Metamodernism and The Left
Taking Turns at the Edge of the Paradigm Shift
- Introduction: A Metamodern Left Turn
- Political Left Overton Window
- Metamodern (Re-)Orientation
- The Cosmopolitan Socialist Left
- An Acid Trip down Memory (Hole) Lane
- Enter Alter-Metamodernism
- Unfinished Business and Loose Ends
- Conclusion: Convergence on the Event Horizon
Introduction: A Metamodern Left Turn
Metamodernism is a transpartisan project but necessarily with politically leftist roots; one that potentially includes many stripes of people in a big reorientation. We define and prove this point by affirming that metamodernism at least reflects the following gestures; an academic response to post-postmodernism(s), not just postmodernism; the concept of alter-globalization being central (Vermeullen and van den Akker); some marxist roots, sincere-ironically, with self-described leftist-background authors (Vermeulen and van den Akker, again); green social democracy 2.0 (Hanzi Freinacht); open-politics; anti-war; artistic/ post-liberal aesthetic sensibility; and a post-secular spirituality, to name a few key features.
With these things in mind, the texture of metamodernism is about the apparent ‘return’ of history, historicity, affect, and depth (V&V) in the 21st century that left-wing millennials and zoomers most acutely feel, as well as paradoxical syntheses like informed naivety, sincere irony, and pragmatic idealism that are a few major themes that spawned interest over a decade ago. Solarpunk, afrofuturism, and decolonialism are key aspects of metamodernism and unambiguously global leftist endeavours, whereas crude esoteric ethnocentrism like ‘archeofuturism’ are typical of ‘meta-’ thinking on the right, not to mention Dugin’s neofascism, for example. There is no comparison, and the latter is just hypermodern.
Vermeulen describes how at one of their metamodern conferences “it was very brave of Fukuyama to come to that event because he knew that everyone else there was not a fan… that everyone else there was basically both left wing and did not really believe him…” (@22:10). Though for them it is not a normative political project, it is certainly compatible with one, and increasingly convergent. Despite this candid affiliation from Vermeulen, many still recoil my claim that metamodernism and left politics constitute a necessary synergy. Likewise, Hanzi Freinacht, being a synthetic representative of Scandinavian social democracy, is naturally ‘left’ of the entire framing the United States is used to, but as we will see he tries to bridge the gaps in the abstract.
Samuel Ludford, author of “Against Metamodernism”, offered me some good feedback on a draft of this present article, suggesting we frame it as such:
“despite a resurgence of grassroots activism in recent years, the left has found itself stuck in impasses x, y, and z. When we examine the reasons behind this, we find a common theme: left political thought is grounded in postmodern frames of analysis. While these frameworks provide unique insights, ultimately they are purely reactive, and lead to the left being placed on the backfoot with no clear constructive vision. Among other things, this has made the left vulnerable to attacks from e.g. the “Intellectual Dark Web”. Metamodernism solves this problem by showing how to take the core critical insights of postmodern critique and refashion them as the basis of constructive social projects, etc.”
Regardless of what we supplant for ‘x, y, and z’, the fact of the impasse is very real and tangible. This sort of observation has been a key part of the zeitgeist, going back over a decade, but it has scarcely actualized in left politics. As such, metamodernism as we define it is a (nous) leftist political project continually needing renewal; that is the central claim and imperative of this article. This article began mostly as a literature review that supports this thesis, but is necessary also a call-to-action, building on my previous works doing both. The political spectrums and maps matter more than ever. It is precisely because politics and identities are rapidly shifting that the presumed obsolescent models are so informative still. For what it means to be “leftist” generally is to be notably more avant-garde and progressive than the neoliberal “center”, which is then often subsumed into the austerity and traditionalism of the “right”. Letting the humanity of all people blind one to this fact of political asymmetry and decay is at the core of our stuckness. As such, memes like the political “ratchet” (see also, ratchet effect) seem to explain the dysfunctional salience of the political wings more than anything. The only way out is beyond, via a series of left turns.
There are systemic undercurrents that effect all positions. That is not to say different political opinions are at all comparable, and I constantly rail against the lazy “both-sides” fallacy, but it is to say at once that while the left is better than the right today (which is not at all clear to mass voters), all of it is to an extent ‘captured’, and so our work is constantly co-opted back by ‘the system’. The both-sides fallacy famously conflates and equivocates (whether intentionally or not) between left and right political efforts. Increasing polarization over the history of the neoliberal legacy has made it easier to point out the extremism and fundamentalism on the right, a corollary that absolutely does not exist on the left. This is clear when it comes to climate change, for example, as the supposed naiveté of a ‘tree-hugger’ activist is entirely incomparable with the inhumanity of a (denialist) corporate fossil-fuel executive. Even in cases of eco-terrorism, this falls off the edge into obscurity compared to the prevalence of far-right inspired mass shootings.
