Discover more from Less Foolish
I am hosting an in-person workshop in Toronto this Tuesday @ OCAD on power, status, and wisdom. RSVP here. Also, The Stoa just released a pre-recorded presentation on “metacrisis literacy” from Josh Williams, which gives a phenomenal overview of the metacrisis and adjacent prefix-crisis terms. If you have something philosophically rich you’d like to premiere on The Stoa, email me at thestoa at protonmail dot com.
A definition of crisis: “vitally important or decisive state of things, the point at which change must come, for better or worse.” Many argue that humanity is not only in a crisis but is faced with multiple crises. This argument has brought forward many prefix-crisis phrases: metacrisis, polycrisis, permacrisis, omnicrisis, multicrisis, and megacrisis.
The proper state of responding to a crisis is described by the oxymoronic proverb "festina lente," aka make haste slowly. If something indeed requires a decisive state and will fundamentally change the course of humanity, moving expeditiously with wisdom is the ideal state. Add a multitude of crises into the mix, and this becomes even more true.
However, most people are not wisely in crisis mode but are foolishly in “prefix-crisis mode.” Many know of the challenges requiring a collective response: pandemics, environmental disasters, financial crashes, the potential of misalignment superintelligence, and a nuclear war from the Russian-Ukraine conflict.
Everything is slowly collapsing, oscillating between soft totalitarianism and controlled chaos. Too many things are happening all at once. Moreover, there is no widespread consensus on what prefix-crisis to use or what they even mean, adding to the confusion. To make the situation more complex, most people do not only have a metacrisis to worry about but a “metacrisis of their life” preoccupying their every waking moment.
When looking at the ecology of crises through objective and subjective lenses, a sense of confusion and overwhelm is the default state for most people, leading to foolish coping rather than wise responding. The late British philosopher Mark Fisher had the perfect term for this maladaptive state: “reflexive impotence.”
[Y]es, they know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can't do anything about it. But that 'knowledge', that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And guess what? They probably know that too.
- Mark Fisher
Instead of living with festina lente, most are in a prefix-crisis mode of reflexive impotence. One pathway from reflexive impotent to festina lente is figuring out what prefix-crisis to use. Metamodern philosopherrecently argued for using the phrase metacrisis over polycrisis, the latter adopted by the Davos class via the World Economic Forum.
While the poly prefix sounds nicer, as if all these crises are in some intriguing romantic open relationship with one another, the meta prefix, despite the unfortunate lameness the word “meta” has been imbued with from its overuse, affords greater flexibility. The throughline with both the metacrisis and polycrisis is they point to the ecology of crises humanity collectively faces. The main difference is the metacrisis offers more theoretical richness.
The polycrisis lens may have some "explanatory power" in the crises we face, their interconnectedness, and their compounding effects. Yet, the metacrisis lens has greater explanatory power and "alchemic power,"given its focus on the generator functions, aka what connects and exacerbates all the crises.
The most critical aspect of the metacrisis lens, and the main reason I prefer it over the polycrisis one, is the discussion of the attractor states: chaos/collapse and oppression/totalitarianism, or what the prepper community calls WROL and EROL, aka “Without Rule of Law” and “Excessive Rule of Law.” Unlike the prepper community, the metacrisis lens focuses on hellish attractors to prepare for and invites a heavenly attractor to play towards.
While the third attractor goes by different names, such as "global coordination," I prefer the simple and mysterious expression of "the third attractor." On the surface, the polycrisis phrase seems like a less robust analysis than the metacrisis one, with explanatory impotence on the source and trajectory of humanity's ecology of crises. However, paying attention to the worldviews that prefer a phrase is informative.
What is the worldview of the Davos class who prefers the polycrisis phrase? Writer and researcher Nadia Asparouhova richly describes the Davos class worldview and the approach that shapes it in her excellent “Silicon Valley’s Civil War” article.
From the late 1990s through the late 2010s, the dominant American elite was represented by what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once called the “Davos Man”—a reference to the Swiss resort town where the World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual conclave of elites—who believe that an interconnected global citizenship is the key to humanity’s future. Their worldview relates to the way they made their wealth, starting with an investment banking boom that was driven by decreased regulation and technical advances in computing in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the birth of the internet. Today it is dominated by executives in finance and management consulting, who mingle with early tech pioneers, academics, and NGO executives.
How the current power elite of the Davos class achieved their wealth shapes their worldview:
The Davos elite view the improvement of society as a management consulting problem, like estimating the number of pingpong balls in South American coastal resorts or mapping out the supply chain issues of the Fortune 100, which is precisely what made them successful in the business world. It’s marked by trends such as social entrepreneurship, impact investing, triple bottom line, and ESG, lauded for their professionalized ways of improving the world while (or by) making it more efficient.
With the metacrisis in mind, I’ll pose the following question for our collective imagination:
What possibilities unfold from a group of unaccountable people with vast resources using a managerial ethos guided by a theory with explanatory impotence, which happens to exclude the possible attractor of oppression/totalitarianism?
The other reason I prefer the metacrisis term over the polycrisis one is what it does to my body. We can see these terms not as mere abstractions but as “hyperobjects.” I previously described how the metacrisis makes me feel when relating to it as a hyperobject:
A hyperobject is a term from philosopher-ecologist Timothy Morton to describe "objects" that are so massive they exist outside our ordinary understandings of "spatiotemporality," aka space and time. The Covid-19 pandemic is an example, as is the internet, capitalism, and the culture war. Almost anything can be considered a hyperobject, potentially rendering the word useless. The term is useful for me because objectifying the unseen makes it feel real, which puts me in my body, and I stop relating with unseen real things as mere conceptual abstractions.
When I sense the polycrisis as a hyperobject, I do not know what to do besides outsource my agency to a power elite that has undue influence on world governments. When I sense the metacrisis as a hyperobject, greater creative agency emerges thanks to the sense that the third attractor exists, which no one knows what it could be, encouraging artistic, philosophical, and entrepreneurial responses from all of us. With a metacrisis literacy, I no longer have reflexive impotence. Instead, I can engage in some delicious festina lente, responding to both the metacrisis and the metacrisis of my life.
I am optimistic because many people are leaving a foolish prefix-crisis mode and are playing toward the third attractor through various experiments. My experimental play is to help midwife a new hyperobject responsive to the metacrisis: a “wisdom commons,” a place that makes wisdom more common.
The following presentation encapsulates my response to the metacrisis:
Having explanatory power means a theory accurately explains reality. A theory has “explanatory impotence” if it cannot do this. Alchemic power means a theory accurately explains reality while transforming the reality it explains. A theory has “alchemic impotence” if it cannot do this. I think it is wise to focus on having explanatory and alchemic power.