equally growing purpose. Yet through this same interconnectedness, we have the chance to organise like never before to avoid disaster.
The article below elaborates on the catastrophic social risks we face, which remain glaringly absent from general discourse.
How Western Civilisation Could Collapse
WHAT IS POLITICALLY WRONG?
Can you hear the dissonance on the airwaves, see it in the comment sections? Even accepting the self-selection of the enraged to publicise their objections, the clashing and apparently incommensurable viewpoints project underlying tensions and concerns. Many have origin in material trends. This even diehard positivists cannot deny, either as actual or developing structural stressors. And if even one or two run their course along current trajectories, we will face changes so severe that only brilliant and swift innovation will stop them from undoing us. Taken together, these form a perfect storm, whipped up by all of our collective butterfly wings flapping in increasing discord. They emerge from a failure to address wider and deeper connections between them.
Automation, an ageing population, social division and ecological precariousness are the ‘four horsemen’ of potential ruin. Automation excepted, each have precedents for their potential damage: civilisations simply cannot easily sustain themselves if there is less production than needed for living standards to persist; social stasis and civil war are manifestations of communities’ previously-subaltern rifts; climate disasters render any society unviable (as the implosions of Easter Island or the Mayans signal). Automation provides a potential solution to disequilibrium and dislocation, but it cannot be uncritically treated as panacea. Control of who automates what, the information used, energy usage and moveover the ethical implications are complex variables that we can only speculate on at this time. There is as much potential to hoard and command automated abundance, as there is to diffuse and agglomerate a newer, wider justice (Peter Frase’s Four Futures is highly insightful on these concerns). What we can be certain of is our material conditions are changing radically, and either we redirect these changes, or we adapt with them. Impasse and stasis will disaffirm and defeat life in the face of these four horsemen. The outcomes of such trends will either be dark, ushering in a fearful night, or bright, opening a radical new day. Dependent on what we value, how we decide on these values, and how we communicate them to each other, we will face either Day Break or Night Fall.
WHAT IS MATERIALLY WRONG?
The Four Horsemen of Disequilibrium — the Material Monsters:
Or ‘How We Stopped Worrying And Built for Self-Destruction’
Firstly, we are careering toward an ageing demographic pyramid in the West (presaged in Japan) that will have to be supported with immense investment: financially, socially, (emotionally and otherwise) and with infrastructure. This demographic implosion occurs just as these same generations have (on average, not absolutely of course) voted away the supporting social structures needed to pursue as good a life as they did. With a proliferating older population, the risk of ossified viewpoints (born from the natural experience of affirming and reaffirming your beliefs over a lifespan — something this Millennial Generation must strain not to repeat for itself) combined with a particular proclivity to voting, means they have remained strategically secured from many of the buffeting winds of change (with the British ‘triple lock’ on pensions, for example). Meanwhile, similar protections have been eradicated for the rest of society through austerity and welfare reforms. It is no wonder, then, that age has just overtaken class in Britain as definitive for voting behaviour. It will soon place enormous strain on public services and economic vitality.
Secondly, widening inequality has resulted from a cluster of trends under the umbrella of globalisation. Already globalisation redistributes wealth, income, and opportunities around the world; winners — mobile and wealthy enough to profit from laxer borders, regulations, and business practices — freely move capital around to redouble their portfolios. This investment has had mixed impacts, some of it radically improving material conditions in the poorest parts of the world — historically significant and laudable — while other forms expand our environmental negative externalities. In the context of material conditions in the West, it has variously done the same, enabling cheaper food and global commodities, while also hitting some of the most vulnerable in our societies through systemic reallocations of labour toward higher efficiencies abroad. This undercuts notions of communal solidarity, by allowing winners and losers to rise higher or fall deeper respectively. Wide divergences can form in their capabilities to live, and their power to influence the systems that oversee this. This is allowed to happen, as economists repeatedly warn us,even where the most modest of changes could provide investment and support for those whole groups now made structurally irrelevant under globalisation. Their plummeting leads to political behaviour many elite commentators regard as peculiarly — rather than predictably — fatalistic. Anyone promising emotionally resonant, aggressive solutions to systemic impotence has been gaining traction (see, Le Pen, or Trump).
Thirdly, automation threatens to throw AI and robotics sized spanners into this mix, deepening the dislocation of the two monsters above if incorrectly managed. It has potential to make production so efficient that the system could ‘optimise’ the working classes, and even middle classes, out of employment. This is a very suboptimal outcome resulting from supercharged efficiency for a very small section of society; born of a system out of balance, and needlessly so. Automation could widely distribute increasingly unlimited material capacity to alleviate (or even eradicate) the scarcity that drives mutual acrimony. But it could equally fall under the intellectual property of ‘wealth creators’, who could hoard the fruits of a now truly artificial, consciously-engineered scarcity to entrench their political influence and relative status. As outlined below, influence and status are imperceptibly powerful drivers of human motives. There are no guarantees this next generation of billionaires will be any different — yet.
Finally, and worst of all, climate change encroaches. Crossing the tipping point of a 3 ̊C temperature increase is quite possible, if not probable, under current trajectories in fossil fuel use. Despite heartening statistics suggesting the increasing competitiveness of renewables in the energy market, decreases in fossil fuel usage must remain continually high over the next decades to avoid missing Paris Accord targets. The complacency of policymakers, especially in the United States, means that this does not appear likely as things currently stand. Worse still, since action depends on many individual epistemologies aggregated, a very sizeable minority don’t believe it is happening (exacerbated by the Machiavellian use of ‘think tanks’ as fronts for fossil fuel lobbies, spreading doubt in psychologically incisive ways). This crucially obstructs lifesaving change. If a 3 ̊C rise occurs, a runaway effect that leaps to a 7 ̊C rise is very likely, as the result of a vicious cycle of melting Siberian tundra leaking immense quantities of methane (far more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2), triggering more warming, more methane, more ocean acidification and deforestation. This will on all projections prove cataclysmic. Huge areas of the Middle East and Africa would become arid, meaning hundreds of millions would be unable to feed themselves or sustain economies as a result. If Western readers are suitably callous to ignore this arbitrary destruction and injustice, they should consider the ramifications of hundreds of millions of refugees forcing their way into Europe, their cheap food supplies collapsing, and resource war exploding.
WHAT IS CULTURALLY WRONG?
Or ‘How We Stopped Imagining, and Became Hubristic’
Material reality remaining intractable is thus evidence for ‘demons’ that shadow our discourse, disabling dialogue, and instead dragging discussion into acrimonious debates. We encounter debates that lead nowhere, convincing increasingly fewer people, decided bluntly by majoritarian systems that rely on dwindling pluralities. Assumptions that these material problems are too complex to even understand — disregarding human ingenuity, and its ability to reduce reality in modelling to manageable patterns — have led to policymaking that deregulates everything, rather than just those things that constrain human empowerment consistent with its survival. These have powerful impacts on our ability to face reality — a material reality that proves repeatedly uncompromising to doctrine, indifferent to ethical or strategic desires, and grows increasingly complex. And yet it remains approximately comprehensible. All of modern science has demonstrated it as such, and continues to astound in doing so. This is a reality we know increasingly more about, with copious evidence for the potential and actual risks and rewards it contains.
But appreciating such risks and rewards, communicating them and understanding them must be a shared exercise. Hence culture, and our political conventions, are vital.
Or ‘How We Imagined Victory, and Stopped Thinking’
Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis sought a Hegelian conclusion to political philosophy, linked to the supposed uniqueness of American hegemony. This came in the face of the ideological, cognitive, and emotional surrender of the USSR; a Cold War won by cultural osmosis, a victory of paradigms, not tanks. Fukuyama, portraying a total liberal democratic victory, took victory as the dialectical reconciliation of a perennial conflict between freedom and equality; the struggle for material and ontological security in a world of scarce resources. Although a more nuanced work than often portrayed, the End of History as cliché has exemplified Western cultural hubris. Certainly, it has given rigour to wider uncritical assumptions that obscure the world’s dynamic nature. This is a nature that remains threatened by chaos if not intelligently managed. Thus hubris has obscured the vulnerability of all ‘victories’, but a ‘final victory’ most of all. It enables an ahistorical hubris (an inability to reflect on prior hegemonic decline) to emerge from historicist bombast (the idea we are uniquely advanced, and therefore impervious). This led policymakers and voters alike to internalise fatuous assumptions, shaken after superficial ‘limitless’ growth in 2008. This complacency is essential to exorcise, particularly because a Millennial Generation has grown up under it, and will need to pay close attention to its implicit risks if it wants to capitalise on wider opportunities.
Fukuyama himself, in a recent article for the Economist reflected on the hubris of the liberal order (or ‘neoliberalism’, as it is often maligned). He noted that this paradigm, our collective political culture, has pursued micro-efficiencies (savings in welfare, healthcare, etc. through austerity) at the expense of macro-institutions. In doctrinaire pursuit of economic growth (the unparalleled material lifeline of civilisation, without which the Western edifice appears strained and exhausted) they have increasingly allowed the part — efficiency savings — to degrade the whole — society, and vast swathes of individuals who constitute it.
Macro-institutions include intangible but essential trust. Without trust, all our castles in the air threaten to crumble. If you cannot trust your partner, friends, or neighbours, paranoia, aggression, and disdain will set in. These relational failures, multiplied by millions, are the conditions of social collapse. In lesser degrees, they foster stagnation, strife, and stasis. One only needs to look at the struggles of the Middle East to appreciate how social realities can so rapidly become divergent when trust disappears and progressive or efficient administration is replaced by dictatorship (as a function of fearful desire for stability), religious dogma (as a function of fearful desires for absolute truth) and destruction (as a function of these in incommensurable dissonance). The Middle East, with such potential for both material and cultural surplus and beauty, has instead fallen into cycles of strife and stagnation that appear inescapable. But it does not need to be so, and neither for the West. Institutions that do not reward citizens with their trust lose it steadily. Once this reaches critical levels, the stabilisers of civilisation are decisively weakened. At the very least, regimes collapse, with fine margins after to avoid repeating the same mistakes from institutional inertia. At worst, the ability to sustain complex, interconnected, energy-intensive forms of living collapse into more ‘economical’ Dark Ages.
Certainly, winning the trust of the Millennial Generation has not appeared a priority for current governments. Rewarding the trust and toil of the population entails delivering improved material conditions, and psychological security (the former cannot be satisfactorily bought by sacrificing the latter). Culturally, we have only recently taken notice of the psychological insecurities we all live with; with much reason, since mental health problems have proliferated in a Western world whose material conditions are, supposedly paradoxically, unparalleled. But there is no paradox — working hard for its own sake is deeply embedded in the work ethic of the turbocharged capitalism that generates immense surpluses. Yet that does not produce individual satisfaction, something which emerges when one isn’t looking, with their life aligned with deeper principles, desires, and social approval. Instead, elites remain satisfied with the system as is, producing the precursors for potential happiness for many, but incognisant of the fact most people’s work is unsatisfying, increasingly precarious, and more psychologically demanding for these reasons.
Histories of Hatreds Held Back
Or ‘How We Stopped Warring and Learned (Only) to Argue Instead’
Politically, elites underperform partially because they are insulated from information flows (just as the bureaucracies behind the Iron Curtain were likewise too slow and unresponsive to information flows). Instead, the perspectives aggregated to elect elites grow smaller, increasingly only dynamic and attentive across the fault lines of marginal seats. This has deepened and normalised the dissonant clash of perspectives, leaving them unresolved in the West. Repeatedly unresolved clashes occur far more frequently than resonant coherence around productive consensus. Social splintering and suspicion follows, with nothing productive to show for the tension, as demonstrated by the largely unexpected, visceral geopolitical shocks of Brexit and Trump. Whether the outcomes were supported by readers or not, these shocks exposed cultural and procedural failures in politics, ‘mature’ discourse replaced not only by unrestrained debate, but rather a pantomime of mutual acrimony.
The European referendum and American election saw both sides villainising the other, disregarding vast swathes of their citizenry as persona non grata. This pantomime does not lead to similar outcomes, nor the political virtues that multiparty democracy does. It does not allow for our increasingly diverse cultures to find sensible channels into politics. Instead it flattens identities, compresses them into dichotomised camps, which now increasingly polarise. This might be acceptable for many traditionalists, if the inertia resultant didn’t threaten all tradition with the risks of climate change, rampant social distrust (which is worryingly becoming disgust, as Jonathan Haidt notes) and crashing expectations intertwining to create conditions for the destruction of tradition — and failure, on Burke’s terms, of living up to the great bargain we have with our descendants as much as our ancestors.
