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The World We're Creating: Metamodern Philanthropy and Social Transformation

By Brent Cooper /
Jan 7, 2019
The World We're Creating: Metamodern Philanthropy and Social Transformation
Meeting of the Meta-Minds, Emerge Gathering, Berlin 2018
“…we lack an overarching narrative to connect the many smaller ones: a powerful ‘meta-narrative’ to serve as a new foundation for our shared symbol world that we are all co-authors of. This book has been written in search of such a narrative.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 5

I recently met Tomas Bjorkman, the first and foremost patron of metamodernism; great guy. He is a former investment banker turned social entrepreneur and author of The Market MythThe Nordic Secret (co-authored with Lene Andersen), and “Världen vi skapar” (“The World We Create” in its forthcoming English translation), where he advocates vigorously for a metamodern thought perspective and new master narratives to unite us all. He has his hand, not the invisible one of the market, in many innovative projects, such as TechFarm, Stockholm; Jonathan Rowson’s Perspectiva, London; the Co-creation loft, Berlin; and the digital initiative

Metamodern philosopher Hanzi Freinacht owes much to mentorship and benefaction of Bjorkman. He helped Hanzi bring us The Listening Society last year, and this year over Nov. 9–11th Bjorkman hosted a private gathering of 70+ intellectuals and change-makers in Berlin with the hopes that unexpected connections and ideas would Emerge. With no precise mandate, it was both organizationally doomed to fail and ideationally guaranteed to succeed. It did both. Facilitators threw their hands up and let guided chaos play out in some sessions, while new friendships and collaborations were seeded. Hanzi and Jonathan Rowson led a couple workshops on metamodern theory, and the rest is history (or rather, will be). (Profiles and stories from the Emerge conference will be put up on the platform as they are produced.)

In my view, this progressive intellectual community is a cut above the rest, and not just because I’m in it. I’ve long held convictions about the systemic corruption of (most) elites and the futility of their pseudo-progressive ventures, but Bjorkman is different because he wants dramatic systems change and is one of the few willing to invest in it the right way. Having seen the rampant malpractice in banking close up, he has no illusions about the selfish nature of capital, and so has dedicated himself to finding and funding the best possible ideas to transform society at a fundamental level. This has led him to developmental theories and metamodernism.

Metamodern Philanthropy

In the lead up to the Emerge conference, one of the organizers shared a short talk by Anand Giridharadas that speaks truth to the powerful yet decadent status-quo around philanthropy. “This age of undeniably elite generosity sits uneasily beside an era of (profound) elite hoarding.” The relentless upward abstraction of unearned wealth (ie. rentseeking, speculation), along with the rising cost of living and stagnant wages for the 99% of humanity, is the most acutely felt yet abstract injustice of late stage capitalism. It keeps us in a double-bind, unable to address the root problems of injustice and ecological collapse, while the bulk of philanthropy is merely palliative, far from a cure.

Giridharadas is the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the Worldwhich details the normalized impotence and corruption of corporate philanthropy, or philanthro-capitalism. Giridharadas speaks with a metamodern gravitas that I would sum up as a compassionate indictment informed by immanent critiqueIn his vivid articulation — “so much of what passes for ‘world-changing’ in contemporary American life is putting lipstick on the pig of a bad power distribution” — it’s really profoundly gross how distorted the system has become, and this disclosure is coming from insiders, not his own conjecture. But times are changing, with this awareness becoming more mainstream. Giridharadas even gave an hour long talk at Google, in the belly of the beast so to speak.

As it stands today, it seems the large majority of philanthropy functions still like a marketing scam, promoting their brand while marginally addressing problems they are helping to create in the first place. The needs of social and environmental justice are neutralized and co-opted in the neoliberal marketplace such that corporate interests control and limit the ability to solve the world’s problems which they are key drivers of. This is related to the concept of greenwashing. It is a disastrous paradox, and the superrich abstractly pay to suppress their denial about it in a system akin to the Catholic Indulgences. One can simply pay off their sins — and are incentivized to keep sinning so long as they can buy back the pretence of a social conscience — and that’s not even including the paltry regulatory fines that are supposed to tame corporate greed.