An aside: imagine the mental gymnastics involved in pretending “Pro-Life” conservative views on abortion are in any way valid or good faith against “Pro-Choice” standards. While pretending there is a new debate to be had is malpractice on the face of it, the fight still has to be won again, just like it does with “Critical Race Theory”. And a parallel problem is asserting that there is only two sides in the first place, when in reality even in the US two-party system, there is a majority Independent bloc of voters, and consequently political conflict also really distills into three factions; eco-socialist, liberal, conservative. Alternatively, for Game B readers, this would be like recognizing a Green Temple on top of Jordan Hall’s utterly obtuse terms from a Trump subreddit, Blue Church and Red Religion.
Through being an insider in Hanzi Freinacht’s forum, the Emerge network, and several metamodernism facebook groups, It has been evident to me for the past 5–6 years that a large share, possibly a majority, of people attracted to metamodern discourse scarcely have a grasp on what it is or can be. They have opinions without reading any source material, and bringing in a mish-mash of abstract ideas and systems they want to see integrated. When new information is introduced, such as this left narrative, they object. I have touched on this divergence in previous articles, particularly the vast knowledge gaps between the two major schools of thought, what I call the “Dutch” or “Nordic” approaches, the failure of people to read comparatively, not to mention my abstract and revisionist contributions and interventions for a broader inclusive metamodernism. The more complex and deep a work is, the more prone it may be to superficial readings and varied interpretations. This of course happened with “Integral Theory”, which was deeply flawed in the first instance.
Hanzi may have you believe this boils down to ‘developmental’ differences between people, but this often becomes weaponized as an excuse to play hierarchical games and avoid dealing with conflict resolution and political organizing directly. With a good faith reading and discourse on metamodernism, anyone can be scaffolded or initiated into a common sense understanding. In this sense, developmentalism may hold true, but also at the risk of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents transformation.
Again, metamodernism has always been a leftist project, but as so many academics are uncomfortable declaring partisanship, whether for cynical or practical reasons, the political potency gets diluted. As such we sometimes have a very bland centrist looking metamodern project, if one at all; a metamodernism that gets hung up on left/right distinctions because its semantically confusing, if not politically divisive. But this is the point, to reject that flattening of politics, to necessarily take (the left) sides to go beyond sides, as historicizing does. The moderate political curation by the “liminal web” core groups is a sort of kumbaya kayfabe, a performance of camaraderie over solidarity, of conversation over conversion. It is weak and prone to reactionary currents, and I’ve noted carefully over the years.
Political Left-Overton Window
When is change possible? With the successive defeats of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, the “left” is in shambles. Noam Chomsky considered Bernie’s runs a success, given that the momentum spilled over into things like socialism being relatively established and mobilized in grassroots movements and discourse, “The Squad” congress members getting elected, and Bernie becoming Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. But few leftists today would agree that we have much of a functional coalition. Factionalism still reins supreme, and Biden carries forward a decadent and austere status-quo. Progress is often relative, whereas the left dreams of a progress that is universal and regenerative.
A lot of post-Bernie discourse was quick to process its grief and offer a grounding path forward, rooted in the long-standing conviction that Bernie’s platform was always the proto-synthesis, the best option available, the starting threshold of a new period of left struggle, not the end in itself. Getting him in office would be half the battle, and everyone seemed to know this from the random surrogate on the street to Bernie himself. Breaking away from Matt Christman’s cathartic ramblings, to Michael Brooks’ post-Bernie stream, to the MMT podcast Superstructure’s inaugural episode “Critique After Bernie”, a sense of continuity and spirit of renewal was affirmed, staunchly against the cynical backdrop of defeat.
The political left still needs a new meta- turn to coalesce and organize for the biggest paradigm shift in human history, and can find scaffolding and inspiration in metamodernism. There is a huge gap between those who still employ the term postmodernism and the emergence of metamodernism. A hard reset is needed. Otherwise we are just continuously “Left Reckoning”, to give a friendly nod to Matt Lech and David Griscom’s post-Brooks show. There’s no reason for metamodernism to remain mystified; one could start with the lengthly wiki article on it, trusting to an extent its open-source nature. I’ve written a number of introductions to metamodernism, though there is almost too much varied information to easily distill, and it seems to morph (often sideways) as a discourse.
This article offers a uniquely leftist introduction, by newly introducing some of the overlooked touchpoint with leftist spaces. This article amplifies the calls to action there to take on this challenge systemically, for a big tent, transformative politics, informed by a very historicizing meta-narrative for our times. It is vital the left participate in this project, lest it be conceded to technocratic moderates, centrists, and/or reactionaries.