Winner-takes-all systems are in important ways unreconstructed forms of once proud militia cultures. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution instantiated majoritarian systems, which while self-restrained through convention, spawned cultures of agonistic politics. The American Revolution similarly transposed many features of this bipolar politics into the political culture of today’s superpower, albeit better restrained by a Constitution exceptionally attentive to checking and balancing ‘winners’. But both, whether restrained or unrestrained, suffer from discourses and material conditions that are increasingly divided. People argue different points, speaking from fundamentally different concerns. This is predictable, as they largely lead different lives defined internally and externally by the degree of mental satisfaction and material comfort they command. Conditions, and contexts, are different; the latter more divided than a nation would expect, the former less egalitarian for young people than many would desire (British social mobility hovers around the lowest for the OECD). As will be theorised below, there should be rigorous ways for us to remove ourselves from these narrow perspectives in order to cooperate and compete in the right contexts, rather than constantly undermining each other.
Millennial Dissonance: Conspiracies or Convergences, Cruelty or Catatonia?
Or ‘How Leaders Are More Lost Than Luciferian’
For many, elites appear — again, especially in online comment sections — reptilian, inscrutable, even pure evil. Their marshalling of base instincts, media influence, and social distance appears conspiratorial, cruel or inhumane. However, understanding the human ability to self-portray as justly motivated suggests elites fall (rather than leap) into shared interests, without any central direction, to converge around incompetent and ignorant outcomes. Theirs is a global staleness born from assumptions of superiority and wisdom. Their cruelty is the catatonia of a ‘post-historical’ class. And their judgement in history will no doubt be so dire for their failure to sustain our material conditions, that they almost deserve pity for their bumbling incompetence. They are products of their environment like all of us — while they possess more power, used unreflectively, they still lack as much meaningful, self-reflective agency as many of us do. They go through the motions rather than distancing themselves from ossified perspectives, returning to proper strategic action thereafter. This is an all too human error.
Education and youth enable fleeting periods of flexibility, such that might allow Millennials with due attention to break free from just enough of these uninspected motions and go further beyond. Current conditions remain far from what Millennials might have hoped for, growing up under assumptions of a linear history plateauing. Raised under a prosperous Western hegemony, but maturing only after the Great Recession, we have grown up embedded in a mesh of ideas that while once calm, now seem uncertain. The anxiety that pervades is heightened by these ideas inescapability. Their uncritical defence (in reaction) or unsubtle repudiation (in radical condemnation) in political culture constrain our ability to imagine credible alternatives, asking variously for fear or fantasy to prevail. Alternatives are sorely needed to escape the four material monsters. But to change culture, groups must change minds; everyone must change their own mind about something, whether it be the humanity of their opponents, or the suffering of the dispossessed. It may be for others the way they go about advocating these causes. Or for many others still, about finding the confidence, commitment, or time to bother actively sustaining their societies in the face of such perils. The answer to suboptimal cultural and material conditions, then, must be found in the prism of the mind.
For all this, working within the Western paradigm of liberal democracy constrains and liberates. It constrains our ability to decisively act in ways that the Chinese government need not face. But it also liberates, because it delimits areas of irreducible freedom, and quantities of essential services, that empower us to externally act and internally reflect without fear of expressing these ideas. The Millennial Generation will quite obviously comprise tomorrow’s elite. But our internal struggles of seeing, believing, trusting, and cooperating with others threatens, as it perennially has, wise governance and social virtue. This is vital, because self-correcting these problems in ways consistent with our neighbours’, friends’, and families’ livelihoods requires incredible nuance and focus. Understanding our duty to the societies, traditions, and reforms we need, we must square action with a rejection of coercion, lest we lose the most historically impressive gains we have made with liberal democracy. On this aspect we must be exemplary future citizens.
On other fronts we must be radically assertive. Machiavellian or Nietzschean virtù, not only more ideal civic virtue, is needed to win. Understanding very real differences in social power, we must ensure those with the least ability to self-actualise are given the means to do so. This will require audacity, to ensure the arbitrary circumstances of life need not define anyone. We already have the material, cultural, and cognitive ability to systematically ensure this. Scandinavia approaches a political paradigm that resonates with these imperatives, balancing the objectives of freedom and equality in ways that (again, only every fleetingly and with great struggle) approach Fukuyama’s ambitions more resolutely. Why, as a global generation, limit our answers domestically? The visions of the future we build must be drawn from comparative analysis of the myriad success stories in our world, not the assumption our national histories are vacuum sealed and impenetrably unique.
In sum, this generation must contribute to new cultures, new conventions amongst itself for seeing and speaking to opponents and friends alike. Values will have to be made more explicit; and their pursuit in reality must conclusively draw on available evidence. These approaches are as important as the justice dispensed in criminal courts — where procedure ensures far more effective correspondence with ‘truth’ than the football terrace level of debate Parliament often falls into. This is the brighter vision, which requires us to decide amongst disagreement according to external measures — lest we talk past each other until positive change is foregone. By explicating in ideal terms what people hold valuable — and crucially, by starting with values that can inspire broader consensus — the next generation of politics can be made less acrimonious. This will also take a martial spirit, the virtù, to win in this generation decisively. Time is pressing. Right now such a civilising trajectory appears highly improbable.
Still, it isn’t impossible, and remains essential. It rests on bridging different, but commensurable ways of seeing the world fairly but firmly. A culture of nonjudgmentally communicating, and deciding through fair deliberation (as in common law courts, within a jury) must characterise institutional answers — the strategic aim. This must reduce the temperature of discursive fires, but sustain the light shone from them, to enhance policy outcomes for those in pressing need. That fire must fuel incessant, tireless action at multiple levels and in multiple ways, to tactically create the conditions for this change. Such progress can be under any label, so long as politics converges (as elite interests have but more legitimately and widely) on shared interests and experiences. Denial of our needs will be impossible to sustain, once we remove the fear and recrimination of discussion, and cohere epistemic seriousness with strategic virtù. We must illustrate the evidence that underpins any application of wider principles of justice, as arrived at in open deliberation. But that requires an openness of thought by all parties, in inclusion of composition, and assertion of delivery.
WHAT IS COGNITIVELY WRONG?
The Internal Clues of Existential Stasis
Or ‘How We Evolved to Think for Ends, Missing that Means are Essential’
Our material conditions emerge from our allowing them to persist, and our cultures emerge from interacting. Both evolve without us reflecting on them, and require caution before assuming they can be changed wholesale, without losing the wisdom of our collective knowledge thus far. Our psychologies remain the common denominator of all these crucial balances — causal to reflection, visualisation, and actualisation. They are the individual quanta from which all other processes pass through, are interpreted, and re-emerge. It is here we must direct our greatest efforts to create. We must self-master, if we are to master the concept of restraint in destruction, while balancing it with growth in values, economically, emotionally, socially etc. This balance, far from impossible, requires striking equipoise between our internal states and social resonance, via principled imaginings of a better future. Our rationality and creativity remain constrained, often in the contexts where they are needed most; by biases and emotions, often sparked by the constraining conditioning of social forces.
Social Attractors: Horizontal and Vertical Social Forces
Or ‘How We Evolved Falling in Line, and Following Prestige and Power’
I posit very broadly, in heuristic terms, that prosocial and prestigious biases characterise much of human social cognition. These are theorised (with some evidential parallels in how animal socialisation operates) to have developed under the natural selection pressures of hunter-gathering living on the Savannah. We existed, after all, for hundreds of thousands of years longer than we have most recently had memetic, written culture and thus reproducible forms of learning. Therefore it is reasonable to expect these instinctive biases exert powerful legacies — but it is also the case that once explicated, we can overwrite them just as we have overwritten so many other unreflective acts and beliefs, which we now consider barbaric according to modern standards.
Prosocial biases mean that human reasoning is often constrained by the emotional import, and undercut by the biased shortcuts, of identity and group-belonging. Nationalism, family loyalty, and religious identity can be framed — inadvertently or not — to constrain rational or truth-seeking decision making.
Prestige can similarly be used to elevate (or conversely, its absence to denigrate or deny) arguments, paradigms or systems due to perceived authority, or the promise of advancement beneath it. These find expression in arguments from authority, the fame and focus around celebrities and such, and even in what people signal when dating.
Thus, increasing tensions between the vertical attraction of globalisation for mobile, young, educated Millennials and the horizontal solidarity of hearth and home of nationalism, can be understood by the valence of both paradigms, potentials and personal/communal opportunities inherent. In this supposedly irreconcilable tension, optimality is consistently lost — particularly in majoritarian systems where winners take all, and their alternation leaves both sides progressively unsatisfied with their spoils or humiliation.
Entrenching Errors: Instrumental Reasoning
Almost everyone is liable to doubling down on their beliefs when challenged. While especially common when exposed to horizontal or vertical social attraction, there are many low-level triggers for people’s emotional concerns and dispositions to constrain lucid analysis, and confident living. This stands up against even the ‘facts’, with even those trained to take epistemics seriously (as with academia) being guilty of entrenching their own errors through myopia, narrow-mindedness, or egoistic defences. Hence most theoretical advances, even when empirically backed, come with intense reaction. It is posited below that people often prefer to augment their social ‘power’ (influence, recognition, ability to do) in direct terms rather than enhance it, as Augustus did, by deferring — so as to be enhanced and emboldened by supporters. This may also imply a failure to think systemically, rather than in the more common linear and simplified fashion of direct action.
This is not a cynical image of human cognition, so much as an evolutionary one. There is plentiful evidence for both dominance and prestige behaviours in tribal to post-industrial societies. Dominance coerces as brute force, while prestige attracts through its association with instrumental skills, or intrinsic virtues. Increasing social complexity — civilisation — proliferates modes of prestige over dominance, with our advanced, technologically sharp economies examples of skills-based, often service centred systems. And yet the skills and virtues — the tekne and ethical substance — often correlated with prestige are not always properly transferred into power. Especially not in the agonistic systems aforementioned that can risk prejudicing electoral dominance over the skill of statecraft. These are increasingly leading to plurality over majority, democratic diktat over deliberation. Fitting perhaps that our minds often prefer to win, rather than win with real purpose.
Thus we are suited for, generation on generation, fighting over ideas rather than properly inspecting their worth. We are predisposed to err in our education and erudition if we have our in-group/out-group biases triggered or our advancement relative to others put at risk. Much of suboptimal political discourse, especially lately in the Anglosphere, has operationalised these biases. Leaders leverage divisions to create outrage, which then becomes a winning mobiliser for elections. ‘Your jobs are at risk’ threatens your prestigious promotion through life; ‘your country is being infiltrated’ targets out-groups as causal to this, sparking defence of your horizontal community. The recipe is familiar, noxious, and distortionary. It is the dark looking glass that blinkers us, blind to more empowering and efficient avenues. We are corralled into zero-sum games, while positive-sum potentialities are veiled.
If we are to attack our systemic problems, and even notice the oversights that enable them, we must engage our biases. We must grapple with them, and our lines of sight, to see more fully.
INVERSION: EMBRACING APORIA
CHARACTERISING AND RECONCILING DIAMETRIC WORLDVIEWS
Most critiques along cultural/political divisions fall into binary opposition. Our human proclivity to think in these terms is responsible for the halo and horns effects; our brains seem primed to attribute the very worst characteristics to those we are set against for long enough, or with enough emotional import. Yet most of living occurs between extremes. Opponents can hardly be truly said to be evil. Often, in combination with the complexity of the ‘real’ picture, this bipolarity makes debate appear totally irreconcilable, essentially contested, and dogmatic. This does not need to be an inescapable cycle. If you weren’t intrinsically born with arguments, then you picked them up from somewhere; they can be dropped for better reasons than they were picked up for. Inversion of assumptions is an essential exercise. We must embrace the paradoxical nature of conflicting viewpoints, searching in their apparent inconsistency for pragmatic and novel ways to break impasse, to unleash potential rather than constrain it. We must begin this process psychologically, and pursue it systematically into cultural and paradigmatic ways of seeing the world.
Both sharp logic and enveloping, metaphoric imagery must be rotated so that they are mutually enriching in their asymmetries, not symmetrically competing for adoption as the one ‘true’ reasoning. To characterise this, Nietzsche’s famous distinction from The Birth of Tragedy (originally drawn from Schiller) between Dionysian (artistic, chaotic, unreduced, tragically rich perception) and Apollonian (logical, ordered, reduced, scientifically sparse judgement) reasoning is a key heuristic. In broad terms, these ‘ways of seeing’ characterise much of the tension between hard science and humanities, moreover in almost all discourses and decision making. Psychometrically, learned and perhaps innate predispositions to both, in varying degree, can be empirically identified in distributions across the population.