Giridharadas’ book syncs up perfectly with the concept systemic-conspiracy which explains the path dependence of institutional injustice, from world-weary welfare programs to the war-complex itself. All of this speaks to the current dominant political and financial climates of post-truth reactionary populism and monopolistic austerity, respectively. So it was very refreshing to have this critical and honest perspective of philanthropy be setting the tone for the Emerge conference, for honesty is the best (public) policy. An event like this has been in the making for some years now.

In 2013, Forbes asked Is Philanthropy Ready For System Change? They outline the emerging systems-philanthropy networks and accelerators who are addressing the need for a “a bold new approach, new frameworks and stories, and creative destruction” that focus on root problems. The article gives 5 reasons why investors are missing investment opportunities in game-changing start-ups, that potentially affect a “transformational (not incremental) impact that needs to be the true north of strategic, visionary philanthropy.” The article continues;

“A more sophisticated, risk-tolerant philanthropy industry will help build an ecosystem that makes it easier for philanthropic risk capital to flow to people who can put it to work to address our common problems and build community.” — Is Philanthropy Ready For System Change?

In 2017, the Stanford Social Innovation Review wrote about Solving the World’s Biggest Problems: Better Philanthropy Through Systems Changeand later A New Model of Collaborative Philanthropy. Inside Philanthropy ran Pull It Together: A Call for a New Model of Social Change and “Systems Philanthropy”. The Putnam Consulting Group offers a guide to The Role of Philanthropy in Systems Change. And Geneva Global offers courses on systems-change philanthropy. All these articles further detail the ample and rapid developments in these sectors. Following these sentiments, Rodney Foxworth writes on Medium;

“A good place to start would be for philanthropy to make big bets (defined as a commitment of $10 million or more) on groups of people — those most adversely affected by the current economic system — working diligently to build economies that enable shared power, economic justice, and community wealth.” — Philanthropy Will Not Save Us

The writing is on the wall and this deep systems approach is the essence of metamodern philanthropy, but there has been no funding of metamodernism per se, until Tomas Bjorkman. And much more is still needed. Perhaps his leadership in this regard will inspire other philanthropists to fund metamodern philosophy and society. I encourage angel investors to reach out to us to discuss these possibilities. The greatest risk is not taking these risks.

The World We Create

Bjorkman’s latest book is built on the solid premise that our world is socially constructed. The better we understand that, the more agency we have to make it better. We already co-create social reality through shared narratives about religion, nationalism, science, the market, and other aspects of our identities. But we can and must do much more to create a new lasting meta-narrative predicated on an even greater common thread of humanity and life itself. It is open-ended and always will be, but we are at a pivotal moment in civilization where our meta-narratives must converge around the notions of human and societal development and the metamodern thought perspective.

“We are now facing a decisive step in human history. We are at a bifurcation, a tipping point or a phase transition, and the outcome of this phase transition is by no means clear. In order to navigate within this transition, our new maps are important.” — p. 403

The first half of the book is a slow setup; a linear history of the Western world from the big bang to postmodernity. This is meant to establish our common origins and cosmic sensibility. The notion of social construction comes late in history, but hopefully just in time to redefine, reform, and reconstruct the concept of the market.

“The ability to create social imaginaries, as well as form and understand abstract mental images, symbols, and concepts, opens up a whole new world of existence.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 62


How to use personal, inner development to build strong democracies | Tomas Björkman | TEDxBerlin


In the above TEDx video, Bjorkman argues we have a “collective inability to handle the increasing complexity of our world” — to address the ‘meta-crisis,’ as it were — so we must “update our cultural software”; “increasing our collective conciousness.”

