Collectively Imagining Change, Part 3
Making the Move to Meta-Modern Monetary Theory
In this trilogy of articles (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I interpolate Tomas Bjorkman’s magnum opus The World We Create: From God to Market, which is designed to awaken us to our own social constructions and develop a more conscious society based on evolutionary and complexity thinking, and ultimately reimagine monetary relations. I reviewed some broader themes of his book and the implications of the movement in an article titled The World We’re Creating (2018), which I followed up with The World That’s Emerging (2020). This is a process that invites our network as well as the whole of humanity into a collective imaginary generative of the paradigm shift. We need to collectively wake up and upgrade the social imaginary to match the shifting complex terrain of 21st century global civilization, while changing the money system at the same time.
Can we write our own story to have a happy ending for everyone, when history can seem like little more than the perpetual rise and fall of empires, an endless procession of paradoxes and ever greater existential risks? The intensity of the 21st century, packed with paradigmatic revelations, is forcing us to grow up quickly. Here, at the start of the third decade in, its time to will a new collective imaginary into existence, one that upgrades our whole thought perspective by reconstructing the constitutive rules of markets and money especially, enabling a Deliberately Developmental Society. Despite countless innovations, inventions, and progressive leaps, what we are ultimately proposing has never been done on this scale or economic focus, and that is the point.
As we come to the third act, the story has to resolve itself if its to grant us any solace, closure, or catharsis, assuming we even survive potential collapse. Here we must commit to cooperatively break through our shared illusions, and co-create an immanent collective imaginary that restructures our society to be efficient, fair, and meaningful in some consistent and convergent way. This requires the mobilization of political will and capital investment in the public sector across the board, and directly in people, to reach the tipping point before the window closes. If it is missed, we will have cascade failure.
On one hand, we know exactly what needs to be done in minimum universal terms and goals. This is the general direction of history, and we have many precedents to learn from, not least the Nordic “Secret” about human development. One of the main takeaways from Bouchard is understanding how the mythic past and present interrelate to imagine the desired future. Another is accommodating the profound complexity of the human condition. Similar to how it has happened in the past, we can resolve debates and reform institutions to benefit the people and environment, though this has never been easy. On the other hand, part of what we have to do now collectively is truly unprecedented and transformational. We are doubly bound by our fragile global interdependence and unsustainable growth vectors.
There are many things we have to do all at once, but only a paradigmatic shift in money provides the universality and leverage to transition quickly and effectively. Bjorkman would know a thing or two about this, since he left the corrupt world of banking to pursue systems change and social entrepreneurship. His view is that money and markets today are “arbitrary social constructions without much anchoring in physical reality” (319) anymore.
According to conventional monetary logic, wealth and value is originally rooted in very material things — commodities, resources — and money evolved as a medium of exchange later, taking various forms and currencies. Today there are long lists of financial instruments, a dizzying array of monetary products, services, and vernacular that relate to commerce. This abstraction of finance is what obscures its own attractor to monopoly, the unchecked profit motive, making the wealth gap grow too top heavy, leading inevitably to socio-economic collapse.
Markets are not only made up by us, but represent necessary self-organizing systems of ecological exchange. This fact is often exploited to naturalize the supposed supremacy of the market writ large, but this sustains the pathologies in our social construction of ‘the market’. The market has so many constituent parts its difficult to really understand how it works today, let alone how it evolved historically. The market is both socially constructed and self-organizing, and debates often fail to consider both aspects (320). As humans began to scale up social complexity and network activity, the autonomy of capital became more untethered from its concrete forms. For example, wealth accumulates interest but generates no value; it extracts profit without doing any work.
The interactions between the self-organizing aspects and socially-constructed aspects of the market can cause much inefficiency, injustice, and meaninglessness (329); the opposite of what we want. This is why we must redesign our social reality — our superstructure, if you will. Bjorkman understands how “the market is a deeply political creation” (325), the result of ongoing political decisions throughout history across the world. The market has many rules and regulations designed to produce fairness, but also loopholes, perverse incentives, and special interests to exploit vulnerabilities. Our new collective imaginary must overtake the hegemony of ideology (as argued in Emergentsia #4), because “we can no longer hide behind the free market myth” (330).