These distributions show we have our work cut out for us, as cognitive diversity is a blessing waiting to be recognised as such. In the meantime, it is a curse without proper perspectival epistemology to situate the multiplicity coherently, constructively. We must find ingenious ways of bridging what at first glance appear irreconcilable fire and ice. Pivotally these modes are neither incommensurable, nor necessarily opposed. To combine both may provide the richest asymmetric synthesis of all. That said, it will take some audacity to steal Dionysian fire and filter the Apollonian cold light of day for our purposes. In raiding and combining both, we approach an Odyssean synthesis. This will require cutting both down to size, so they can be recombined into a greater whole.
How divergent epistemologies splintered the Odyssean intellect
Or ‘How We Stopped Escaping and Thinking, and Did One or the Other’
Cutting down paradigms is returning the favour — acolytes of either Apollonian or Dionysian tendencies have disregarded, sometimes systematically, each other. This myopia has splintered our ability to transcend our filters. (These types are treated as ideal-types rather than empirical poles; we all exhibit tendencies of both, but teasing out their tension ni this way illuminates their often self-defeating rivalry).
The crux of our material problems, cultural tensions, and their wickedness, emerges from this social dissonance reaching problematic levels. If we could all agree on basic standards of deliberation, to ensure dissension and privacy were protected, consistency between individual basic rights and the social whole could be built. We would then be approaching a far more inclusive, incisive, and effective political and cultural milieu. Instead we loop, stuck in the same unproductive, often anxious or angry methods of debate. This abundance of heat with little light results from our different ways of seeing the world clashing, primarily leaving tests of intellectual or physical strength — not truthfulness — to decide. This may sound banal, but with aforementioned understanding of cognition-affect (thinking-emotion) we can identify many implicit biases and emotional commitments as causal to societal failures. While we can never escape these demons, and some we might want to retain, they nonetheless stop us from taking simple steps to avoid our material reality spinning out of control. Nonetheless they can be overcome. With burgeoning understanding, we can immunise ourselves against bad reasoning, manipulation, and fear. As we previously immunised ourselves from physical predation (with weaponry and fire), tyranny (with constitutions and democracy), and starvation or disease (with market economies, welfare systems, and healthcare provision), we can cognitively do so too.
The West remains predominant in administering such social self-immunisations, yet it risks losing the ability to do so. If it fails to address the epistemic diversity and cultural plurality it now contains, it will fall into stasis. Impasse leads to stagnation, if not fitful and sometimes chaotic efforts by the powerless to overthrow the entire edifice. This is the very same stasis Thucydides identified Athens falling into, despite its intellectual, artistic, and military power. Even now our assemblies of citizens remain (often hair) triggers away from becoming mobs; insufficient leaders either callously exploit such triggers, or fail to recognise how to transcend and address them. This has us fighting amongst ourselves, at almost all levels of society, but particularly at that of the ‘masses’. Rather than blaming each other as individuals for the complex ramifications of systems, we should be fighting against our emotional prejudices, biased assumptions, and aggressions unleashed by the frustration we all face. Instead, even at the levels of self-reflective academe, the need for dialogue and strategy is neglected. The recognition of pragmatic need to establish good ideas for social integration, political action and ethical development are undermined by tribalism.
Below two camps are sketched, partial caricatures of disciplinary tribes, which illustrate our wider failures of communication, and meta-epistemology. These broadly correspond to the Apollonian and Dionysian. Their respective denials of each other have wasted much scholarly time, ink, and ultimately understanding. The failure to understand this, and to relatively cohere both paradigms because we are wedded to absolute visions, is a bias in itself. Overly rational Apollonians may deny themselves the very bedrock of experience, the emotional undercurrents themselves. And for their particular, objective methodology, they risk denying subjectivity any epistemic import. Most of all, their analytical rigour risks compressing complexity. Let’s call the family of this desiccated behaviour biases of reductionism. Conversely, an over-confidence in the emotional nature of our perspectives, that is, a glorification of the ineffability of human experience, is similarly a bias that damages communication between disciplines and individual perspectives, as well as coherent internal reasoning. It is self-defeating, and risks being outflnaked by those who reduce and deduce more sharply; we all suffer as a result. Let’s call this family biases of ineffability. Caught between are the original efforts at lucid exposition and artful confrontation with reality, which build from epistemic seriousness, but spread actionable wisdom with artistic verve.
Epistemic Circularity: How Ineffability Dissolved Analysis
Or ‘How Dionysus Intoxicated Apollo’
There has been a tendency in postmodernism (via less than constructive uses of deconstructionism and poststructuralism) toward ineffability. For many Apollonians, this has transgressed all epistemic seriousness and become unintelligible. This general critique is addressed below, and it has some weight to it. Postmodernism (or poststructuralism) has been much maligned in the Anglosphere. This was understandable, but in both sides dichotomising rather than dialoguing, neither did each other justice. Occasional (but highly illustrative) postmodern repudiations of logic, scientific method, or philosophy in particular forms as ‘Western’ has been one uniquely self-defeating point. Theorists like Foucault, despite repudiating normative judgements, have been used more widely to claim the pursuit of knowledge, as indelibly linked to power, is discredited by proximity or association with the West. Aspects of original if abstruse analysis have trickled down into activist circles, often becoming obscurantist and romantic in their affect.
Naturally this is a poor ploy for attaining justice or anything approximating truth. The scientific method, while a poorer fit for intersubjective meaning, emerging from complex and overlapping social relations, remains our most perspicacious means of inquiry. It provides a foundation from which precision, high standards for claiming ‘truth’, and peer review sustain important rigour. The initial institutionalisation of these particular forms of reasoning in the West say absolutely nothing about all of humanity’s ability to reason in this way. Regrettably, postmodern critique of this kind takes a part for the whole, extrapolating the emotional experience of the dispossessed into a story of martyrdom. It is easy to get carried away in such processes, intoxicated on moral righteousness while simultaneously disassembling everyone else’s.
Nonetheless, postmodernism and the literary focus of much deconstructionism has a crucial place. If it can be adequately characterised, a focus and emphasis on phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the subjectivities of existence are areas of inquiry — often poetically pursued — that should not be dismissed. Indeed, integrative theorising must introduce this rich micro-image of the individual into analytical, systemic reasoning. Questions of political action, fairness, and systematised sympathy becoming justice cannot be removed from individual perspectives. And those with the least power to optimise their ability to self-actualise naturally deserve much theoretical and practical focus. For this reason, the complexities and remainders (as Bonnie Honig calls them) given far less attention or indeed celebration by an Analytical tradition find theorising in many postmodern theorists. In advocating the subaltern, they hold a crucial place. In fostering resonance, the literary angle of many writers gives them intellectual purchase that can be unparalleled.
However, by identifying ‘persecutors’ as existing so thoroughly at a systemic level, it is no wonder that such forms of deconstruction from the margins can quickly take on nihilistic undertones. At least in activist circles, the desire to extrapolate subjectivities rather than seek to refine them internally risks falling into defeatism. But there is no reason methodologies of intersectionality cannot, appropriately used, be both epistemically serious and societally functional. Nonetheless, as a total paradigm, often ironically deconstructing rationality quite incisively, it serves a creatively destructive purpose without replacing the ruins of its own circularity. If it sows Dionysian confusion, liberating in qualified but crucial ways through intellectual ‘intoxication’, it has not effectively carried this forward. What is practical and prescient, and stands up to scrutiny, needs to find more systemic and functional forms. And it should be careful about intruding on logical foundations wantonly, lest chaos undo key, but again qualified, Apollonian contributions.
Epistemic Myopia: How Analytics Silenced Creativity
Or ‘How Apollo Stifled Dionysus’
Turning to the family of self-perceived rigour, the Analytical tradition finds far better representation in the Anglosphere. The progeny of earlier logical positivism, empiricism, science, and epistemic rationality have esteemed positions in theorising. Axiomatic logic (true under its own terms, by fiat almost) and positivism have thus served as important reductions of the teeming, excess information (the chaos of the Dionysian focus) that characterises an essentially boundless universe. These methods are crucial to proper, concise, and lucid reasoning; they structure our thoughts and our societies, ensure we can build incrementally, and even help us approximate a fuller and more complete world view.
However, they are not absolutes. An oft cited series of qualifications of our foundational efforts in knowledge is illustrative here. Mathematics’ very foundations in set theory are qualified by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, while both the Popperian reading of science as infinitely disproving, and the Aristotelian as conjecturing, testing, and then updating lead to infinite regress. Ultimate truth can never be acquired because we can neither test the whole universe, nor can we simulate it; like a map covering the territory, it would be impossible — we would need all atoms and their configurations to compute the absolute. The paradoxes of foundationalism, typified in the Munchhausen trilemma, qualify all justification. Our trajectories toward ‘truth’ are asymptotic, and if analytics is more lucid and precise than humanistic or Continental theorising, it does not command the authority to dismiss them outright.
If all we do is asymptotically approach truth, then why do we expect the modalities for doing so to be absolute, unerring, and inescapable? Why do the worst logicians denigrate art, or undermine complex social theorising? In many forms, because it is irreducible to the lower, more fundamental layers of axiom. Perhaps with better processing power we may be able to get much closer to reducing social life, in a predictive fashion, to axiomatic or linear logics. Nevertheless, not only is that day distant (if it can ever arrive), it is not even necessarily desirable. Despite the scientism, we do not need exact prediction to approximately see our collective trajectory and act intelligently to correct it. Despite the rigour of physics or mathematics, they remain ill-suited to crafting meaning, which for better or worse remains a narrative exercise. Our valent experiences and sensory information, picking up rigorously collected and tested data, still require resonance with lived experience if the tools of science, and generally logical reasoning, are to have proper impact on policy and culture.
The irreducible complexity of human identity and its intractable in-group/out-group biases, mean logic has its work cut out for it. By attempting to compress intersubjective meaning, overly linear logic can be as self-defeating as attempts to confuse logic by postmodernists. Instead, insightful excursions into unreduced appreciations of the complex are needed, of the kind that artists often take, but hard scientists frequently miss. An overabundance of the Apollonian leads to stasis; although fettered epistemology has huge functional power and epistemic seriousness, it can hardly be called the only legitimate truth-game. Analytical dominance has in many ways constrained Continental insights — most crucially, both have constrained pragmatic meta-coherence. It asks and answers external questions of a reducible nature. However, it certainly isn’t the way to ensure this powerful knowledge resonates. Translating scientific rigour into meta-political change, or even substantive political argument, requires artful conversion.
Thus the Apollonian paradigm is the clinical precision, directness, and professionalism of a hard scientist. This is something we have grown far better at inculcating than creativity. In certain respects this is to be expected — but we have allowed this to sway us out of balance, missing supposed substance for the style of thinking, losing depth for the discipline. Uncritically, then, disciplines gain rigor mortis over rigour. The Apollonian cold light of day, critical and unyielding, perfects but does not create; it innovates but does not invent, deducts and immunises but does not induce and synthesise. The tap is running dry for it to channel. As academia siloes further and further, the cold light of day is increasingly turned to defend institutional turf, turning ruthless glare onto any idea, no matter how nascent, promising or problematic. Thus freezing with its glare and unrestrained by shade, Apollonian logic can destroy potential; it obliterates by making the novel appear to be something else altogether — something ‘weird’, ‘unintelligible’ or ‘mad’. It presages everything with demands for prediction, missing the impossibility of doing so with anything but approximate confidence in social questions. And it crucially forgets the need for imagination in the process of generating hypotheses.
Meta-Epistemology: Transdisciplinary Logics in Tandem
Or ‘How We Can Radically Pivot Between Extremes’
To demonstrate, consider philosophy. The philosophical wings of Analytical and Continental theory, addressing and answering often markedly different questions, frequently work at cross purposes. The above sketch demonstrates their ineptitude in their respective intrusions against each other. Either logic can be pitted against itself, apparently threatening both argumentative coherence and the work of hard sciences without proper reflexivity. Or, analytical thinkers often fail to appreciate how postmodern narrative exercises are incisive to humanitas: our species’ proclivity to narrative, metaphor, and dialectic. People remain paradoxical, just as our epistemologies (even the sturdiest forms of propositional logic) are paradoxical and ultimately unsatisfying in absolute terms. It is a pragmatic endeavour to defuse unnecessary sniping, or even invasion of disciplinary expertise, to encourage osmosis and transdisciplinary focus. If academia draws many of our brightest minds, the Apollonian cold light of day and Dionysian nocturnal flame must not be dissonantly raging, lest we allow those without logic or ethics to lead. These paradigms must instead illuminate our catastrophic dangers in tandem.