Bjorkman rightly believes that everyone can attain high levels of development and self-actualization if given the structure and opportunity. Like Hanzi’s opening salvo The Listening Society, Bjorkman draws heavily on the developmental theories of Kegan (stage theory) and Commons (Model of Hierarchical Complexity) to help achieve this. He even invokes a model of how the systems change will occur, from the micro to the macro and throughout; the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Theory. All of this is prelude to the yet higher thought perspective of metamodernism.

Metamodernism has many integrative functions; Bjorkman lists out 14 in fact, each of which succintly captures the metamodern value(meme) proposition over modernism and postmodernism. Here’s one:

p. 350

Other vital ones include Hierarchy → Anarchy → Holarchy, and Signified → Signifier → Significance. Here’s one of the broadest takes:

p. 351

“This is the significance of the protosynthesis: We synthesise the modern idea of progress with postmodern critical thinking and the naïve forthrightness of religion, while we fully admit that the new synthesis by necessity remains a shaky construction. This opens up new avenues from which we can create progress, new social and political movements — along with a renewed and strengthened sense of faith and hope. One might talk about well-informed naïveté, or pragmatic idealism — or maybe even enchanted realism.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 353

This is but a taste. Metamodernism is our new era, but it is also an avant-garde philosophy and definitive wake up call. For almost a century now we’ve been trapped in Gramsci’s “interregnum” (p. 291), a long purgatory between old and new ways of understanding and governing the world. But new convictions are arising that we now have the scientific and narrative tools to finally write our way out of the riddle.

“What characterises every new thought perspective is that it successfully exposes the unfounded assumptions its predecessor claims to be devoid of in order to legitimise its propositions for truth and universality.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 369

Like Kuhn’s scientific revolutions, the ability to explain the anomalies (or externalities) that the previous stage creates is an essential marker of a new paradigm. Metamodernism can do this in spades, and Bjorkman is behind some of the research that is bearing it out scientifically and narratively.

Metamodernism calls for deeper individuation but necessarily coupled with greater collective support and scaffolding. The more out of sync these two are, the more pathologies arise. The full potential of individuals, as well as society, is hampered by hyper-competitive and contradictory logic of pure market capitalism. For example;

“A person may long to express their love for the world through a job that uses their deepest insights about life — but instead life comes to revolve around meeting deadlines they have no personal interest in fulfilling other than to pay the mortgage on their house…
If we develop ourselves, if we become wiser and more empathic, but there is nowhere for us to use our newly-won wisdom and compassion, we are more likely to become depressed, alienated, and frustrated with life.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 356-357

The first part speaks to the challenge of seeking meaningful work contrasted with the scarcity of it that offers just compensation. The second refers to how personal development is curtailed and wasted in a system designed to depress and contain those very gifts by making us beholden to wage slavery. I can relate to both aspects in a deep way, as all in the global ‘precariat’ class can. These are metamodern insights in how they understand the symbiosis and interdependence between our individual and sociological (or structural) development. Ironically, our market economy values critical and creative thinking the least — yet these are the things that are needed the most;

“In the same way we need to collectively agree on paying people to maintain our roads, we need to spend a share of our collective resources on funding the very experts who reproduce and develop our culture.
Supporting the people who have the time, energy, and skills to delve deeper into the complex mechanisms of our shared symbol world is perhaps the only way to guarantee that someone charts some kind of direction for our society’s further cultural development.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 382

The backdrop of all of this is the impending automation revolution, which is going to make everyone even more redundant. This will only emancipate humanity if people are paid not just not to work, but rather to be the work itself, to be developed and actualized world-citizens. There is a strong sentiment of people over profits at work here, or better yet and understanding of people as the (cultural and social) capital itself. We must invest not only in people, but in big ideas for and by people. All of this reflects the emerging attitudes of metamodern philanthropy, and the sooner it displaces the old paradigm of wealth ‘creation’ the better.