We can go beyond market myths by taking responsibility for the rent-seeking tendencies and negative outcomes. We must understand there is actually two invisible hands of the market (331), not one. One to bake the cake, one to slice it, as Bjorkman puts it. Similarly, the way I’ve thought about it is that the invisible hand of market efficiency is paired with a hidden fist of state hegemony, exercising the so-called ‘legitimate’ monopoly on violence.
In both metaphors, the hands seem to have a selfish mind of their own, but they are really just hand-puppets projecting shadows of our collective behavior, mediated through imaginary constructions like states, markets, religions, language, race, gender, ideology itself, etc… We can take command of those invisible hands, put a stop to the abuse, and massage mother earth back to health, but there is still the problem of our politics blocking the way.
Politics seems to defy logic or reason, asserting itself as an ongoing experiment and means of change, making marginal improvements but not without enormous difficulty to achieve simple baselines of human rights, however much we might be improving overall by selective metrics. Philosophy has its perennial problems, and society has its wicked thorny ones, but it is time to work at the edges of these paradoxes and solve them in a collective way. Bjorkman believes we can untie the proverbial Gordian knot by seeing it through various perspectives. Transpersonal psychology reveals a certain universality of humankind, and the need for adaptive yet system-wide foundations for flourishing.
The idea of ‘Society as God’ presents both a perennial and wicked problem, because there is no apparent consciousness at the level of our social body, let alone markets. We are only a super-organism metaphorically and holographically insofar as we share a cultural imaginary that structures our relations. Society is not actually an organism that we are cells of and in service to, but rather the other way around: we are organisms collaborating in a shared hallucination not reducible to the sum of its parts.
Society emerges and is ostensibly there to serve us, to develop humans to a baseline where we can build lasting institutions through a sustainable collective imaginary. But society constantly lets us down precisely because it’s not a conscious agent, only we are. Thus, we know we need to change the system, but we must evolve with the change at the same time. We know how to do it, but it still requires spreading this knowledge, and taking a leap of faith together. We know we can’t go back, only forward. The problem of politics leads many to want to work around it, but this is a fool’s errand.
Politics is the means by which to control the state and grant power to the public, but it rarely works as it should. Political lobbies technically engage in closed-door “conspiracies” (334), influencing political outcomes in subtle ways that leaves much room for plausible deniability. Negative externalities are knowingly not accounted for in bookkeeping and the harm to our generation and future ones is repressed (336).
The constitutive rule sets of the market currently give more rights to shareholders than stakeholders and consumers, not to mention citizens. The more rich and powerful the financial actor, the more easily they profit from breaking the law (344). Penalties are much worse for individuals than for corporations, which makes no sense from the perspective of governance, or people for that matter.
Instead of special interests, we must unite and co-create a collective imaginary in the public interest. Capitalism as a system has created and hidden the majority of its wealth over time, creating artificial scarcity. Today there is a fetishizing of hoarding money, where richer is seen as better regardless of how much the capital is productive or is simply rent-seeking. A handful of obscenely rich people exercise unfathomable political power with financial leverage, donating to causes where its profitable, not supporting genuine progressivism, while also contributing to the decay of public discourse. What’s worse is that they actually think they’re helping half the time, when all they really would have to do is advocate for political change that benefits ordinary people.
By market ideology encroaching on the public realm, especially through 50 years of neoliberal austerity, it has created a ‘value vacuum’ (459) at the root of many social problems. Our personal growth is further inhibited thereby making it harder to evolve our culture. The new floating cultural imaginary can be an attractor for such necessary development, but the material scaffolding of a welfare state is still a bare minimum. Done properly, an upgrade to our imaginary expands our “circle of belonging” to include the whole world and manifold perspectives.
More conscious cultures are fostered by deliberate development, as sometimes formalized by organizations and movements. The metamodern thought perspective requires delicate balancing of perspectives and prescriptions. A vanguard can often lead by changing debate dynamics to be more nuanced, honest, and functional as a collective intelligence. By devaluing advertising manipulation and the manufacture of consent, we can instead scaffold people to upgrade their cultural code. We need to use our words, language, and discourse better to foster this conscious evolution (480). Language is our fundamental interface with reality and our imaginaries. We must continually defeat and vanquish unacceptable views and behavior, like racism, murder, theft, and the incitement of such (482). The new collective imaginary must weed out the pathologies (483), and seed the conditions for thriving.