If we can attribute to Dionysian intuition and Apollonian deduction an isomorphism with the human mind, then their working in tandem is comparable to our subconscious and conscious minds working in alignment. This Jungian individuation is what powers a healthy, confident, generous mind. It should be a similar intellectual project for powering a healthy, confident, and generous body politic. This requires a pragmatic, functional, but artful equipoise. Both legitimate, but cognisant enough to defer to each other on context in pursuit of larger, existential goals. In the Anglosphere, it appears a Dionysian appreciation is lacking in the asymmetric balance between paradigms. In other disciplines, the Dionysian has wielded too much sway, eroding the legitimacy of its romanticising endeavours, allowing it to be portrayed as insincere or unserious. This is misguided — passion is the most natural mode of sincerity. Science needs art, as art needs science, and both need to get serious about the contexts within which they are developing, and their contributions to preserving these historically enriched and secure contexts from disaster. They need a meta-standard with which to appreciate this — to face Dawn and not Dusk.
Inverting (Ir)rationality into Functional Self-Mythology
Or ‘How To Weave Human Yarns for Systemic Self-Actualisation’
Tracing the isomorphism down, how can this perspective work for the individual? How can deviations from typical rationality be functional, without then externalising inaccurate epistemics into public reasoning where they do not function properly? The answer is that self-mythology, or group-mythologising, should be ironically engaged in (this is of crucial note to the religious fundamentalists, or nationalists, who do not transcend their perspectives enough to appreciate that others do not want to share it). The process of narrative formation, to structure one’s ambitions must always be understood logically and functionally at base; as helpful stories, not dogmatic truth. We are our least reliable narrators. If you believe your own bullshit, ironically, you’ll always question your assumptions as a scientist does, but sell to yourself the confidence to plough forward. Ensure enough of it is gold, and it’ll both shine and stick to reality. Otherwise, you’re deluding your subconscious. It is already liable to delusion as the Dionysian, stochastic testbed of thought. Marshalling its teeming, often formless energy, creativity, and the power of eureka must work with the neocortex. The conscious mind, its linguistic expression and intersubjective meaning must constructively utilise the passions that precede it.
This is in order to make Dionysian inspiration socially rewarding, and ethically balanced with Apollonian responsibilities to the whole. That underlying, formless fire is the inheritance of billions of years — we carry instincts, urges, and intuitions that precede our memetic culture — and won’t be disappearing soon. Indeed, to exist without the Dionysian would make decision making impossible, since psychological research has shown that without emotion we cannot choose between rational outcomes. Total dissociation via logic is a disabling malaise. Similarly, total emotional resonance and overloaded empathy is mania. Thus, using literary, poetic, or artistic means to self-actualise is an art that must build on science.
For example, the human proclivity to confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and overconfidence are demons when they interfere with scientific reasoning. When these make us instrumental to the point of overly strategic behaviour, we create suboptimal outcomes. Biases damage public reasoning if they are not explicated, and sometimes even when they are. Our lucid, external empirics that are essential to common reasoning are undermined. Conversely, however, these can be reframed as heuristics in other crucial contexts. They have been retained because nature did not eliminate those who had them in the wild; they retain germinal utility. Confirmation bias can help you form your identity, by tipping your entirely internal biases about yourself into self-affirming cycles rather than life-denying spirals (by striking a proportionally larger amount of positive inputs to your psyche, over negative, you can grow along Bayesian terms in reality, updating preferences and learning how to obtain them strategically). Wishful thinking pursues dreams, an essential feature of a life lived fully. And overconfidence is the fuel of effective courtship, with leaps of faith that might make no statistical sense lying behind large proportions of human love and reproduction. Men and women do not court with logic. But one must always remember passion is often uncorrelated to reality; Odysseans must remain Janus-like, drawing on both to inform a richer worldview.
It is, after all, what we do with what we know, and how we know better, that count. To generate information cooperatively, and discover it through interaction with our environment, we must repudiate biases. To create the illogical but socially functional confidence required for success — via social signalling (which draws support) and recognition of internal worth (which cultivates self-esteem) — these same fictions can become heuristics. If you’re ironic about your own faith, you are already approaching the meta-level required to see how functional all paradigms can be. So long as you are honest and careful when necessary, you can be ideally audacious and ingenious elsewhere. In the social context, we create meaning. Experiments to tease it out externally will lead one to scientism, a rejection of meaning as absent. This risks a nihilistic paucity, losing the substance of living in obsessive pursuit of a particular style of truth-seeking (to divine external conditions). Conversely, our social cognition is always an internal, often imperceptible condition. We have far more agency over it than we imagine, and it is responsible agency within that (meta-cognition) which will allow us to theorise and actualise a better world.
Hopefully is to ideally, as possibly is to probably.
Such personal heuristics make life in a chaotic (Dionysian) world that bit better, and perhaps even livable. An environment of overdetermined and underdetermined outcomes (having too many possible causes, or too few, for a consequence), complex co-constitutions (various dynamics and components creating each other in symbiotic tension), and systemic structure (the whole being defined by patterns and logics that are so diffuse, yet so powerful, they appear painfully bewildering) requires reductions to grapple with. Our reasoning, as imperfect as everything else randomly honed through iterations of evolutionary whittling down, serves an instrumental and not a primarily epistemic purpose.
For the social good, we must move toward epistemic rationality in public policy, and popularise it culturally. Decision theory, probability theory, and deliberative institutions are our best bets for this. But we can forgive some instrumentality, insofar as it leads to accumulating generative power that is consistent with others, and helps those systemically disadvantaged to acquire it too. These are the principles of an Odyssean political philosophy. We remain biased in order to back ourselves and our immediate group against all others, even when bridging the gap between ourselves and others could result in mutually enriching outcomes. We must recognise these predispositions, and if we sustain them as logics, only do so ironically, with an eye to wider, fairer, and more enriching objectives beyond tribalism. Self-overcoming, then, remains the primary focus.
Odyssean Meta-Epistemics: Vicariously and Rigorously Combining Perspectives
Or ‘How Dionysus Induces, Apollo Deduces, and Odysseus Carries Forth’
To look beyond our ossified, path-dependent epistemologies entails creative, even heretical thinking. Our Dionysian subconscious (from which intuition arises) is more powerful than our conscious, default mode network, within which we spend most of our waking lives. These often turbulent substrates enable creative thought, and thus prove instrumental to wider epistemic and meta-political change. The conscious mind, a highly socialised beast (and certainly, at least, a socially minded system), strains to channel the at-times turbulent subconscious. Yet we are discovering how being able to remove oneself from conscious ego can be transformative in healing mental health, and moreover in functionally combining perspectives to steadily accrue wisdom. Increasingly the subconscious can be more tractably utilised with nonordinary modes of consciousness. These flow states, meditative, psychedelic, or mystical modes enable the meta to be parsed through, and paradigms to be diagonally linked through dreamlike, even synaesthesic reasoning. The swelling of Promethean fire, of the intoxicated connections and diagonal leaps, is a potent elixir. However, becoming a drunkard is never ideal for anyone’s objectives or lucidity. It has been noted that ‘serious academics’ (as Apollonians/positivists frequently identify) denigrate postmodernism for its drunkenness on ‘deep’, self-congratulatory, pseudo-mystic insight. Similarly, society is understandably wary of the dangers of ‘stealing fire’ in Jamie Wheal and Steve Kotler’s words, for the often exuberant nonsense or self-destruction that follows.
Overuse of our most powerful faculties is risky, and equally fallacious. To exist in total attention and unity with the complexity of the world leads to insanity. Not the edge of it, that is — the edge of mental chaos where genius and inspiration are found — but beyond the pale. Nietzsche himself succumbed to the chaotic elements of his mind after his collapse in Turin, after living a life apparently defined by an intense fullness of pain and pleasure. His subconscious intuition and conscious incision, in tandem through writing left a corpus of intensely prescient theory. The reason the Dionysian is so feared is because it engages, through ecstasis, the usually impenetrable depths of our subconscious. It creatively destroys both societal, sacred values, and sometimes the very sense of self required to exist in society. This creative destruction consumed Nietzsche (similar journeys of near-spiritual forcefulness can risk psychosis for deconstructing reality so ambitiously) but it was more closely correlated with his recurrent health problems throughout life than his thinking. There is nothing necessarily insanity inducing in free thought, as every philosophy student, lecturer, artist, dissident, rapper, composer or comedian show. Rather, it is often the clash between free thinkers and a society that has narrowed its paradigms for intellectual ‘security’ that frustrates, perhaps into chronic dissatisfaction. Luckily, the dissonances between internal states and external conditions are less inescapable now, with subcultures and forums for diverse, plural communities to gather and congregate.
As Jamie Wheal and Steve Kotler note, there are proliferating ways to access nonordinary consciousness, both legal and illegal, that collectively provide empirical, repeatable and rational means to functionally powerful intuitions, introspection, and peak performance. This access to flow states, creative and productive plateaus of human experience that transcend the triviality and frustration of living give those within them a sense of generative power that is unparalleled. The inspiration of the night is carried into the day when managed responsibly. The point is Millennials and their forebears on the whole got along just fine when tapping into the Dionysian. Risks accepted, there is plentiful evidence that nonordinary consciousness, properly used, can strengthen the ethical and imaginative ends beyond the Apollonian means.
It is the fear derived from overly Apollonian modes of reasoning, seeking external control and concise reduction which has led to the paternalistic absurdities of suspicion, regulation, and illegality. Only with careful qualifications (via the Harm Principle, for example) have we partially, incompletely, and inconsistently transcended such limiting patterns of Draconic regulation. Many of our current patterns of thinking have led us to hopelessness. They belie an inability to reframe our perspective, under our partial agency, and the indifference of facts on the ground to our creative desires. The Millennial Generation (already so open about its ecstatic practices, while necessarily hard grafting) must be the first to embrace the Dionysian freely, but in balance with the Apollonianism needed to master our surroundings. We must self-overcome, to then externalise and systematise. It will be quite a journey to go forth as a pragmatist of many perspectives.
It is in pursuit of this balance that Spring Break paints an individualistic-systemic Odyssean synthesis.
HOW CAN WE SYSTEMATICALLY FIX THIS?
Having encountered and inverted some of the tensions of current understanding dialectically, we can turn to how to alleviate their destructive influence, and ensnare their dynamic tension to create. Doing so systematically in pursuit of social optimisation is thus the objective of a philosophy, meta-epistemics, and political theory that cohere what we know about the mind with what we can achieve with our superabundance.
This Odyssean synthesis is summarised here as thus:
1. Due to social relativity (like general or biological relativity) we must concede all of our perspectives are internal, contextual, and often unreliable; but they remain intelligible around shared external reality. All perspectives are in some way fallible, and all contain some ‘truths’ according to their own epistemic frameworks.
2. Academic, political, or interpersonal conflicts are frequently the result of both different language-games and truth-games clashing, often implicitly. Fundamentalism sees particular perspectives totalising and projecting their views with power over humility.
3. These clashes can be made explicit, and then inverted where possible, into opportunities for asymmetric cooperation rather than symmetric competition; unleashing synergies across paradigms, parties, and people. Where disagreement remains, a modus vivendi rather than a positive consensus can almost always be found.
4. Power must be addressed. To do so, we can recalibrate how we understand power, as a ‘power to’ not ‘power over’ (generative not coercive). This dovetails with our burgeoning cognitive understanding of individuality and agency (as emergent from social and physical networks, but irreducible to them) which can culturally contextualise moral agency. We can pursue policies that optimise generative wills to power: capacities to life-affirm can be cultivated insofar as they are consistent with others, and help the least powerful self-overcome. Hence the Ubermensch is not an island, but can be encouraged for all of humanity to aspire to. This enables an Odyssean synthesis of Nietzschean-Rawlsian-Habermasian theory pragmatically combining the most empowering, socially responsible, and epistemically serious ideals for reform, respectively.
5. The Millennial Generation will have to deliver on this, or something consequentially similar, so that we can save ourselves from circumstance and tragedy. Therefore the preceding innovations need to find embodiment, so that our systems can deal with the four material monsters, and our hubris.
6. To establish this vision of an economically vibrant, free, and egalitarian society of indefinitely growing individuals, we will require efficient and ethical institutions that first establish modus vivendi around diffuse life-affirmation, and then scientifically affirm effective means to maximise individual and collective living in order to approach thicker integrative justice. These include individual education for citizenship, ideal discourse in citizen juries, and economic measures such as a citizen basic income.