In part, the metamodern sensibility is nothing new though. Bjorkman is also a member of the Club of Rome, the group that has been articulating the meta-crisis and sounding the alarm since the 1970s, although it wasn’t such a public project. Although it is still active and being renewed, it appears to have languished and decayed in the think tank world originally, rather than becoming diffused in the real world; or at least it was appropriated by capitalist logic. Regrettably, globalism was guided less by these precautionary principles than it was by the cold war, nuclear arms race, and addiction to growth. Now, in the post 2000- age of the anthropocene and metamodernism, these world-saving ideas are back with a playful vengeance. Returning to the sense in which metamodernism is novel, he writes;

“At every transition we also become conscious of a new detached object the previous thought perspective could not disembed itself from. With the modern thought perspective, God became a theological object and religion an object of the science of theology rather than an allencompassing reality. Thereafter, with the postmodern thought perspective, science itself became an object for investigation rather than a method naïvely assumed to generate unbiased objective truths. And finally, with metamodernism, postmodern thinking becomes an object for critical philosophical investigation.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 369

The ability to grasp the metamodern thought perspective, and any knowledge really, depends on the concept of abstraction; the ability to think inside, outside, and through the proverbial box — nay, the tesseract, a 4D box! To be able to move up, down, and across levels of complexity smoothly is imperative. Abstraction is a theme throughout the book, but Bjorkman hammers it home in the final pages:

“If I am accused of being too abstract in this book, I would respond that it is actually our new complex reality that demands this level of abstraction. To abstract is to pull out that which is most essential, to see patterns or governing principles in a thorny reality. Seeing the trees, indeed, but also creating a sense of what kind of forest we are strolling through.” — Tomas Bjorkman, The World We Create, p. 398–399

The key is abstraction, for it allows us to zoom in and out, to distill what’s essential, to think between levels of complexity. For all the theorizing the book does, by the end it encourages you to throw it out if need be, for it is merely provisional and meant to elevate our comprehension and our being. What matters is using this enlightenment as leverage to co-create the best of all possible worlds, for everyone and everything in it.

Social Transformation

Social systems transformation hinges on collective consciousness, and so we know the important role metanarrative has to play in the 21st century. But we are not just going to tell you a story; we’re also providing the tools and resources for avoiding pathological narratives and co-creating reconstructive sincere ironic ones.

In less than 8 short years since Notes on Metamodernism broke ground, the world has changed rapidly and dramatically, and so has a new intellectual plateau of metamodern thought emerged to meet it in all it’s complexity. Many developments can be seen to (e)merge with this new concept, epoch, and paradigm if you will. While on the surface the culture war has reached new extremes of polarization, the emerging consensus is that a new holarchic meta-narrative can, must, and will prevail. In our informed naivete, we believe the underlying conscious awareness of elites and masses alike knows that we’re all in this together — how could they not? But it is a matter of making the abstract explicit, so that we have collective blueprints for humanity and ecology.

The metamodern community is but one of thousands of organized collectives in the innovation space, but is the only one that draws together the most abstract ideas to address the root crisis of civilization. What is needed now is metamodern philanthropy to invest in the coalescence, consolidation, and consilience of social movements, economic resources, and knowledge networks to build a metamodern society. Less competition, more collaboration. More philanthropic support for metamodern ideation will act like a catalyst and synchronizer for social transformation. This is why initiatives like SIMPOL (Simultaneous Policy) and Bjorkman’s various projects are so resonant with metamodernism.

Lest metamodernism become an empty buzzword, it must always take recourse to the previous paradigms, the developmental ethic, and it’s primary sources and early adopters. To those who have risked and been bold enough to think outside the tesseract in a way that transcends and includes all previous thought perspectives. The coming global transformation will necessarily be of greater scale and significance than the Manhattan or Apollo projects of the 20th century, so we better get spending out of that war budget. We eschew building bombs and conquering the moon in favour of establishing peace on earth. This is the world we’re creating. Join us.

The Abs-Tract Organization is a research and media think tank, highlighting the utility of abstraction and metamodernism as new critical perspectives and knowledge representation frameworks.

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