Steger’s book The Rise of the Global Imaginary demystifies capitalism’s efforts to force deregulation and privatization as the answer to social problems and poor living standards. Another world is certainly possible, but imagining it together remains difficult in a post-truth public discourse and political atmosphere that discourages such shared dreams. In the article Money, Relativism, and the Post-Truth Political Imaginary (2017), Elizabeth Goodstein invokes’s Simmel’s sociology in his underrated classic The Philosophy of Money (1900), from over a century ago. Simmel’s idea was that money enabled human agency, so his method “turns relativity into a philosophical resource”; into “infinite reciprocity”. Goodstein’s interpolations of Simmel go to the limits of knowledge practice today, and can help guide us through the surreal intersection of technological progress and post-truth politics today.
Simmel’s approach to money frames it in terms of means to participate in relations; money as freedom. Goodstein argues that we need a revisionist history in the ““post-truth” political imaginary” to actualize our new imaginary, writing, “we will need to forge a public discourse that can address the complexity and ambiguity of a historical situation…”. This is akin to this metamodern project we’ve been working on for many years.
Goodstein’s arguments beget a sense that we as a society still haven’t properly learned the basic lessons of critical theory and the postmodern forms that institutionalized it, hard lessons that were drawn from the horrors of global total war and social injustice. She goes all the way back to Simmel’s time because this is nearer the roots of “the modern metadisciplinary ordering of knowledge practices” which are called into question today.
Goodstein notes that Trump is the epitome of what Simmel calls “money culture” — the greed, cynicism, and amorality that money inspires in us — describing him as the “prototypical embodiment of the nihilistic mode of valuation that has long since gained hegemony in consumer capitalism.” Writing of the ascendent Trump administration and chaotic news cycles she notes “there is an eerie sense of having entered into a permanent state of emergency” and democracy has been hollowed out.
Despite all the dysfunction, she also highlights the silver lining of a “new golden era of political comedy”, for which satirists arguably play an important role in undermining illegitimate power and narratives, as well as fostering flexible critical thinking skills. Now that we are lucidly in the liminal phase of a great crisis and transition, with the corona pandemic enforcing a controlled drawdown of social activity, and global protest waves consolidating the messaging and political will, it can be hard to see the humour in it when so much of the trauma and loss could have been avoided.
Scholars of metamodernism have written about ‘the joke that is no longer funny’, referring to the move into post-irony and sincere-irony. Ergo, we must keep in good spirits amidst the tragedy, as Goodstein points to in Simmel, speaking of the “lightly ironic sensitivity to the limits of every truth, [he] was well aware of the dangers of nihilism” as the basis for his “cultivation of a worldly practice of thinking that attends to the philosophical significance of lived experience.” This cosmopolitan ethos is still a key part of the new imaginary needing to emerge, requiring our continued practice.
In the paper Crisis, liminality and the decolonization of the social imaginary (2019), Angelos Varvarousis demystifies the term social imaginary and explains how it needs to be decolonized for degrowth to work. Varvarousis summarizes Castoriadis’ definition of social imaginary as “the shared collective imagination distilled in specific institutions, which operates as the ‘‘glue’’ that holds a society together by being a representation of it”. Castoriadis foregrounded the social part of the imaginary, stressing it is society that creates the individual, and not vice-versa. Social imaginaries can change, and be used for change, but only through the “liminal phase associated with the crisis.” The paper argues that a decolonized paradigm shift in the social imaginary is not a linear process but “involves ruptures, asymmetries, accelerations and moments of stagnation and reversal”.