Steps toward an ‘Ecology’ of Ideas
Or ‘How To See Organic Symphony and Overcome Artificial Dissonance’
To maximise our likelihood of discovering powerful insights, we should systematically integrate as many ways of knowing and seeing as we can. Positing a social relativity, our frames of reference remain as inescapable as they do in all complex systems. The only way to expand perspectival confidence (rather than demanding singular certainty) is to ‘see’ as many angles as possible. Intersubjective social meaning requires this lest we compress or dismiss wisdom that we do not immediately appreciate out of public life. Once these are laid out in combination, common logics, functions, and outcomes of using these paradigms can be inspected. This means future Odysseans must embark on voyages of experience and erudition. They must study widely, think seriously and sharply, but also live vicariously, appreciating playfulness. It is in those moments of personal liberation one grasps the significance of joie de vivre that ambitious justice, scientifically pursued, should distribute to all on Earth in due course.
This meta-epistemology (since it will engage numerous individual epistemologies as they are distributed in the population, seeking to transcend their limits) takes empiricist roots in disproving untruths as starting point, as in science itself, but applies it to the limitations of multiple disciplines. If we can only be certain of our failures, we must theoretically situate our social assumptions — always qualifying these images as perspectival, limited, and refutable. This process gives us working truths, of a provisional but dynamic kind that has long since left static or mechanistic worldviews behind. Tragically, even dangerously, these static pictures persist in political discourse and systemic organisation itself (see ‘sovereignty’ as the static block justifying Brexit). In order for our social science to counteract them, it must work with the humanities and arts to create resonant communications, in order for the often veiled leaps made by science to inform a more intelligent, less tribal politics. This less tribal politics should take away power from chieftains and distribute it to all, in accordance with their ability to participate in decision making. Thus we should pursue a politics that empowers all, responsibly, as our technology and understanding increasingly enables us to do so.
If we appreciate that philosophical paradigms, the arguments found within them, and even disciplines of sciences and arts themselves can exist in complex balance rather than in competition, we may approach a more complete heuristic for imagining them. This fuller grasp of our reality will also inspire action of an enlightened type. Differing views can be pursued separately, but cohered strategically to not just inform but affirm living. Therefore we begin to approach a view of ethical, and therefore political understanding that is more dynamic. It is a context-dependent ‘ecology’, to paraphrase Gregory Bateson’s image of ideas in ecological balance; just as species exist in nested networks, ‘competing’ only crudely. Even when in agonistic relations, they remain interdependent on the other. The key is to establish a meta-principle that enables us, in service of wider objectives that cohere under it, to combine these institutional, cultural, and individual perspectives. Without such integration they repeatedly clash destructively, different games altogether overlapping, taking the agon into territories of antagonism, rather than reflecting momentarily on their wider social utility, particular virtues and emphases.
Moreover, the ‘meta’ element of this work draws also from Bateson’s use of Bertrand Russell’s theory of sets, to nest types of learning within larger types. He has three sets: Learning I (stimuli, for a particular perspective taken as bad-good/punishment-reward) which is basic reflex and reaction; Learning II (context of learning, for a particular perspective understanding the basic system of bad-good/punishment-reward, enabling induction when encountering new information) which is the usual form of learning most of us experience often highly instrumentally; Learning III (context of contexts, for a particular perspective understanding its own multiplicity, and its position not only in systems, but systems of systems) which allows deconstruction and reconstruction of schema. It is to this, he notes, that Zen Buddhism aspires. These nested sets allow more qualified and ranked understandings of epistemology. It is the third level of analysis we increasingly need for globalised systems, and localised politics, to be made explicable to citizens.
Pragmatically Raiding Knowledge, to Build Transdisciplinary Systems
Or ‘How We Can End Turfs Wars, and Start Intellectual Trade’
Our societies appear hopelessly dissonant at the moment, tragically growing increasingly embittered as we push harder against opponents. In the process we fail to persuade waverers of the catastrophic risks we face, the result being all parties pushing back harder, becoming enemies in the process. This wicked epistemic faceoff may require aporia, or a koan, in the Ancient Greek or Zen Buddhist traditions, to break apart so as to rebuild. How can we see the same world so differently? The dynamic tension must be reconciled by quantum leaps of reasoning — something diagonal that ejects the perspective from the ordinary (Learning II) and instead provides the leap needed (for Learning III). Here we go meta, but just meta enough to construct intellectual modus vivendi; the circularity of postmodern reasoning carried to conclusion can unhelpfully destroy meaning structures and disaffirm life. Where it does, it is not to be followed. It ironically does so by dissolving logic with logic, an argument so self-defeating — yet probable at foundationalist depths — one may as well direct such sleights of hand toward creation and self-victory rather than self-defeat. As Apollonian scientists (or admirers of science) we know there are rigorous methods for disproving untruths, and hence incrementally updating our truth-claims logically. Yet we also know as pragmatists that we must agree on some basics, and thus engage wider epistemologies so as to build consensus, to act and avoid suboptimal outcomes from clustering and destroying us. This is more essential than the purity of the ivory tower, or conceited desire for total rhetorical victory.
It is thus our job to rally all around an external yard stick, an exemplum; but since there are many different eyes, different sticks appear to them different lengths, as if under water and diffracted by the waves above. We must thus produce a meta-standard, not just a standard, that reflects this complexity. Only over and above our partisan divisions can we stand a chance at locating external metrics, and agreeing on metanarratives that enable necessary collective action. Only with modus vivendi, and ideally justice, can our conceptions of the good life be pursued consistently, and optimally.
Our respective fields of inquiry can unleash this with greater impact through clever collaboration rather than simple competition. It is reasonable to work from logical and axiomatic substrates upward, as they reduce ambiguity and enable decision making (for example, with probability theory). But the power of such good ideas needs to be communicated along different dimensions, and it must not fragment, but flex to enable aggregation of epistemologies around pragmatic needs and wants. Thus at a meta-political level, focus must be on an approximately common language and cultural valence — something created to cohere. This must be rooted in rigorous scientific approaches to instantiate shared objectives — agreed on in ideal discourse, that extricate us from our particular myopias — on living standards, sustainability, infrastructure, opportunities, and entertainment. Learning III must enable more strategic uses of Learning II. The Dionysian creation of a meta-standard must direct (trans?)humanist uses of Apollonian power projection.
Imagine our current patchwork of ways of seeing the world. What if each person regularly plays an instrumental ‘truth-game’? Imagine they usually seek to prove whatever it is they have fallen into specifically defending, attacking, or correlates with their own general concerns and disposition. These are the aforementioned biases and emotional commitments that constrain us. What if disciplines are broadly isomorphic, generally pursuing their own subset of truth according to particular rules, conventions and histories of thought, disciplinary dispositions and concerns, and their particular reactions? Each an organism in complex co-constitution, at a civilisational level, with all others.
Hence hard scientists using experiments, historians using comparative methods, anthropologists using field study, etc. all often treat other disciplines as partial, inferior, incomprehensible, or downright dangerous to their own ‘truth-games’. But if we all individually, and collectively, ask and answer different questions — implicitly playing different truth-games — we will often clash on the same questions, by bringing different rules from our respective games to answering. Could most disagreement be from the overlapping of ‘purviews’? These assumed ‘territories’ of thinking are thus carried over from our very own evolutionarily grounded bias to territoriality in space. This myopic defence, rather than trade of ideas ripples into conceptual spaces at the highest levels, a history of tribal conflicts in our earliest developments. We must exorcise this systematically if we are to rally and confront our demons, and material monsters, at the level of abstraction required to plot a collective future based on the wisest leading edges we know.
Synergies and Stochastics
Or ‘How We Need Asymmetry and Controlled Chaos to Complete Social Synergy’
The most mutually enriching outcomes are usually cooperative ones, despite the current paradigmatic obsession with competition; but crucially (credit here to Denis Noble, the interdisciplinary thinker and biologist, for noting this in dialogue) this must be when actors are asymmetric. Game theory and rational choice generally assume actors are symmetrical, rationally pursuing their ends according to available information. But the cruel irony is that while this might be true at the broadest heuristic level, it also veils unpriced externalities for the exceptions — and there are many — when this view of human rationality fails. Instead, asymmetric actors interact in heavily complex environments, and so bridging this asymmetry and turning it into synergy (as with friendship, romance, childbearing and raising, and any other meaningful activity in tandem with another agent) is vital for collective optimisation of human potential. Institutionally, similar potentials abound.
Thus particular truth-games needn’t conflict in such unproductive manners. To stimulate interdisciplinary reasoning we require transdisciplinary logics. To successfully stimulate interdisciplinary communication and mutual reasoning is isomorphic to stimulating interpersonal dialogues of a productive, mutually rewarding kind. It is, essentially, an effort to systematically unlock millions of instances of asymmetric cooperation. It requires a meta-purpose, and the humble wisdom to concede that every perspective, even those with more ‘rigour’ are limited and thus have particular purviews and functions: faith, reason, poetry, etc. are all irreducibly human endeavours, their weaknesses and hubris constantly denying their potential to go further beyond their corner. Some humility in the interests of collective aggrandisement would enable humanity to develop a more holistic meta-logic, nesting particular disciplines in it coherently. Thus professionals retain their turf, but the public can grow to understand how these silos contribute, in transformative ways, to a meta-logic all can understand and engage. Most of all, this enables the use of controlled chaos to push shared imaginings forward; transgressions of disciplinary boundaries are risks worth running on the margins, so that we may deploy their fruits at the core once proven.
Controlled chaos is evolutionary training. Stasis is death.
We should try and establish our reasoning around firmer (but still approximate) foundations wherever possible. We should take leaps of faith over only our foundational, smallest empirically or theoretically unbridgeable gaps. Escaping solipsism by believing your sense data, or our lack of total data from experiments in all aspects of physical science, or our need to mildly trust our civic neighbours, are leaps of faith also. But our job is to ensure these leaps are as small as possible, and ultimately pragmatic. This is not only to more widely pursue of knowledge in of itself, but crucially to apply it to save us from impending material monsters, and our psychological demons. Focusing primarily on the gaps in foundations is a postmodernist exercise, not a metamodern one; it destroys the potential to have confidence in anything, least of all positive social outcomes.
Such approaches must be handled with care. Each paradigm has its purpose, and the great task is to artfully synthesise them. I cannot emphasise this enough; some of each paradigm is degraded, like colours of pigment mixed, and this will not prove intellectually serious if the combination is dissonant, blunt, and often untrained. But ‘training’ does not always require — in social theorising, at the least — educations that cost exceedingly more than justified. Something immensely valuable is gained if they are resonantly combined. It can enable forceful but tentative approaches of the largest problems we face. Consider the promise of game theory, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy of various forms, and linguistics to map interaction and social cognition — to then be promoted lucidly to the public at large.
Spring Break: Unleashing Potential without Destroying Ourselves
Or ‘How We Can Maximise Living, by Optimising Generative Wills to Power’
The theory posited is thus that we must systematically empower, across physical, economic, and psychological metrics, individuals within and ideally beyond our polities. This must then be nested seamlessly into systemic modus vivendi, to build justice for a post-industrial world. It must most of all channel the vitality of our generation to life affirm — to embrace its challenges, even in the face of its desperations and denigrations, to sculpt a better world from the dynamic tension. In this recognition of the tragic condition, rather than a complacent ignorance of it, we can act compassionately and resolutely while reconciling these aporia aesthetically.
Next, a philosophical pedigree that typifies some of the insights outlined is rallied to give foundation to the active part of this thesis; the reconstruction from the ruins of our deconstructed hubris.
Generation (via Creative Destruction) contra Nihilism:
Or ‘How Systemic Oversights Strike Back Artfully’
To correct against impotence and associated nihilisms (via the complex psychological interrelationships between our lived experiences, our command of them, and their transformative impacts) Nietzsche remains eminent.
His concept of the Will to Power is not an unproblematic one, that carries risk of essentialising if not handled carefully. Yet, it can be adapted for our constructive needs, as he indeed expressly invites us to from his perspectivist view. It can be qualified into a generative principle (and generative, germinative, life-affirming substance is the core of his middle period). As a unifying heuristic, it combines our physiological and psychological needs to exercise our faculties (and can connect this to older notions of human flourishing as the highest good). Rather than emphasising, or even allowing, predatory expressions of power, our perspective is arguably more naturally drawn to the creative generation of power, through living artistically, and thinking widely — that form of self-overcoming Nietzsche placed centrally throughout his writings. The generative will to power stresses ‘power to’ (like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities approach to justice) rather than ‘power over’. In doing this, we zero in on the creative, inductive power that Nietzsche relentlessly praised and elevated, rather than the denying, discerning and overly deductive lens of winning conflicts of bivalent opposition. Reframing and rotating, the Millennial Generation can similarly create their own contours of social reality, rather than fall into the same rehashed oppositions.