The metamodern project as variously defined aims at something transpartisan, to solve the so-called ‘meta-crisis’. To seize those very meta-memes of production is a politically taboo move, because it implies bias, competition, and even conflict. But metamodernism could show a way for the left to transcend itself and achieve its policy goals through unconventional, perhaps Machiavellian, means. Again, I insist that this happens not through wishful and tentative centrism, but more like leftist landslides, where political opponents are won over through conversion.
As there is already mass support for progressive policies like universal health care and other no-brainers, closing the democratic deficit is through honest disclosure is the priority. Universalist platforms are currently only supported by left politics, and so we need a responsible left that can win, wield power, and institutionalize these necessary transformations. The fog of culture war that has held back the socialist emergence is decisively not the metamodern milieu that some claim; meaning, it cannot be this ambiguous uncertainty towards the crisis, it necessarily requires conviction and ongoing praxis. While they’re waiting for it to emerge, they are also holding it back.
The rarefied air of metamodernism can be a turn-off in itself. I’ve been immersed in discussions for over 5 years, and developing my own ideas and feelings about it for over 10. It has necessarily evolved, and revealed structural limitations in the academic project itself. Yet rather than just fade away, metamodernism has been taken up by different schools of thought, and bets have been placed on a new wave emerging.
Metamodernism is necessarily something else besides and beyond modernism, postmodernism, and even post-postmodernism. That is important, but far from the full story. Metamodernism emerges in a cluster of post-postmodernisms, and is a discourse punctuated by about 300 or so unique sources or commentaries, with a few dominating the field and fostering scholarly and artistic communities. Having to repeat this fact against its banal appropriation as something more reactionary like “Integral” or “sensemaking” is intensely depressing and disabling. Hanzi himself is highly critical of Integral, though this is still missed by many readers due to some overlap.
Two main approaches dominate, but as I have noted for several years, people attracted to one school are unaware of the other, or vaguely aware at best, but not interested in both. Notably, what I called the “Dutch school” of cultural metamodernism by Vermeulen, van den Akker, and others, and the “Nordic school” being a developmental and meta-political alternative approach pioneered by a fictional Swiss philosopher Hanzi Freinacht and a network of thinkers and activists. I have accepted these major schools of thought, even though I have suggested at a least a fusion if not a broader school since before both of these movements settled in.
Particularly since 2017, with the publication of two respective books, these influences have started to overwhelm the interpretive capacity of the concept, in mostly good ways granted people actually read them. It provided clarity to things that were hinted at in scattered papers and blog posts. It sort of presented two parallel paradigms at once. Curiously, most people versed with one were not familiar with the other. Both these schools have been subject to critique and revisionism somewhat. The forgotten story of metamodernism proper begins at the end of the Cold War, and so in some senses we are 30 years behind schedule by not knowing its own history.
See my 4-Part series called Missing Metamodernism (2, 3, 4), where I recount how some of the best sources were ones missing from the contemporary push for metamodernism. I would describe my project as a sort of Abstract school synthesizing all of it, and providing some original lines of insight. At this point, all of this is incredibly old-hat to me, things I’ve covered, but necessary to plow through for the present article. I have not referenced my own work much throughout, but it is all on this Medium publication, which I call a ‘hypertextbook’ rather than a blog.
There is more to the big picture as a new anthology Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds tries to demonstrate. Around and between the two dominating modes of metamodernism is a sort of archipelago of smaller contributions, sometimes independent of each other, some of which seem to clarify a broader holographic vision, and some don’t. The story today is one in metamorphosis, the shifting expression of the concept is tracked through works such as this, and through its political action.
Some scholars could see around the curve of history, beyond Fukuyama’s “end”, but lesser theories have often prevailed, and a zeitgeist of false consciousness marched us into a hypermodern (hyperreal) desert. So some metamodern work is more anticipatory and some more reflexive, but we arrive at the same sense of a “bend” of history, a conjuncture of globalization, meta-narratives, and various crisis and emergences under the rubric labelled metamodernism.
When presented with these ideas, sometimes people are flippant, demanding you give them an elevator pitch or a synopsis rather than engage the text themselves. This sort of reaction is partially ingrained in our own patterns of meaning production and employment, overdetermined by our short attention spans, reified identities, and blinkered views of the needs of the times. The injunction “read theory” is often taken as a dismissive insult rather than sound advice, especially when it’s given to those misrepresenting theory.
A couple more examples are in order. On the right, Steven Hicks writes and lobbies for a very anti-postmodern agenda, even writing a book about postmodernism (Jordan Peterson’s favourite source), while largely repudiating metamodernism without reading it or even acknowledging it. On the left, Jacobin has hosted Catherine Liu in detailing the deficits of postmodernism, while simultaneously showing no interest in metamodernism (I asked her) and often rebuffing MMT scholars too. Are they correct to wave it off, or is this a massive blind spot? I argue the latter. Is ignorance how we build an effective left, let alone a broader turn in the social sciences? It would seem obvious that it is not.