Castoriadis believed that society could change course if a majority realize the current path is untenable, hence a focus also put on “citizenship education”, which sounds like Bjorkman’s fondness for Bildung. However, as Suzi Adams notes, “Castoriadis did not use the term Bildung, which he saw as too attached to German idealism to be of any use.” At any rate, these ideas can be upgraded and synthesized in a metamodern context. This is apropos of my revisionist approach in the Missing Metamodernism series, which provides several new lenses that challenge and integrate with the dominant schools of metamodern thought, and which I followed up with Mapping Metamodernism for Collective Intelligence. The new social imaginary is truly global yet necessarily decolonized and degrowth oriented.
At JStor Daily, Gershon writes about how the current pandemic is a preview for the climate crisis, and it is time to apply various degrowth principles to slow the economy and take pressure of the planet and people. In the Irish Times, David McWilliams argues we must “totally reimagine monetary economics” and “choose economic hibernation” by “putting the economy to sleep”. He notes that the European Central Bank is on its way to doing so and providing “helicopter money” to avoid economic paralysis.
This need for (public) money to fund such a paradigm shift is best described through the lens of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a discourse that describes the positive role of the state in creating and distributing money. It is increasingly entering the public consciousness, and being talked about in various circles. Helping to definitively establish this new zeitgeist, Stephanie Kelton, a leader in MMT and advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign, has recently published her book The Deficit Myth (June 9, 2020).
MMT has a similar invective against the market myth, but extends further to the subject of capital. In Declarations of Dependence (2018), Scott Ferguson provides a powerful fusion of MMT and a renewed critical theory, linking money and the politics of care. MMT is a long history of economic thought convergent with the present opportunity for reconstituting the collective imaginary of money. Ferguson presents a very complex argument about how critical social theory has been ultimately impoverished by the hegemony of private capital. Put another way, Marxian economics undermines itself by conceiving of money in terms defined and limited by capitalists.
Through MMT, money is defined as a virtually unlimited public resource. From this fountain of wealth, we can conjure infrastructure, public works, social programs, education, entrepreneurship, guaranteed jobs, universal basic income, etc. We can of course also make war, and that is usually how MMT’s money is wasted, levelling cities and lining the pockets of profiteers. At any rate, the question of ‘how are you going to pay for it?’ is entirely moot. The only question is how to fix all our social and ecological crises with said money. MMT works not by magic but by busting the myth of money as only finite private capital. We already have the best ideas of how to invest in the public sector, such as a global Green New Deal and universal healthcare and education.
The bottomline of MMT theory is that the modern state has a relatively unlimited capacity to spend on addressing various social and environmental crises. It can’t run out of its own money. This in itself is technically a way out of the meta-crisis, but our political imaginary obstructs how to reconstitute socio-economics at the root level, even though it continually uses MMT to bail out the private sector. These monetary insights get politicized and opposed for the sake of an increasingly corrupt neoliberal political economy. Ferguson writes that “austerity is a cruel fiction, an unnecessary condition that can be instantly reversed.”
Ferguson describes how the “Liberal” imaginary of money has hidden its true potential to liberate people. Abstract capital is instead evaporated from the public sector into powerful private hands. Through deconstructing the capitalist realist absurdity inherent to the latest Bond franchise, Ferguson reveals the politics of fear that obscure the real potential of governments to ‘save the world’, so to speak, through spending rather than spying. As Andres Bernal, an MMT expert and advisor to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez writes, “…we are so close to breaking the grip of economic misinformation on the social imagination in its entirety.” Can you imagine?
These are major steps towards a metamodern collective imaginary, and a necessary metamodern economics (perhaps a Meta-Modern Monetary Theory). We are in a process of moving towards an ideal type of a socio-political collective intelligence that is just, sustainable, efficient, and naturally peaceful. It requires acts of consensus-building and collective decision-making, to change the constitutive rules of society for a collaborative transition to an efficient, meaningful, and fair world for all.
The convergence of needs in many universal forms — including income, healthcare, education, housing, democracy — has brought us to the liminal edge of the ever-present moment of truth and reckoning, where we are obligated to provide peoples’ rights and meet their demands for such things. We can locally and globally actively co-create a thriving future and steady state, if we could only imagine it together. As Bjorkman writes in The World We Create, from our mysterious creation of culture in the upper Paleolithic to our made up markets today, we socially construct our world but then repress the social. We have always imagined a better world, but at last we understand the means by which we actually create it.
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