Even empowered individuality should be qualified qualitatively; that is, its precursors in legal parameters preserved, but the cultural norms around it reformulated in accordance with our growing scientific knowledge of the individual as contingent. Individuals, as Nietzsche himself repeatedly admits, emerge with illusory senses of self. We posit a causal identity that precedes our will, even as cognitive science demonstrates a far less linear, emergent sense of agency arising from subconscious processes internally, developing into conscious thoughts often quite unreflectively. Moreover, globalisation nesting systems within systems is becoming so diffuse and exceedingly complex, it obfuscates the chains of linear causality we once expected. This complicates our ability to place blame on the agency of individuals, so outflanked by these macro-trends of outsourcing. By adopting life affirmation, we should take as heuristic the possibility — with some measure of functional faith in life and its beauty at all scales — that anyone, anywhere in the whole can become exceptional. Our subjectivities are qualified, our consciousness probably emergent from social interactions, alongside language. Thus we should not allow the reified individual to corrode social bonds, abstracted beyond the flows that formed us.
It is this we must flip, Janus-like, into a gate away from coercive power, centralised or channelled by individuals or institutions, into a generative power diffused across larger numbers. The will to power as self-overcoming remains the most empowering struggle (as with Inner over Outer Jihad, in Islam). Our expanding knowledge should make us appreciative of the increasingly complex global system that reduces this often unreflective agency further. Establishing a modus vivendi, and eventually justice, for individuals raised on narratives that expect the world from their isolated selves will not be easy. But this we must do, insofar as it procedurally and cognitively coheres around progressively better outcomes for the whole. The only way this will prove irresistible is if that whole includes prince and pauper, even if such a calculus offends both unreflectively. They can see through more ideal discourse that their relative positions, whether arbitrary or hard earned, need not totally threaten the other. If they do not, each will undermine the pressing responsibilities they hold, and the rights they enjoy, in a death spiral as they and the middling sorts between are distracted by animosity, while the indifferent seas, storms, and sands of time overwhelm them.
Social Strata in Cyclic Change
Next must then take seriously a more rounded version of Rawls’ Difference Principle, which carefully includes differentials in potential for self-overcoming, as well as his original focus on material resources. If inequality is justified on the basis it benefits the least well off, psychological, narrative, and artistic means of actualising are capacities that should too be considered when iterating toward a more ideal society.
In generative power, we must repudiate the coercive aspects of command and control. Cooperative activity must be framed as efficient as well as non-domineering, since ethics of care will often only resonate with those already convinced of the need for change. Strong evidence must be marshalled for policies that enable more to actualise their constrained potential, in ways that do not denigrate or decay the whole system. There must be a promotion of procedural and epistemic seriousness, focused on allowing as many voices to be heard in pursuit of epistemic truth, with pragmatic implementation of this aiming for life affirmation via more holistic empowerment. Then, this must be arrived at by cultivating people to think big and act virtuously; to turn not only the audacity of Overman or Overwomen into precise but potent virtù, but to remember presciently that we are the sum of our contexts and company. We owe something, intergenerationally and collectively, to the society and systems that have enabled our growth; thus virtue in the milder sense must be retained in contexts of stability — contexts we have not yet arrived at, but of which we must not lose sight as an objective.
Harm & Difference extended into Perspectival Psychology
Or ‘How We Needn’t Throw Baby out with Bathwater’
The systemic analysis of the western Analytical tradition remains pivotal to instantiating these philosophical musings on self-actualisation systematically. Overlaying generative power is the problem of how we conceptualise power relations at the level of society. To do so, I suggest J.S Mill’s Harm Principle and John Rawls’ Difference Principles can be recalibrated. If we deploy the former and latter, but emphasis that the resources we are carefully considering now include the capacities to self-actualise and intersubjectively reason, we can connect them to our notions of agents as flawed but improvable vectors of wills to power.
Western freedom to act, and fairness in guaranteeing basic resources that enable action, can be expanded and enhanced as they once were once so carefully in theoretical delineations by Mill & Rawls. The answer to our wicked problems must be in our psyches: our personal, intellectual, and phenomenological perspectives. This generation’s political theory must do for the psychologies of individuals what prior political theory aspired to do for their physical security and economic means. Crucially, we must theorise individuals as embedded and formed from their social contexts and personal company. As the science of developmental, social, and moral psychology has repeatedly demonstrated, we are never islands. If we are to develop and thrive socially — if we are to even survive — we must empower both our individual reasoning and emotional richness of experience, situating them consistently alongside others’, and calibrating them in such a way as to empower those who face the arbitrary bad luck that constrains their ability to do so themselves.
We must increase the generative power ‘to do’ in society, over the domineering ‘power over’ that state, corporate, or central actors have in contemporary society. The grassroots must grow into a far more cohesive, decentralised canopy. And they must do so in ways that do not choke off their fellow roots in this wider ‘ecology’ of ethics, politics, and epistemics. But this must come with elements of personal responsibility and accountability if we are to sustain the functionality of our historical norms around human agency and ‘will’ that is essential to encouraging virtuous conduct, and policing promises, truthfulness, etc. It is in this sense that the individual must hold responsibility for self-overcoming, but that society must assist in facilitating this quite actively, to ensure both whole and part are in dynamic tandem. It isn’t enough to attribute failure to the system, nor is it enough to pin agency on the individual.
It is our job to produce the conditions for such systemically reflective agency through non-coercive means, in accordance with the Harm and Difference principles. This must be done, in large part because our interconnections mean we cannot afford to beggar, ignore, or dehumanise our neighbours. Moreover, we have ethical reasons to account for our externalities, as we would expect anyone to account for theirs against us. Through material changes to their environment, economic incentives through work or a basic income, and psychological assistance so that they can systematically self-actualise their generative power, we can move toward empirical systems that enable them to accept that life, for them, is indeed good. Citizens can then become developmentally fuller, intellectually more open, and logically more lucid.
The self-mastered can be to the system, as the system restrained is to the self.
Life affirmation, the pivotal crux of Nietzsche’s philosophy, entails following the truth deep into nihilism, and then out of its chilling ground by affirming your only intelligible standpoint as a living creature to use that truth (instrumentally, although first with a great respect for truth in its own right) with a recollection that any engagement with it must pass through your prism of living mind. There is no use pursuing, or defending, dead dogmas. Nor is there wisdom, or even instrumental efficacy in distorting truth as arrived at in our most rigorous (scientific) or rich (artistic) modes of engaging reality. We must use the fundamental sciences as the firm foundations on which to construct art; but we should not deny their possibilities for cross-pollination, a metaphor well-chosen because ultimately they are all created for, projected during, and engaged in service of our lives.
From this starting point we can preserve life in as many forms as are consistent with our own (Harm Principle), widening our moral circle to encompass a multi-dimensional view of the good. Instead of prescribing a particular form of living to life, instead provide people with the material security, economic means, and rigorously formed psychological virtue from which happiness emerges. Our attempts to pursue it directly lead paradoxically to disappointment or despair (or repugnant conclusions, as utilitarianism is often accosted for). As W.H. Auden said, “Truth, like love and sleep, resents approaches that are too intense.” This paradox is resolved by creating conditions for happiness (as typified by more personal codes of virtuous or deontological conduct, whose collective following allows utility to emerge), with resplendent outcomes following quite naturally. Creating conditions for life in all its variety, then, appears to draw on an intelligible fact — we are finite, we are alive, and our lives can be more or less meaningful, enjoyable, and powerfully exercised, dependent on our perceptual inputs, and their cultivation by ourselves (through the influence of others) into outputs.
To irrigate such open and proactive capacities for a system of healthy intersubjectivity, can build consistently with others’ (constrained by the Harm Principle), and insofar as it takes social responsibility seriously to enable all to similarly self-actualise (Difference Principle). The latter targets power relations and the dynamics that sustain them, deconstructing and reconstructing them according both to epistemic seriousness and scientific caution, but also with deeper focus on the ethical potentials of such relations. If life affirmation for a few comes at the cost of even basic affirmation for the many, something is very suboptimal about our social structure. It is this that a theory of justice, building on modus vivendi, must address in a way that is actionable by not alienating all parties. This is far from impossible because ultimately we have an abundant number of goods, experiences, and times at which we enjoy them. These could be independently quantified, ranked in indexes, and then pursued as transpartisan objectives.
Imagine respectable bodies, democratically open and epistemically meritocratic, reporting to citizens on the best ways to achieve higher living standards, arts funding, competitive outlets and games for society, etc. Disagreements about these means can be decided in ways that are more collaborative and truth-seeking than ends-seeking. It is the epistemically distorted horse-trading of modern politics, defined as it is by such ends-seeking, that we must seek to change. Once we have tested how, we can pursue the facts on the ground needed to appreciate how people arrive at good lives. The answer is always approximate, but by reducing immediate poverty and disease, we can allow healthy living to pursue mentally satisfying meaning and joy, which are not inextricable and hence must be treated separately. Suffering or struggle, some form of controlled or unanticipated toil, are inevitable — even in post-scarcity frustrations will pervade. Our job is to preserve as much of formative struggle as is needed for human greatness and flourishing, and ideally no more.
That is, experiment to life-affirm, without always defaulting to understanding life affirmation as pure utility. Or rather, meta-analyse the millions of experimental results we already have in order to understand poverty reduction, economic empowerment, social cohesion, cognitive enhancement, hedonistic optimisation, and institutional precursors to these processes and parameters of generating individual power. From such generative power, self-actualisation, virtue, and utility can be indelibly linked, emergent as ends from the means of self-overcoming and societal integration. Furthermore, the psychological perceptions of such intervention, the enabling processes for social actors must be grasped since this is ultimately where ‘reality’ will coalesce for the majorities who are targeted by such self-actualising methods. Their valence must be part of the calculus of whether we are succeeding in our ambitions.
Millennial Potential: a Generation made ill with irrelevance
Or ‘How Youth Must Have Its Day’
Psychologically or socially, one could see much of our (Millennial or otherwise) collective, fatalistic, or even nihilistic apathy, as well as our aggression or depression as stimulated by political frustration. The Millennial Generation, but also working classes, minorities and others, feel highly aggrieved by their distance from power. If one is close to it, engaged in it, and seeing the outcomes of their influence, they cannot feel impotent. But when technocrats, or bureaucrats, or anyone in particular make decisions for you, the effect is infantilising. This is even if it may on objective metrics lead to good outcomes (such as, for instance, correlating technocracy with advanced policy outcomes in health, trade and subsequently job growth, social cohesion etc.). This is why the liberal order faces such crisis amongst large populations who are reverting to nationalism — there is a sense of material insecurity leading to problems in both physical and mental health.
People cannot feel confident if they have had no evidence of their actions having positive impact. Left-behind post-industrial communities naturally loop bad feedback into their minds again and again, because few have actively enabled them to proudly self-actualise. Hence their will to power is constantly undercut by ever more complex and distant forces. The diffusion of that power — in the way Foucault calls governmentality — leads to the ‘neutral’ application of coercion, distributed across faceless institutions, progressively lowering accountability. With no particular actor to blame, the system itself may become increasingly discredited along with its outcomes. This is highly dangerous, as when whole classes of elites discredit viable systems, we risk throwing the whole out with the deficient parts. Certain recent polling — although exaggerated — suggested democracy may no longer be considered essential, while respect for the military remains high. These are exemplary warning signs.
Because of irreducible perspectivism, it is thus the perception (as defined by the feeling, or meaning, given to the same reality) that counts. We must have objective standards to work toward, but too often people have been made so intensely impotent by the nature of discourse, institutions, and austerity (choking the former two in many ways) that their disdain and depression overcomes these ‘facts’ to forge a ‘post-truth’ reflex. Critics of such a phrase are right to note there was never a consensus ‘truth’ about the ‘facts’ of perspective; everyone took different things from a growing economy, with anaemic wage growth, or immigration figures contributing to said economy, but apparently threatening the in-group and relative status of many. Others found the exact same figures heartening, as evidence of a more global, confident, generous paradigm. But these people, at least in Britain, appear to have been edged out. Wounded, majorities of the citizenship have given up — they either do not vote, or have their votes wasted in systems that reward only decisive winners in localised, fragmented competitions. Popular will to power has fleeting opportunity to be forceful, and it has been frustrated incessantly — no wonder many usually ignored people exercised it vehemently to attack the entire edifice with Brexit, or via Trump. And should Brexit or Trump disappoint them too (as is likely, when many of their partisans have ignored important aspects of shared reality for rhetorical force), the outcome will be the ever worse degradation of trust in leadership, and increasingly institutions.