An Acid Trip down Memory (Hole) Lane
The US political left is weak and fragmented — according to too many prominent leftists themselves. This may be one thing all agree on, while otherwise infighting. The ideas of metamodernism, a confluence of related movements, discourses, and thematic attractors, can likely help. I find affinity with something like (Mark Fisher’s vision of) acid communism as a holding pattern for the metamodern mind in a tense political consciousness, but Fisher was not an explicit metamodernist. He also exited this world by his own hand, submitting to the battle with capitalist depression. The following interviews nonetheless add weight to ideas like this.
Metamodernism has a few important touchpoint on the left. For example, Luke Turner went on Zero Books podcast (2018). Turner recounts the backstory of his involvement with the concept, and describes facets of it as a “simultaneity of positions” and “romantic reaction to the crisis of our time”. He further explains that it emerges in the “spirit of openness and beginnings that came after [Fukuyama]… which literally came tumbling down in 9/11…” also noting the financial crisis, as very salient for our (millennial) generation. These and other insights prompted Doug Lain to insist “I want metamodernism to be a part of the left project…” and “clearly metamodernism then can be used as a political tool… or has a political edge to it.” Their convo is not particularly long, and spends a lot of time on art, but it is nonetheless an important conjunction of a prospective meta- left.
Breht O’Shea and Austin Hayden Smidt approached the political implications of metamodernism for nearly two hours on Revolutionary Left Radio (2018). Early on they discuss Bo Burnham, and in particular a Wisecrack video about him that Austin made. Along the same lines, Wisecrack has also discussed metamodernism explicitly in The Philosophy of SHIA LABEOUF. Along the same lines of the Zero Books interview, this framing of metamodernism is the most dominant culturally (but even then it is still quite obscure, seldom invoked).
They also touch on Jordan Peterson throughout, how he hijacks postmodernism, recycles boogeyman tropes, and is a product of postmodernism and neoliberalism himself. These encounters caused Austin to faithfully interrogate what postmodernism actually is, and what its real alternatives are, leading to post-postmodernism and metamodernism. Meanwhile the broader left synchronously was groaning and getting to work debunking Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web. This is why in my own work I’ve presented metamodernism as a foil against the various anti-postmodern movements.
Smidt’s entry into the left was through Christian charity ethics, but when he discovered liberation theology, things started to click beyond organized religion, and towards understanding the leftist political mobilization of what is considered Christian love. As I have noted elsewhere, liberation theology is a key part of a metamodern discourse, and this has become affirmed in the book Dispatches in a Time Between Worlds. It’s a post-secular answer to the necessary waning of organized religion and need for spirituality.
About an hour in Smidt and O’Shea start to advocate a left ecumenical movement, to combine and bridge leftist traditions, to organize against asymmetrical power. They talk about how postmodernism brings spirituality back in, but not necessarily in healthy forms. and how the possibility of metamodernism invites a new metaphysics that can empower leftist politics (whereas Marxist atheism can disempower it). They then return to discussing Bo Burnham and get into the sincerity and meaning intrinsic to metamodern art, the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism through the 80s, and escalating to how 9/11 “really changed some shit”.
Towards the end, they unpack how millions of people will die or be displaced by climate change, and argue for a (new) folk political or horizontal movement to address it, thinking metamodernism could be it. Drawing on Sergei Prosorov, they articulate how we can and must have universal standards for a narrative (and provisioning) ’for all’. They round out the conversation suggesting other works that may be part of a metamodern turn. In short, we may need to integrate and synthesize just about everything “in our critiques of political economy” in order to be effective against reactionary trends.
Smidt also feels the need to affirm that “this shit is hard man. This is hard. Like, this is hard.” This sentiment is really worth repeating, because it speaks to my personal experience and knowledge that a real paradigm shift is harder than we think. This article has been one of my hardest to finish, as it really strikes at the heart of paradox and threading the needle of political persuasion. Smidt argues that we need to be patient with each other, while also summoning the discipline to take on these projects. Everything I’ve recounted above is consistent with a wider metamodern project, but not actually linked up coherently in practice. That’s what we need to do now.
Given how nebulous metamodernism can feel (and I’d know), it is understandable that the left, including these particular comrades, have not continued talking about it much, or participated in the metamodern discourse. But this is what I’m arguing needs to change. A discourse needs the best prompts to be sustainable, as well as a collective will, and the left needs to embrace grappling with a metamodern turn as soon as it can. There is now a sufficient reading list to formalize this turn on a broader left.
In short, a metamodern left is universalist and tentatively transpartisan but not ‘post-left’ or engaged in any of what are called ‘Red-brown alliances’ between far left and far right elements of the political spectrum. This means we stay true to our progressive values, not compromising to the known pitfalls of political centrism or partisanship. Metamodernism is nominally somewhere between and beyond left and right politics, between everything, as per it’s post-political post-capitalist aspirations. But this tension is something I’ve long tried to reconcile and argue must be reconciled through left political transformation and success; what Bernie suggests is a peaceful “political revolution”.
Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that metamodernism sufficiently explains both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. While it can explain them both, it certainly does not mean Donald Trump is metamodern. As Bo Burnham laments, “it’s Donald Trump… I mean… it’s Donald Trump”, emphasizing the absurdity that reality TV has become reality, and virtually nothing can be said on it. I’ve argued that Vermeullen and van den Akker err in their theory, as the latter (Trump) is better understood as a feature of hypermodernism. They set themselves up to be misunderstood by not invoking this distinction. A theory or discourse that claims to contextualize or categorize such disparate phenomenon undercuts its own explanatory power. That is not to say they aren’t related or clearly juxtaposed, but that they could easily be labeled and differentiated more rigorously. Thus, metamodernism makes the most sense when juxtaposed with hypermodernism.
In 1989, in the twilight of the Cold War, Albert Borgmann proposed that postmodernism was bifurcating into what he called metamodern and hypermodern dominant trends. These terms were never again employed in a paired fashion until I affirmed Borgmann’s view in Missing Metamodernism, and Borgmannian Metamodernism, and more comparatively in my paired articles Mapping Metamodernism for Collective Intelligence and The Hypermodern Highway to Hell.
My approach builds with all the major works; ie, the Dutch School, which also foregrounds “alter-globalization” as helping set the stage and period of metamodernism, and the bifurcated choice between a left-wing “ecosocialist” path and right-wing “neoliberal path (with, possibly, fascist overtones)”. Most of the metamodern writing I’ve seen has a consistent political integrity and sense of justice and normativity we’d expect to see in such writing. However, a key difference is the cultural metamodernism considers itself only descriptive, whereas our broader approach is also prescriptive.
That is to say, metamodernism that emerges from progressive values is not and cannot really be a ‘right-wing’ political project, but why hasn’t it become a left one? The American (as well as International) political left itself will have to answer that question, but from the metamodern side it may be a sort of commitment to transpartisanship. Both Hanzi and myself were early critics of Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web, which alienated many potential readers (as we had already been alienated by them), but we are simply maintaining a commitment to progressive core principles, scholarly integrity, while necessarily advocating systems change that is often beyond the scope or power of conventional left movements. We are also necessarily debunking the insurgence of bad faith discourse, particularly this reactionary wave of new McCarthyism, a resurgence of the old anti-communist red scares of the 50s and 60s.
What does it mean to be transpartisan but leftist? It means to create a paradigm that can institutionalize gains for all people, which special interests oppose. It also means to advocate selflessly for causes like environmentalism. In terms of the culture war, much of this comes down to the ‘right’ opposing whatever the ‘left’ proposes. But the metamodern pitch tries to satisfy all, by going beyond: Hanzi Frienacht, for example, has some excellent slogans (as chapter subheadings) which capture deeper post-political ideas within, such as More Sustainable than Ecologism, More Egalitarian than Socialism, and More Prudent than Conservatism. This is not in any way to capitulate to or compromise with the right-wing neofascist tendencies normalizing suffering and quickening our crisis, including those destructive features of capitalism itself. It is to admit to ourselves that our agendas of sustainability and socialism get co-opted at worst, or come off as one-sided at best, constituting a form of “Game Denial”.
As a brief segue, we can find a perfect example of this ‘paralogical’ type thinking from Solarpunk discourse:
“In politics, solarpunk belongs to the wider tradition of the decentralist left… It rejects the false choice between the Scylla of market capitalism and the Charybdis of state socialism, between rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, instead opting for a society which reconciles a healthy individuality with communal solidarity.” — https://solarpunkanarchists.com/2016/05/27/what-is-solarpunk/
Rather than some tired technocratic centrism that doesn’t work, Hanzi claims that the goals of the left “can become much more feasible in a society that is taking steps towards metamodern institutions”. Taking a step out of the narrow framing of a given social issue, he writes that “inequality is economic, social, physiological, emotional, ecological and informational — and all of these are interconnected”.
Hanzi’s political metamodernism is a sophisticated argument but based on a simple conceit; socialism as we understand it historically will be outcompeted (by something that likely includes socialist baselines anyway). Even our post-conventional strivings for nominal socialism may be in vain, but by defining it more broadly (perhaps avoiding the word), it becomes integrated in all new institutions. At the same time though, the explicit socialist movements are gaining ground globally.
If there is a such thing as a metamodern left vanguard, I believe it is within and between the political mobilization that Bernie Sanders galvanized in the US, and corresponding global socialist movements and protests. Or rather, noting Ludford’s advice, this constitutes flashes of metamodern insight rather than a consistent theme. The Sanders convergence can also largely be considered with the label alter-globalization, a necessary socially conscious revolt against capitalist globalism, instantiated in the 1999 WTO protests and beyond, a feature that Vermeulen and van den Akker noted in their 2017 book.
But still this movement is yet to know itself well enough, or to integrate metamodern insights explicitly and reflexively. Such an undertaking may have strengthened its resolve ever further, anticipated and disarmed the anti-woke crusades, and converted and consolidated more opponents into a critical mass. This is the latent potential. When the left can coalesce around a minimum-viable policy platform, set of values, common knowledge, only then might we call it a paradigm shift.
The MMT-left or MMT-humanities crowd make a very plausible set of claims to a paradigm shift, and they do so without any ‘metamodern’ vernacular. This and other observations has lead me to generative convergences between metamodernism and MMT. The Superstructure hosts talk about “queering money” while their analysis with film theory. Chapter 2 of V&V’s Metamodernism defines a cinematic sensibility of “queer utopianism”. Storm’s new book also stakes affinity with queerness, which overlaps in many other left spaces. This is a form of solidarity but also intellectual praxis. This through line interestingly runs into much opposition in the culture war. Detractors take these advancements as an opportunity to disparage what they call a “trans agenda” allegedly ruining the prospects for a sensible left politics. Such detractors are profoundly mistaken and are consistently capitulating to right-wing talking points, falling prey to culture war dogma and deflections.
The Cosmopolitan Socialist Left
The Michael Brooks Show felt like a hub of major left intellectuals and activists. It constructively tied together a broad base of movement organizing with a geopolitical scope. There was an increasing convergence with metamodernism. In his “4/8 Stream: Bernie Out”, he riffed for nearly 40 minutes on a vision for the left moving forward, and mentioned the term:
“I’ll also mention some people again like Brent Cooper and Jeremy Johnson in the metamodern movement so I think, you know, these are all the different threads and we move back and forth… because we have no choice, we don’t have the luxury of cynicism” (25:14–25:33)
The defeat of the Bernie Sanders movement and partial absorption into the democratic party felt like crushing blows, but in the shadow of defeat Michael retraced a lot of known shortcomings of the Bernie movement in order to affirm that we were prepared for this outcome. With all the necessary critique, he still asserted that there was no reasonable alternative to Bernie as an “unparalleled opportunity… absolute must…” baseline. This was of course very true, which revealed opposition to the Sanders movement as so selfish, entitled, and self-defeating for us as a civilization.
Whether Buttigieg moving from being a essay-writing Bernie fan-boy to a militarized corporate shill, or Elizabeth Warren being encouraged to run by Bernie only to stab him in the back with sexist accusations, or the Intellectual Dark Web wildly over-reacting to the left and buying into right-wing dogma wholesale, it is unavoidably (fake)-leftist infighting that killed the movement, and rallied first behind Clinton in 2016 and then the default choice ex-VP Biden in 2020.
Brooks covered a lot of ground in his post-Bernie stream, but I draw specific attention to where he explicitly gestures toward metamodernism. I have always optimistically called Bernie Sanders a metamodern politician, as was the coalescence around him. Likewise, I have often said that Brooks’ vision is itself a good expression of metamodernism, but these are simply tautologies unless clearly defined, and they’ve never been consciously or explicitly metamodern, which is what I’ve tried to define. Brooks is not pointing to himself or Bernie as metamodern but outward to the specific work that has been done on metamodernism, and between to the unrealized potential for it to fuse with the struggle and win, and likewise, I was pointing back at Brooks for the synthesis.
By calling whatever we want metamodern, it tends to conflate the meaning, and sounds like metamodernism can’t be more. As Samuel Ludford wrote to me “[perhaps] Bernie is being picked out as a one of a few flashes of light against the background of a generally melancholic postmodern left, and you are identifying metamodernism as the common current that unites those flashes.” For where we agree here, this is a more useful commentary and reveals why it is so difficult to see metamodernism, let alone feel it. Whatever flaws the Bernie coalition had, whatever they were wrong about, we were right to converge on Bernie as a candidate and support his largely universalist platform. It was a landmark opportunity against a forced choice between two lesser evils. All of this is to say, we are still not metamodern.
Metamodernism is partly an eclectic quasi-academic discourse about the intersections of post-postmodernism, the anthropocene, capitalocene, post-politics (and radical politics), alter-globalization, and much more. The feelings associated acutely coincide with the turn of the millennia, around the year 2000, the rise of the internet being a staple. It’s own history as a term is scrambled and appropriated where necessary, ironic for it being also ostensibly about the return of history, as well as historicity, affect, and depth. If it is truly all these things, it must converge.
Daniel Bessner said on Majority Report (Aug. 6, 2021) “it’s really the end of the end of history… [where] that moment of consensus” (ie. technocratic Third Way politics) “is decidedly over,” and “we’re in the post-post-Cold war period… we’re in an epistemological crisis…”. Though he likely doesn’t realize it, his analysis is very complementary with the frameworks of metamodernism, where the same things have already been explicated in depth. These sort of sentiments about historicity, epistemic crisis, “post-post-” rhetoric, and the like are common across the literature.
I would argue that how we define metamodernism matters just as much as the context in which Brooks is presenting it. At minimum, there is a sort of historicizing systems-informed revolutionary praxis that I find to be common to legitimate metamodern works, and the people who constellate its thought implicitly and explicitly. Bessner is accidentally giving voice to a sensibility that could benefit from being more explicit, as Brooks was suggesting. In these senses, metamodernism is exclusively a left-wing project and agenda.
In Michael Brooks’ final livestream (July 16, 2020) he brought up metamodernism again. The references were always incidental, a brief tangent in his broader pitch for his cosmopolitan socialism. That is because metamodernism is also pointing towards a bigger picture, and pursuing these things is not easy to explain or to put into action. We are still at the beginning of learning to engage with it. Whatever metamodernism is to be, it was increasingly part of Brooks’ longterm vision for left politics, as reflected through our alignment and his endorsement of me.
We were tragically denied the opportunity for Michael to share with us more insight and leadership in this direction. Adding insult to injury, the left has fragmented further since his passing and few leftists have joined the “metamodern” “conversation” as it were. We have an inkling of what Michael meant because he was gesturing towards my work, as well as Jeremy Johnson and Michel Bauwens. But beyond that, it had never been unpacked by Michael. It was just deeply implied in our support of each other’s work.
Despite Brooks’ endorsements, not a lot has changed within and between the left project and metamodernism. Jeremy Johnson and I have discussed this somewhat on the Michael Brooks Legacy Project. We are also published together in the new volume Dispatches, but it is still left as an ‘open question’ in such a book, what its real relationship to (meta-)politics is. My argument is that we should already be converging, and are wasting the opportunity to do so.
Unfinished Business and Loose Ends
Matt McManus’ theory of postmodern conservatism is a vital contribution to the problems of political ideology and the culture wars, as well as post-postmodernism. It is an exceptional work of scholarship, employing good writing to clearly identify bad politics. The only fault that stands out is that it makes no reference to metamodernism or hypermodernism, or even post-postmodernism. They are complementary theories so to combine them seems necessary to contextualize any debates about any kind of postmodernism; as I’ve partially done above.
McManus’ book is very conventional in this sense, by not offering a wide enough meta- context. it bypasses the literature that documents the metamodern turn; contextualized by the fragmentation of postmodernism over the past 30 years. McManus is correctly determining that the ‘postmodern’ period and mode refuses to end, and so we have to reckon with its presence, but he seems unaware of its candidate replacements.
The problem is it is such a common pattern that we are missing opportunities in plane sight. A formal metamodern turn in the 90s might have institutionalized many of the basic ideas we are still fighting for, from academic integrity and job security, to free collage and student loan forgiveness, universal health care, abolition, a green new deal and job guarantee, etc. Indeed, the ‘metamodern’ theories of the 90s were consistent with these normative ideals in one way or another. They sufficiently went beyond postmodernism as a constrained rendering of social theory, historical periods, or modes of production.
McManus is also contributing to the theorizing and re-imagining of the ‘social imaginary’; the “pre-theoretical self-understanding (146), or the affordances and limits of identity formation” in a society. This is something metamodernism engages with as well, as does modern monetary theory. At such encounters I am overwhelmed with the prospect of spin-off pieces, covering these topics, but this is the type of the work that has to be distributed across a coordinated left, not carried by individuals or small factions.
Rowson and Pascal’s Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity is an edited volume, at least three years in the making, and in which I have a chapter on metanoia, a most profound change of mind and conversion, in a needed metamodern sense. The book is divided into 3 parts, from contexts, to conundrums, to new ways forward. It is “the end of the beginning of metamodernism”, in their words, where metamodernism is a nebulous set of meta-theories about palpable world-historical feelings and how to recognize and avoid crisis in the 21st century and beyond. It is important that other people actually review this book through unbiased lenses, for it poses a catalyzing series of reflections and injunctions. My own reflections on the book as a whole are highly critical, and frankly suppressed by the editor, so it creates more work to attack the problem there is scope for in this piece. Suffice it say, many of these dispatches come from the sidelines.
Jason Storm’s Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (2021) is a self-conscious monograph, one that builds on his previous work and towards a meta- turn in academia itself. Storm’s book starts out with much such same premise all metamodernism grapples with; frustration with the relativism, skepticism, and cynicism baggage that apparently came with ‘postmodernism’.
Consistent with a metamodern ethos, Storm notes the trends of fragmentation and hyperspecialization that undercut the need and ability to make “meaningful generalizations”. Academic interventions of almost any kind are but “temporary gestures”, not lasting solutions. These lamentations are as well put as any I’ve seen on the epistemic crisis, and its supported by his accounts of the disintegration of the concept of religion itself. This is consistent with metamodernism largely being associated with the ‘post-secular’. If there is one consistent flaw of Storm’s magnum opus, its that he consciously chooses to note and then side step other metamodern source material, striving for originality but at its own expense. Nevertheless, he does inject some moments of novel clarity.
As examples of postmodernism overstaying its welcome, in half a page Storm trots out no less than 31 academic “turns” that have signalled “course corrections” to the human sciences over the past 50 years. Almost all of them are genuinely insightful and influential, but many of these turns cover the same ground, which is a good example of evolutionary convergence in knowledge. Some contradict each other, and signal the impotency of academia, and a failure of society to institutionalize any paradigm shifts. With this much academic diversity and redundancy we’re inevitably left with a patchwork of sociologies that can only marginally improve with the times.
All the turns considered as one big meta- turn or proto-synthesis is a necessary heuristic. In other words, understanding these turns as compounding insights leads to the needed tipping points. A metamodern turn can solve the problem at various abstract and concrete levels. We can at least say that for Storm, he has worked it out on his own terms. Though it may be virtually meaningless without context, the structural form of Storm’s theory looks like this, simplified:
1) anti-realism, — — → 1) metarealism
2) disciplinary auto-critiques, — — → 2) process social ontology
3) poststructuralism and the linguistic turn, — — → 3) hylosemiotics
4) a broad climate of skepticism, — — → 4) Zeteticism
5) ethical nihilism — — → 5) critical virtue ethics
This description tracks with how social science is in crisis and our discourse has also reached a new threshold of emergence. While Storm is claiming a sort of ‘first of its kind’ status, he also nods to the open source nature of metamodernism across its expressions. These are grand gestures many of us are drawn too, so the spirit is not lost on me. There are likely deficits to be fleshed out in his work, but it is at least yet another declaration of a project, published by the University of Chicago no less, hopefully adding weight to a definitive academic turn.
In my view, Storm’s assertion that he’s ‘negating the negation’ or adding spirals to Hegel’s philosophy is certainly not a new spin, but it is still relatively welcome. What is most welcome is how in the opening salvo, Storm affirms his radical bonafides by noting that “[t]his work draws on and allies itself with current works in feminist theory, critical Black studies, postcolonial theory, science studies, queer theory, and environmental studies.” This is essentially left-wing, consistent with I’ve shown thus far. Right-wing alarmist tendencies will lament that academia is dominated by left-wing bias, but this is precisely the fallacy that prevents any sober political reorientation. These types of studies and academia in general dovetail with left wing politics not because of bias but because of their openness and commitment to moral progress and systemic reform. They signal what is traditionally far-left political thought and action manifesting across a new broad-based democratic consensus to the dismay and panic of centrists and right-wingers alike.
Conclusion: Convergence on the Event Horizon
Metamodernism is leftist, sorry to the haters. Is there a ‘metamodern right’? No, not really, only futile neo-fascist attempts to appropriate it, and any non-left following of metamodernism is only functional insofar as they’re willing to follow the signposts and work with a transformative project on its own terms. The metamodern left can depolarize politics, it can build consensus amongst itself and grow its base, helping to usher in the new post-political post-capitalist world, but struggle sessions are necessarily part of the method. Politics has always been dirty, and in an increasingly transparent world shrouded in secrecy, epistemic injustice, and various dark webs, something like MMT-financed solarpunk sunlight is likely a good disinfectant. In my vision, left politics is open politics, and open politics is metamodern politics. It is everything above (and below) here and more.
This article has felt very overdue, and yet still ahead of its time. It does not feel complete, though it certainly has not been rushed into publication, languishing in purgatory as the seed of an idea going back several years. I do not have a conclusion to something that is necessarily an ongoing struggle, a topic that is always in medias res. It requires the action and collaboration of others, particularly the others mentioned in the piece gesturing at something greater for the left. The different sections above sketch out some of the major themes and touchpoint between metamodernism and the left. Such an integration is a long time coming, and necessarily implies transformation and convergence for the left. Given the resistance to such seemingly partisan declarations, we can expect further resistance. Given that I am already ‘cancelled’ by many who fancy themselves above the culture war and cancel culture, we can expect more negligence.
Maybe metamodernism is just an aesthetic pipe-dream of frustrated hyper-vigilant millennials, but my interpretation of it has always been deeply connected with the global South discourse, in the ‘other’, in some eschatology of peace. It is what it is, and we need everyone to more attentively listen to the silenced voices on the global left. Regardless of what metamodernism is in the most contentious and pluralist sense, it is absolutely unequivocally a leftist project (with transpartisan transformative goals), and it’s about god damned time we collectively recognize that.
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