Philosophising with Hammers — but Chiselling Carefully
Or ‘How Revaluation Must Be Laser Guided’
Drawing on Nietzschean conceptions of political psychology is not without risk. As with his other works, we must administer such radical ideals clinically. Nietzsche suggested that one should wear gloves with morality, but most of all with his. Its power is virulent — it can destroy one’s notions, cripple them, or immunise you from all other forms; this strength must be used sparingly, precisely, and where possible with an inversion into the prosocial, to allow all to affirm life. Our failure is to draw too heavily on ideas so potent without also drawing on the most instrumental aspects of Nietzsche’s ethos: his perspectivism that commands us to abandon his Zarathustra rather than to follow it. It is thus a powerful experimental amorality that enables us to destroy, Janus-like, the obstacles to human potential, while similarly retaining the parts of our tradition and innovation that already assists us to enjoy life.
There is no need to destroy or invert everything. An inversion of all we are taught would not serve our own will to power, since as social animals and law abiding people, we have learned a different wisdom; the modus vivendi, something portrayed as mutually exclusive to the Ubermensch, need not be so at all. If we qualify the concept of an Ubermensch (no superperson is an island, even if they boldly set out to be) in service of a richer, more complete ethics, we can also accept that this was the only viable use of such a notion: the inevitability of any human embeddedness in social space is our development as the sum of our company and contexts. Hence, we must appropriate what is powerful and useful to us from Nietzsche, laser it free from the overly predatory, and use it to passionately recalibrate ourselves. We must demonstrate that we can be more, but to not forget that we are more as a function of others, synthesising but never fully commanding the inputs we receive.
What does this mean? It means whoever you may be, godlike in resolve, intelligence, physical strength or material concentration of power, you are still the product of all the dynamics that formed and led you there. Your parents, their parents, your friends, your enemies, and your teachers are you; you synthesised their inputs into something unique, and you control that synthesis approximately. It would be a greater folly to ascribe dominance to yourself than restraint to others. Nietzsche’s totalising rejection of morality cleared the way for new forms, qualified and made functional. Every person exercising their freedom of conscience recognises they have some leeway today to pursue their own functional morals. But as interdependent people, we all desire some degree of connectivity on good terms, with the divinity of a wandering prophet of very limited attraction. So, we take the will to power and see it as a generative will to power: a will to influence, and power as the production of intended effects, rather than victory over another in social conflict. Why? Because careful reframing enables us to defuse and avoid much conflict, while obtaining mutually reinforcing gains. It isn’t easy, but it can be far more optimal. We can provide a baseline of power for all, defined as physical and economic security, and psychological security, followed by positively cultivating institutions designed to enhance this power.
The point is that in elevating others, we elevate ourselves. The ecstatic and varied experiences of life help to shake this illusion loose, to remind us that while we are still the artist in command of ourselves, we chisel away at our own marble with the hands of others. We are ourselves only in relation to others, with isolation or overcrowding reducing our lifelines to act with autonomy or the essential space needed to actualise with meaningful recognition and individuality, respectively. The deep heuristics of responsibility and individual agency (and heuristics they are, qualified by psychological research on agency, consciousness, and incisive philosophical analysis) ultimately remain incredibly useful. By forcing responsibility — even as a fiction in the face of wider scientific determinism of so many facets of our reality — they are enabling.
Nietzschean Virtù as Virulent Medicine
Or ‘How We Can Act Audaciously, To Create Generously’
The Millennial Generation, variously caricatured as prolific partiers and potential narcissists, will have to ‘save the world’. We will have to grasp the deep and implicit problems sketched above, and collaboratively and decisively source solutions. But even prolific hedonism and partial narcissism are not mutually exclusive with ethical action and intelligent strategy. It is apparent that self-interest and altruism are not only compatible but often inextricably linked, even if only subconsciously as an external mode of arriving at internal satisfaction, and resonance, with society at large. The aporia can instead be a riddle: why haven’t young people saved the world yet? It is both because we haven’t had the chance, and saving the world is clearly very hard. The aporia, however, is the paradoxical tension between youthful abandon and the focused resolve required in adulthood, to take on the largest and most pressing problems. These cannot merely be reconciled, but arguably must be. If saving the world with a paradigmatic shift can be made fun, aesthetically pleasing, and persuasive rather than plodding, then we can reconcile the cold light of day with Promethean nocturnal fire.
To instantiate a more optimal future, Millennials will need to presently embrace agonistic realism (as theorised by Bonnie Honig). Virtù, the martial intelligence and strategic virtues of political victory, will be essential to attaining the power this generation needs to then create a system that diffuses it, so that all can escape the impotence of political irrelevance in the future. Honig’s distinction between virtue and virtù again touches on the complex commensurability between contexts. Virtù will necessarily differ from the virtues of a future ideal discursive society in order to succeed within current parameters. It will embrace pursuing power efficaciously, but this pursuit is only consistent with the meta-logic of life affirmation insofar as it assists the least well off to self-actualise, and does not become radically inconsistent with the basic power of all people under the law as it exists now. This striving will already be familiar and empowering in the here and now, but will pursue ethical, systemic reform hereafter. This ‘martial’ response is born of provisional desperation, a dissonance between a vigorous but marginalised generation, and material conditions sealing off opportunities. But in the acting out of a new ethics, an ecological and assertive meta-epistemics, as Hannah Arendt described in her republican writings, Millennials can begin their process of ‘faking it until they make it’.
Spring Break, the stereotypical American Bacchanal, would no doubt draw derisive murmurs from our most analytical types, yet often the those who grapple best with Dionysian complexity (who many Apollonian analysts attack for lacking precision, in so doing missing the whole for its parts) understood the value of the Bacchic ritual, and were explicitly unrelenting about shouting it to deaf ears. We must collectively listen to, and give space to sound out, innovative solutions to wicked problems from the margins; it is on the flank that most battles are won. This is a global battle against developmental trends, discursive dissonance, and our hubris against the very climate itself; bringing the periphery into the centre of vision is an imperative. It is appropriate, then, to close the loop for a warrior class of young people, who must agonistically make themselves agents on the world stage. And this bloodless war against collective ignorance, inefficiency, and ill-will requires high morale. Thus the season to start campaigning is the same season most are beside themselves, out of their heads, and truly resonating communally. Spring Break is post-ironically a rallying cry, and the implied hedonic state any good utopia should facilitate for its youth (if that’s their sort of thing of course).
Dance like no one is watching; live as if everyone is.
HOW COULD WE IDEATIONALLY FIX THIS?
Spring Break should be a season for all to ponder deeply, while celebrating their abilities to prosecute their plans imminently. These are speculative ponderings, about how the tentative stirrings of theory discussed might be turned into praxis.
Four Horsemen of Renewal: Inspiring Potentials
Or ‘How Our Anxieties Should Be Answered Strategically, and Inspiringly’
Life-Affirming Meta-Epistemics: This is the central subject of this work. We must understand that many of our institutional, disciplinary, and socially developed ways of seeing the world are particular to ourselves, our collective identities, and paradigmatic schema; they are instrumental for the particular task we are pursuing. What we must do for wicked problems and complex answers is not reduce, then, human intersubjectivity (the fact social meaning comes from overlapping individual meaning, interacting). We must instead integrate, accepting that the making of social meaning is emergent, and hence under no actors’ control (but with some having greater power of regulation than others). This means we need first a modus vivendi, a way of living with disagreement that does not harm us, but rather minimises social dissonance wherever possible, and enables conditions for resonance to cohere progressive action. This meta-understanding must be arrived at artfully and scientifically, since it entails relearning many good habits, and unlearning the draining ones.
The Millennial Generation: Millennials and their junior successors must provide the personnel for any substantive change. The ‘snowflake’ generation will have to arrive in a blizzard of activity on the world stage. We must be cold now, cognisant of virtù because we have been marginalised by our forebears. But we will warm when the conditions allow us to flow like water, toward a vision that provides not only for ourselves, but the absent minded older generation, who had our best wishes in heart, but not in mind, or vice versa. This is the notion that youthful inspiration, vigour and creativity can be brought to bear on our massive, historically unique problems with commensurate analytical foundations giving passion an edge. But this essential Dionysian-Apollonian synthesis cannot be ignored, lest we completely miss the vitality of our youth, our window to change, and the world’s with it. History is replete with evidence of both human folly and virtue. This generation has the largest, and most accessible dataset with which to learn how to pursue the latter. Thus we take on theoretical significance as the agents of future praxis. I have every confidence our generation will deliver, even if a measure of that comes from the necessary faith needed to avoid nihilism.
Effective Altruism: This movement already demonstrates the coherence, power, and compassion of the Apollonian paradigm when effectively marshalled. It aims to reduce errors in our ethical calculations by attacking neglected, tractable, and important issues. It aims to eliminate injustice via targeted, effective immunisations against disease, the eradication of extreme poverty, and research into existential risks such as biorisk or AI. It is also beginning to inspect the metapolitical change needed to better serve its laudable systemic aims. I am yet to encounter a more promising movement or paradigm for the structural problems we face at global level.
But it may need markedly different, more nuanced approaches to deliver on such promise in cultural and social issues. Otherwise it will suffer from epistemic myopia, especially if addressing emotional issues that are inextricable to political debate. If this is done in an overly logical fashion, or perceived negatively for its overtly utilitarian character, the very salient reasoning behind it may remain sidelined. No doubt such a rigorous and analytical approach will remain a minority concern for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean the prospective political influence of EA has to. They will have to traverse the powerful signalling of emotion and sequester the subconscious more actively in order to introduce the best analytical approaches to for answers to complex questions in politlca discourse, rather than taking the simple additive steps for questions of public health (immunise, sanitise, etc).
We face wicked, intractable, and neglected problems with the need for metapolitical change. It should not be forgotten, by limiting frames, that these problems are only wicked, intractable, when thoroughly crowded out by particular, limited frames of reference and thinking. We have novel and strategically consistent options; what we need is audacity, audacity, and yet more audacity (to paraphrase Danton). We must wed the Dionysian to the Apollonian, and Effective Altruism should be willing to ‘recruit’ and embrace the wider nocturnal fire to balance its cold light of day. It may find mobilising Apollonian rigour with a more integrative engagement of the human condition will render some of these wicked problems more tractable than pure calculations do now. It will thus be the test of a rationalist movement if they can also engage these issues with a creative slant, and participate in an Odyssean synthesis.
Cybernetics (of the Self): Attentiveness to the information flows and contextual parameters that inform the self is key. Cybernetics, as the theorising of regulating systems and information loops, is instructive in enabling a more prosocial, ethically informed view of the individual as complexly emergent from society. It also coheres with the increasingly qualified sense of self found in cognitive research, correlating with Buddhist thought and aforementioned qualified agency.
Feedforward, cognitive resonance, and the starvation of irrational fears encompass some DIY heuristics to sustain mental vitality and perspicacity. We should starve our fears according to Bayesian probabilities — essentially, updating our preferences and assumptions rationally. In this way, you can draw down your internal assumptions about bad outcomes being highly likely, and instead focus rigorously on positive ideation to develop constructive emotional ‘positive feedback loops’. These are all powerful cybernetic heuristics that prove highly effective self-treatment — immunisation against irrationality via Bayesian inference, and treatment against the ever present fears and paranoias of our reptilian brain through self-reflective structuring of responses to emotion. This process will never prove perfect, but it is approximately powerful to at least begin appreciating how the mind works, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into its familiar patterns — especially if they become self-defeating. Locating like-minded people provides the crucial social networks with which to construct psychological security; in other words, finding cognitive resonance. In the future, emphasis on the cognitive empowerment of people should entail enabling their networking, particularly in areas that have been disempowered by economic dislocation.
Feedforward is vividly imagining future success so as to enable the brain to learn faster, more creatively, and thoroughly. By imagining future success, the mind can refocus away from past failure, which often feeds back into itself as life-denying, pessimistic or nihilistic input. Instead, a slight change in emphasis can enable realistic optimism, and an eventual life-affirming perspective. This is a crucial proportion to strike; proportionally higher positive feedback than negative checks facilitates growth, calibrated to keep you coherent with reality (through negative feedback), but proportionally more ambitious than frequently pursued by medical practice, which for example works only to bring people to basic levels of health, rather than actively expanding their abilities. The imagination can seed a gold path into the subconscious, like Theseus following the string from the labyrinth. This overall calculus — given potent form in ironic self-mythologisation — is pivotal to the wider avoidance of depressive ideation. If you are going to confirm bias, make it about your self-confidence, persona, and social outlook being net positive. Then, ensure your external behaviour makes this initial story a truthful one. Imagine yourself easily living up to it, and if we do so collectively, the hope that springs eternal becomes the ideal that self-perpetuates.
Feedfoward and you just might catch yourself in a positive feedback loop. Snowballs become planets.
HOW CAN WE MATERIALLY FIX THINGS?
Or ‘How Disruption and Creation Destroy Wicked Problems’
With tweaks to reconfigure our cognitive schema (our ideological, cultural, and even ‘mystical’ schema) we may feel better prepared, more confident, and certainly less fatalistic about the Material Monsters. Confronting them will not be easy, particularly for those who have not yet understood the commensurability of Dionysian and Apollonian modes of thought. Yet there remain leverage points, and integrated thinking that engages the whole and the parts of our systems can allow for effective strategy. One of the great ironies of political theory is that so many paradigms are pursuing equifinality (the same end through different causal paths). We almost all want heaven on Earth, and we all want to create the material conditions needed for us to reach said heaven. And surely no heaven would tyrannise the private type, nor would it isolate the sociable soul. So a via media, via modus vivendi that starts with liberal rights, is the origin for a Western realistic utopia. But what sort of heaven would starve people, either of food, or also crucially, mental stimuli, encouragement, and celebration (dancing, most of all). Thus we must go further beyond our liberal order as it exists now. Here are some institutional approaches to do so:
Ideal Discourse: We talk past each other, just as we make truth claims past each other also. To overcome this, we must create conditions of ideal discourse (consider this the practical manifestation of our epistemic diversity outlined above). I posit a fusion of Jürgen Habermas & Blaise Pascal’s ideas on discourse: Pascal’s adage is that to persuade, one must first explain how the other is right, and then expand their perspective without threatening their position directly, responding instead with something they may not have noticed (rather than a refutation). If this can be institutionally affected, collective procedures can reflect a similar truth-seeking approach, one that does not attack alternative thinking, but assembles wisdom. Citizens would gather and accumulate their understanding by starting on common ground, shared methodologies and appreciations, and working onward from this heartening foundation.
For persisting disagreements, often of more profound nature, we will still need to make tough decisions. Thus either conclusively (to build just consensus) or in working compromise (to reach modus vivendi) differences should be engaged by working through Habermas’ universal pragmatics. This is the view that rational communication should proceed through three levels of claims: facts, norms, and intentions. With the copious academic rigour and empirical data we have today, and information technology to ensure information can be in real time, facts (as external or positivist foundations) can be adjudicated with some confidence — just think of the resources Google provides instantly. Next, norms (as falling under cultural, intersubjective ‘truths’) can be discussed, but should be addressed always with reference to the good of the whole — appeals to the community’s fair minded, democratically agreeable ethos.
It is the earlier stage of Pascal dialogue that enables a large bedrock of consensus to inform this process, ensuring a cluster of shared norms has already been identified in truth-seeking conditions. By keeping perspective in mind, with meta-metrics rooted in high standards of science, some inevitable diversity can exist, while still defusing relativism without destroying perspectival diversity. Finally, the intentions of speakers — their veracity, and whether they are being virtuous — can be judged as in a court room, only with the proviso that, again, as members of a common polity, citizens give the benefit of the doubt first and foremost. The principle of good faith should underscore all such efforts, with qualifications for veiled vested interests of highly asymmetric resources and capacities (although even they should be allowed the chance to openly defend their interests).
Citizens’ Juries: This is the institutional framework for the above procedural dynamics of ideal discourse. To maximise generative will to power without it turning destructive and chaotic, we should transition away from a mass electoral democracy that simultaneously isolates (in the ballot booth, and under conditions of scarcity that diminish our generous and social attitudes) and destructively combines (with the media, particular forms of protest and policing, constantly encouraging us to fall into line with larger, sometimes destructive modes of thought). It also enables the active cultivation of virtue, and the wider will to power in the way Hannah Arendt theorised as essential in democracy: becoming through the performative aspects of citizenship, in a direct sense as was the case in Athens. Only today, with our appreciations of the risks inherent to democratic functions, we can seek to curtail its excesses and focus principally on the collective intelligence potentiated, not the crowd’s combined emotional force.
We should instead aspire to a more local democratic model, but also to experiment with it at the national level. Citizens’ juries, in larger forms often called citizen assemblies, are foremost. In this design, citizens are either self-selected, or chosen by lot to give political issues the attention and focus they require, but also to bring the legitimacy of the wider public directly into policy. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ requires some procedural focus and tranquillity to retain epistemic effectiveness; but as in courtrooms, particularly the British common law system, such juries can make incredibly well-informed decisions on complex questions — they do so day in, day out already. Bringing this rigour, legitimacy, and direct democracy to enhance the techniques of policymaking are an essential solution to both increasing people’s generative power in their local areas, but also in cultivating them to take very seriously the difficulties of policymaking that they often assume politicians do poorly at. Establishing such a cohesive and legitimating system as localised, direct democracy with remuneration (see CBI below) could be part of a populist reform package with substance. And a slogan of ‘putting politicians out of work, and people back into it, through politics’ might decisively represent the potential of this policy, both resonantly and economically.
Turbocharge the technocratic project, then steal the tekne and disperse it to the people.
Citizens’ Basic Income: Citizen Juries provide the groundwork for effective decision making, with epistemic seriousness grafted into democratic legitimacy. UBI is simultaneous, or follows immediately after, as a way to guarantee citizens’ economic power. But by emphasising it as a citizens’ income, they are incentivised to involve themselves in the new, deeper democratic institutions. We should always be watchful for panacea, but also hopeful of anything approaching a consensus so long as it is rigorously grounded. UBI (or perhaps guaranteed jobs) is a contender for potential consensus reform. There is an equifinality (same ends, different means) implied by libertarians, social democrats, social liberals, and communists all advocating the policy. This leaves conservatives, accustomed to the paradigm as is, to remain as potential opposition.
It is something of a potential solution to many ills, with promising evidence, because it reduces the conditions for material conflict. Individually it has shown very promising impact on the psyche, enabling and strengthening people’s sense of security in their self, since they do not have to subsume it for physical security in unrewarding, unethical or self-destructive work. Nonetheless, some concern is warranted; UBI as an end, not a means of cultivating a compassionate, reflective, creative and logical citizenry, appears to be yet another right without a corollary responsibility. And responsibility is key for cultivating social awareness, virtue, and the generative will to power we should value. It is for this reason I layer the institutions in this order.
Hence, we must be comprehensive and cohesive in our approach to reform, otherwise the effects of change may prove dissonant rather than resonant, and we will lose the consensus and modus vivendi required to make a heartened success of these proposals.
Steps toward Virtue Economies
The contemporary liberal order has institutionalised many structures that enable asymmetric cooperation. But it has also frozen in place, with moral and efficient certainty, features that constrain it. The aforementioned obsession with competitive, agonistic activity is one of them. Although there is a time and a place for competing, and is in those times and places some of the more enjoyable, productive, demonstrably human activities, a truly scientific and artful method of cooperation has yet to be institutionalised or stress-tested in the way capitalism has. Why not attempt to overlay capitalism with voluntary endeavours that take this asymmetric cooperation as a challenge to produce better, more socially beneficial, and efficient results? Is there no place for active institutions, created not from the top-down but the bottom-up, to create in parallel new mechanisms for exchange (much as the sharing economy or P2P has developed)?
Virtue Futarchy: What if instead of monetising what destroys us (such as fossil fuels, their externalities largely unpriced), or predates us from the margins (the financial sector for example, acting in moderation as productive dynamo for investment, yet in 2008 dragging the global economy down with its internal logics of uninhibited greed) we instead thought carefully about collective ways to make the ethical profitable?
What if in parallel to regular economic activity, prediction markets were developed along the lines of futarchy, where crowds could invest in the most socially beneficial (measured by consequences of the endeavour after an allotted time, according to rigorous external proofs e.g. reductions in child mortality, disease; improvements in psychological well being) or virtuous (intrinsically valued as impressive, perhaps as reflections of virtues like courage, integrity, creativity etc) economic activities? There could then be parallel systems that aimed to explicitly — through democratically legitimate, but epistemically guaranteed standards — align profit with ethical outcomes. If in a more distant future, economic activity can thoroughly encompass such agreeable standards, we may escape the self-destruction inherent in unbounded self-interest. Indeed, self-interest will be here to stay; it may prove crucial to calibrate it so as to ensure its drives are channelled constructively, rather than tragically toward our ruin.
Conclusion: From Day Break to Spring Break
Our thinking thus requires confidence and precision, style and concision. We are, after all, aiming for a bullseye left to us by circumstance: narrowing margins, quickening cycles of change, these dynamic flows at risk of becoming the stochastic noise of chaos. In this case we must pick our shots carefully, our targets appropriately, and submit our reasoning eruditely. But at no point should the cold light of day blind us to nocturnal audacity — their marriage, one of heaven and hell, leads to the diagonal leaps needed to cycle toward a great Dawn.
Correcting the listed catastrophic trajectories will require addressing multiple dimensions; visualising and actualising answers requires optimising our approaches to be as persuasive, effective, efficient, and economical as possible. By cohering all, plans can become irresistible without ever using coercive force. They can be ethical and strategic, since they aim to decisively attack things we universally reject — fear, social degradation, and poverty. And they are urgent, essentially bearing on our civilisation, which faces unprecedented stress testing with climate change, social strife, and economic dislocation. This meta-strategy — optimising strategy and narrative formation, to cohere optimisation of human potential as widely and thoroughly as possible — requires ingenuity on an unprecedented, civilisational scale.
It requires collectively devised strategies of immense breath, and eventually precise detail, cohered under a meta-framework of life affirmation — what makes life livable, in every sense — to avoid exacerbating wicked problems. We collectively exist in a tragic condition, at risk of ending like Oedipus, consumed by our blind pursuit of truth, our excessive willingness to use aggression (in thought, speech, or act), leading us to unforgiving psychological collapse that follows the facts on the ground rapidly outrunning our hopes. We could also end up like Sisyphus, toiling defeated, even if we imagine him enjoying his toil as Camus instructed. Yet this toil remains repetitive and exhausting, our potential patently greater than a recurrent boulder roller. There are better ways to live than just wallowing in absurdity. We can engineer absurdity better, and at least if we do end up as Sisyphus, toiling tragically for nothing, we can say we tried to build something along the way.
Such a fate is only an inevitability when stuck in overly linear ways of thinking and doing. We have many more options than rolling boulders. We must work diagonally to plan and persuade ourselves and others, that life is not just very worth sustaining, but can be prudently made so much better. Herein lies the answer. By inspecting and systematising methods for all to improve their cognitive performance, our sympathy, and our systemic understanding of the whole, we can attack the elements of culture and material existence that collectively constrain our generational potential. In so doing, we must repudiate hubris and doctrinaire certainty, guarding collectively against complacencies we cannot afford to sustain, but can easily mend. To make these exercises in optimisation possible requires an artful but rigorous Odyssean philosophy. The first steps are melding the Dionysian and Apollonian drives, ensuring method, medium, and message are in synergy. Providing their asymmetries are well-related, and the perspectival relativity of social knowledge embraced via consensus building integration, a better politics can be instantiated. This better politics would pursue first and foremost common concerns, and empower through universal psychological tendencies. Ideally this is one illustrative contribution to this.
Our Spring is breaking. It can be stormy or soothing, convection currents and countercurrents stirring seasonal airs into volatility, with tipping points pushing breeze into gale imperceptibly crossed. By our generational high summer, it may be too late to stop the Material Monsters from destroying our physical and psychological security. If we unconsciously allow them to unfold, we will have collapsed like those constructing the Tower of Babel; hubristic, undone by our distinctions, fraying and falling to Earth in a telling reminder that unless we learn creatively and critically, and communicate resonantly, we won’t have anything of note to transmit after the flood. Instead of descending into dissonance, let’s make Spring Break the Millennial Season of Life Affirmation. While celebrating the hedonism our systems have bestowed, and we have earned, let us moreover redouble ourselves to intelligent and prescient listening, learning, and acting for those who cannot, as only an Odyssean generation can.
Notes & Contributions
This has been an introductory statement; a reverse coda, an act in philosophical feedforward to spark ideas, stimulate dialogue and set the contours for a future collaborative research project [feel free to contact me after finals, in mid-June, for extended queries]. Join me in going further beyond; let us take back control as a generation confident in our compassion, direct in diffusing power, and prescient in our attitude to superabundance. We can and must make the world anew. This must be done without coercion, but with persuasion, without shrill tones, but honourable passion. Not without the din of battle, but more powerfully through the resonance of dialogue.
[Special thanks to Denis Noble for inspiring dialogue. I also thank Krister Rasmussen, Michael Burns, Brian Wong, William Willis, and John Fitzgerald for their valuable contributions. Your insights and friendship are indispensable.]
I leave you with a track that speaks a thousand words: