How Deep Is The Shift We Are Facing? Transforming Our Collective Imaginary
This article is an edited version of the conversation between David Fuller and Tomas Björkman on the Rebel Wisdom media platform in July 2020.
This article is a substantially edited version of the conversation between David Fuller and Tomas Björkman on the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel in July 2020.
In this conversation, David and Tomas discuss the Nordic Secret, how Covid-19 is stimulating systems change and the possibility that humanity is undergoing a ‘phase-shift' on par with the fall of the Roman Empire.
David: So, Tomas, we've known each other quite a long time. You're a philosopher and social entrepreneur. We share a real interest and passion for developmental thinking, systems change, and also the kind of deep stories of society. You've written about those in various books, including The Market Myth, The World We Create and, together with Lene Rachel Andersen, in The Nordic Secret. And, for full transparency, you're also an investor in Rebel Wisdom.
There is a growing realisation that we are in the middle of a significant shift in society and that we will have to look deeper into society than we thought was necessary.
Something we've talked about before, and I really value your perspective on, is that we are part of networks of people who talk about a more conscious society, a more developmental society, and I'm interested in how much these networks interact with policy-makers, with people who actually operate levers of power? You've been in this game for a lot longer than me. How do you sense this broader conversation?
Tomas: Yes, I've been thinking and writing and starting a lot of initiatives in this area since leaving the worlds of banking and business more than ten years ago. And I saw very little happening in mainstream society up until about three years ago. Around that time, something new kicked off. I think that Brexit in the United Kingdom, and Trump in the United States have made a lot of people realise that we are experiencing a deeper societal shift than many might have suspected. Up until three years ago, in any of the circles I move around in—financial circles, political circles or in the think tank I’m involved with, the Club of Rome—people were thinking along the following lines: “We know it is a bumpy road, but we have democracy, and we have the market. If we just give everything a little bit of time and push and nudge in the right direction, then everything will eventually sort itself out.” I'm not hearing that line of thinking any more.
My view is that more and more people in these circles are starting to wake up to the fact that the market, at least in its present incarnation, and democracy, again in its present state, with its high dependence on and cohabitation with the commercial media and with campaign finance, is not automatically leading us in the right direction.
There is a growing realisation that we are in the middle of a significant shift in society and that we will have to look deeper into society than we thought was necessary in order to understand what is happening. That is, of course, good news. But the important question now is how dramatic we believe that this shift is going to be. It might be necessary for us not only to shift the social system but also to change our world view and our ways of knowing, of thinking about things. Here, I think it could be useful to go back and build on what Jordan Hall was talking about during the Rebel Wisdom festival in May earlier this year.
Jordan described four different levels of system shifts or system changes in some detail. The first level he talked about. Level 1, was the sort of shift in values and behaviour that we see all the time in society. For example, the shift that we've seen in our Western society during the last, say, 50 years around civil rights and gay marriage. These are important and fundamental shifts but they're not very deep when we look at them from the long perspective of humanity’s evolution.
So if we call that a Level 1 shift, then a Level 2 shift would be something like the shift in society experienced during the Industrial Revolution, where the whole world system changed in one way or another. But this was still not a shift in world view. We were still operating and living through that Level 2 shift with basically the same Enlightenment world view.
As many people have pointed out on Rebel Wisdom, civilisations tend to break down. Breakdown is part of the normal development of civilisations.
Then we have Level 3 shifts, as Jordan pointed out, that are deep enough to involve a real change in our world view and in our way of knowing. Here, the obvious example from a Western perspective is the Enlightenment. Around 250 years ago, humanity moved from the feudal world system to a market-based system What accompanied this was a religious, dogmatic world view which transformed into a scientific rational world view and all its new ways of knowing. That would be a good example of a Level 3 shift.
But then, throughout the history of humanity, we have experienced even deeper shifts. I think Jordan mentioned the fall of the Roman Empire. An even better example might be the axial shift that took place around 2,500 years ago in many places. Both John Vervaeke and Jordan B Peterson have pointed out how important this particular shift was for humanity. It was when we essentially left our hunter–gatherer or primitive small agrarian societies—the type of society that we and our genes have evolved from—that we are more or less able to navigate with just our instincts. During this period, we started to use written language and, through large organised religions, began to create a new world view but also a new social imaginary that made it possible for us to live in cities with tens of thousands of strangers. Even to form empires. So, a Level 4 shift would be of the magnitude of the axial age shift which we endured 2,500 years ago.
To Jordan's four levels, I want to add a fifth level. In a few interviews on Rebel Wisdom, Daniel Schmachtenberger has been talking about the possibility of an even deeper, Level 5, shift. Daniel believes that the shift that we are facing now could be at a similar level to the shift in biological evolution when we went from single cell organisms to multiple cell organisms. Here we are leaving the era of human history and we start looking into the deep history of the universe.
At the same time as we are prototyping and trying to support this fundamental system shift, we need to remember that this shift going to be emergent. We won’t know all of its dimensions. We will not be able to plan it, and we won’t be able to manage this shift. But we might be able to facilitate it happening. Remember, in these shifts complex systems can go either way. We can either see a step up in complexity and in elegance of organisation, or we can face a breakdown.
So, when we reach one of these bifurcation points, we can either have a breakthrough or a breakdown. And as many people have pointed out on Rebel Wisdom, civilisations tend to break down. Breakdown is part of the normal development of civilisations.
The challenge right now is that our civilisation now is global in nature. Even when the Roman Empire collapsed, that wasn’t a global collapse. That was a collapse of just a part of humanity. But if we have a civilisational collapse now, perhaps involving an environmental disaster or a nuclear disaster, then the whole of humanity is affected.
Experimenting with different psycho-technologies will help us develop new capacities to both see and relate to the world differently.
So, we can't rely on the way that humanity has tried to ‘manage’ these deep transitions in times gone by—that is, more or less by trial and error. This time, we have somehow to do this consciously. Even if we cannot plan it, and even if we cannot even see what a successful civilisation might actually look like, we can actually help facilitate its emergence. And I agree with that trying and experimenting with different psycho-technologies will help us develop new capacities to both see the world differently and also help us to relate to ourselves, to relate to each other, to relate to society, and to relate to nature in deeper ways, is at least a prerequisite for a successful transition.
David: We mentioned your and Lene’s recent book, The Nordic Secret. That book is about developing such capacities for transformation, isn’t it?
Tomas: Yes, it is. And as in any self-organising complex system, this capacity for more complex organisation really needs to be well distributed. It is not enough that a few people in some sort of intellectual elite bubble develop these capacities for a shift to happen. A large part of the population actually needs to be able to hold this shift.
So the story Lene Andersen and I tell in our book is a story of political history and the history of ideas in the Scandinavian countries that is not generally very well known, not even in Scandinavia. As you know, the Nordic countries managed this societal shift from pre-modern societies into modern societies better than any other societies we know about. Now I'm the first person to say that we are now losing this advantage a bit, but what these countries did 150 years ago was actually quite astonishing. At the end of the 1800s, all the Nordic countries were amongst the poorest, non-democratic agrarian societies in Europe. At the end of the 1800s, 30% of the working population in Sweden, for example, emigrated, mainly to the United States, because of terrible living conditions at home. People were starving, just like in Ireland at the time of the potato famine.
But now, just a few generations later, all the Nordic countries are at the top of the list of the richest, the happiest, most stable, industrial democracies. And the question is: what facilitated that transition? There are, of course, many reasons for this. But one reason that has been mainly forgotten in history is the fact that we had visionary intellectuals and politicians in all the Nordic countries back then. And these visionaries saw both industrialisation and urbanisation coming, and they knew that we would have to prepare for rapid social change. In turbulent times, then as now, it's natural for us humans to want to have an outside authority to hold on to: a dogmatic religion, for example, or an authoritarian leader.
But the visionaries I am referring to most definitely did not want to be authoritarian leaders. They were firmly committed to building democracy. And they knew that the only way to build democracy was to build it from the bottom up. And for that you need a large part of the population to develop transformative skills and capabilities.
Helping a large part of the population to increase their inner capacity to handle uncertainty and complexity can be a key factor in societal shifts like the one we are in now.
Using the language of today, we could say that what these intellectuals and visionaries wanted to do was to facilitate the inner development of the individual in enough people in the population to create a critical mass of citizens who had the capacity to act as conscious co-creators of modernity. What I am referring to here is a large number of individuals who have actually made that inner, personal developmental leap on their own to internalise values and find an inner compass and be grounded enough in themselves in order to be able to navigate and co-create a deep societal shift without being dependant on an outside authority. Today, using Professor Robert Kegan's language, we would say that this is the shift from a ‘socialised mind’ to a ‘self-authoring mind’, and how the visionaries of the past facilitated this shift was quite extraordinary.
What these extraordinary people did was that they created what perhaps could best today be described as ‘retreat centres’. And they did this all over Scandinavia and on a massive scale. By the year 1900, there were 100 centres like this established in Denmark alone, 75 in Norway, and 150 in Sweden. At these centres—called Folk High Schools—young adults well into their working lives, could spend six months in retreat, with the main aim of acquiring enough knowledge and developing sufficient self-authoring capacity to be able to become conscious co-creators of modernity. And when this movement was at its height, almost exactly 100 years ago, and at that point with heavy state subsidy, up to 10% of each young generation had the possibility of participating in one of these long retreats. And of course, that created a sort of critical mass, especially since these 10% were not just culled from a small, elite section of society. These 10% came from all different walks of life, many middle class, but the majority of the participants were actually working class or had a farming background.
It's interesting that these ideas came from the German idealist philosophers who were active at the beginning of the 1800s, like Goethe, Schiller, Herder, von Humboldt, Hegel. These philosophers’ works were widely read in Scandinavia, in the original German because that language was then the first foreign language and the academic language throughout Scandinavia. All these philosophers reacted against the Enlightenment philosophical view of the mind as a rational machine. They knew that the mind is an organic, constantly developing system, and to this developmental process they gave the German name Bildung. They were quite specific on how one could facilitate this Bildung process. Their description of the steps of consciousness development—for example, have a look at the works of Schiller and Goethe—are very, very similar to what developmental psychologists, today at Harvard University and other places, are finding empirically that we as humans are capable of going through, given the right environment.
So, one could say that the Nordic countries were really ahead of the time 100 years ago. But as I said earlier, we are losing our advantage a bit now. In all the Scandinavian countries, we have completely forgotten about this because after the Second World War, we changed our world view. We stopped reading the German philosophers, we turned to the Anglo-Saxon world, to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. And with that turn, of course, came the focus on the Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Descartes who brought with them the notion of the tabula rasa—the blank slate—and the mind as a rational machine. That was the model that was dominating analytical philosophy, economic theory and other thinking at that time.
So, to conclude, I don’t see this story as a blueprint for what we need to do today. But I do see it as a very valuable case study, supporting the idea that helping a large part of the population to increase their inner capacity to handle uncertainty and complexity, becoming more grounded in themselves and in their culture at the same time as facilitating the development of larger and larger circles of belonging, this can be a key factor in societal shifts like the one we are in now. Showing that this interest, growing right now for a profound understanding of the connection between our personal inner development and societal change, is not a new thing. It is an insight that has been tested on a large scale in three countries 100 years ago. And it worked!
We need to completely change our world view, develop new ways of knowing and develop new capacities for relating to ourselves, to others, to society and to the planet.
David: I think we've talked many times over a couple of years about this big shift in culture and in society. And right now, with COVID, and with this sense of a big systems change, I think we all feel that something is happening. You've put a lot of your energy and a lot of your effort and a lot of your money as well into organisations that have been looking at what we might call the deep source code of society.
The deeper the shift we are going through, the deeper we have to look into ourselves and into society in order to understand what is going on.
Tomas: Using the language from the start of our talk, I believe that we are at the beginning of a Level 3 shift at the very least, meaning that what we are now living through is a shift of equal magnitude to the shift from a medieval society to modern society, the shift that occurred during the Enlightenment. But it could very well be an even deeper shift, even as deep as Daniel’s Level 5. Under all circumstances and however, you define it, this current shift that we are experiencing means that we will have to totally rebuild our society. We also need to completely change our world view, develop new ways of knowing and develop new capacities for relating to ourselves, to others, to society and to the planet.
The deeper the shift we are going through the deeper we have to look into ourselves and into society, but also deeper back into history. And that is why Deep History is becoming so popular. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, Sir David Christian’s Maps of Time are two examples of some excellent thinking into this. But we also need to understand Deep Psychology and Deep Sociology.
On your Rebel Wisdom channel, you have looked into psychology and into deep psychology, and you have brought in the concepts and the perspectives of Jungian deep psychology. Jordan B. Peterson and others have been advocating for our need to go beyond the more shallow, everyday psychology that has dominated academia for the last 50 years and look deeper into our souls to get a better understanding of ourselves.
In the same way, I think that in a shift like this we also need to go deeper in our understanding of society and look into something that might be called deep sociology. This involves looking into the very mytho-poetical foundation of our society. Charles Eisenstein was recently on Rebel Wisdom talking about his article where he argues that ‘the myth of separation’ is what is holding us as a civilisation in a tight grip right now. We really need to look at the deep level of myths and root metaphors to understand what is going on today.
There are no societies without myths; there are only societies that are unaware of their myths or ignore them.
The first book I wrote after leaving the banking world was called The Market Myth. In that I make the same argument as Charles that what is holding society in a grip and prevents transformation are actually myths. There are no societies without myths; there are only societies that are unaware of their myths or ignore them. Myths in this sense are vehicles of truths, they do not need to be literal. Myths are things that explain the world.
We don't have a popular term or an everyday name for these deeper layers of society. They are well known in academic disciplines like anthropology or sociology and they go under many different names that can be very confusing. The famous social scientist Charles Taylor in his book from 2004, The Modern Social Imaginaries, gives these deeper layers the name ‘social imaginaries’.
The French Canadian sociologist, Gerard Bouchard, in his recent book, Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries,connects this concept of these deep, fundamental, societal myths that every society has, whether the society is aware of it or not, with these deeper layers that he calls the ‘collective imaginary’. For Bouchard, the main purpose of social myths is to give direction to reality;for example, to eliminate or reduce inequalities, or to bring freedom, and not simply to act as reflections of reality. When society is shifting direction, it happens at this deep mytho-poetical level of the collective imaginary.
So we are here at an even deeper level that what we usually mean by, for example, ideology or the Zeitgeist. Levels that form our society in an unconscious way, just like our own individual, deep unconscious psychological levels form the way that we see the world, think and act, these deeper levels of the social imaginary are forming the way an entire society acts and develops.
This can sound very abstract. It might be clearer if I give an example. A good example of a social imaginary is money and the market.
If we look at money from the perspective of the individual, in the modern world, we are, one could argue, as individuals equally dependent on money as we are on air or oxygen. We need air to breathe and we need money to survive.
When the social imaginaries become dysfunctional we can start to capture a glimpse of them. Think of this being like ‘the glitch in the matrix’.
But if we look at the collective level of society as a whole, there is an important difference between money and oxygen. Because even if we gathered all humans in the world and collectively decided that we do not want to be dependent on oxygen, we couldn't do anything about that natural and essential dependence. However, if humanity collectively decided that we wanted to have another way than money to allocate goods in our society, then money could be gone tomorrow. I’m not suggesting that we do that, but the very fact that we can indicates a fundamental, ontological difference between money and oxygen that both natural scientists and postmodern thinkers tend to forget. And because they are so fundamentally different, we also need fundamentally different ways of understanding them. We need different approaches to them. And of course, one of the problems with the science of economy is that it has, for the last 100 years, been using natural science as a model.
And I found it much more useful, as a financial entrepreneur, to understand the market not as a natural phenomenon and to try to model it with the tools common to natural science, as the neoclassical economic thinking does, but rather to look at the market, as a sociological phenomenon, as something that is socially constructed. And, as it is socially constructed, it can actually be reconstructed by us humans. And that is a very, very fundamental insight.
David: And is the idea of the social imaginary more than just the market?
Tomas: Yes, of course. The collective imaginary represents almost everything in our social world: marriages, nation states, presidents, property, languages and mathematics all exist just because of our collective agreement. It's close to the popular culture concept, the Matrix. The Matrix actually closely approximates what we are talking about, and our social imaginary is really, to us, like water is to the fish. We can't see it but we are totally dependent on it for our society to function. So it's really all of our social myths. It's all our collective values, it's our root metaphors, all our collective agreements and understandings. And we can't usually see this for what it is, which is a series of rather arbitrary, but to some extent functional, agreements. But when the social imaginaries become dysfunctional we can start to capture a glimpse of them. Think of this being like ‘the glitch in the matrix’.
It is through the glitch that we start to be aware of these social imaginaries, and especially when they no longer serve our interests, either as individuals or collectively; when we start to feel that there is this strong force in society whose origins are completely unknown to us but that is certainly not serving our interests. Again, Charles Eisenstein was trying to convey in his article that right now, a lot of people feel that something is wrong. It's just so natural for us humans to start thinking ‘why do I feel this orchestrating power and one that is making things happen in a direction that is not serving me or society at large? What is it?’ And then again, it's just so natural for us humans to then ascribe some human agency to this power and start to talk in terms of conspiracies. And of course sometimes there is a human agency behind this, but in many, many cases this orchestrating power is actually the power of our unconscious, the social imaginary, acting and making things happen.
I think that the COVID crisis has been a wake-up call for many people to start to see current myths in society.
We need to make a very important distinction here, and understand that sometimes you have to deal with nature and its constraints as a starting point. For example, as individuals we are completely and indisputably reliant on oxygen to survive, but although we currently rely on money to live in the world, we certainly don’t have to. We could change this tomorrow, by collective agreement. Sometimes I feel that we understand the world in exactly the opposite way, that we can change nature but not our social dependencies. That somehow, we believe that the planetary boundaries are up for negotiation.
Of course, it's completely the other way around. And here, the more extreme forms of postmodern thinking have not been helpful. What you have to understand is that we humans are actually living in three different worlds at the same time. And this is something that many philosophers throughout history have been pointing out. Ever since Plato, Karl Popper, Jürgen Habermas, Ken Wilber and many others have pointed this out.
The first of these three worlds is the natural world, the world of oxygen and gravity. The second world is our inner world, the world of dreams and fantasies and values and meaning and purpose. And then the third world is our collective imaginary, the socially constructed world that has its own ontology, something between the natural world and our inner world. This third world is malleable to us as a collective, but not to us as individuals.
One of the big problems with the way that throughout history we have understood our human predicament has been that we have, during different times in history, been relying on one of these three worlds or perspectives too heavily. So, for example, since the Enlightenment, the scientific world view, that is very powerful and persuasive when it comes to investigating the natural world, has completely dominated our understanding of the world to the extent that we are even trying, as I said earlier, to understand the socially constructed market as a natural phenomenon. Postmodern philosophy was a good critique of too much reliance on the scientific perspective of the natural world. But then again, when postmodern thinking goes too far and you believe that everything is world three, the collective world of the social imaginary, you go wrong there as well.
And in some spiritual traditions, there has been a too strong focus on just the inner world, where the idea that the only thing that really matters, or perhaps the only thing that really exists, is your inner experience.
I would say no, that's not the case. Society is real, and societies are causing real suffering. So, if you are only concentrating on the inner world alone you are missing important aspects of the real world and you might even reject the existence of social ills.
We do not even own our own desires, our desires are dependent on our relationships and our collective imaginary.
So, in our complex sense-making today, if I offer only one recommendation it would be to try to start to see the world from at least these three fundamentally different perspectives. And to understand that we need different tools to understand the natural aspects of the human world, the inner aspects of the human world, including our consciousness and our potential for consciousness development, and then different tools for understanding the socially constructed world, our collective imaginary, and then try to hold all of those perspectives at the same time and understand how interdependent they are.
David: A couple of thoughts or questions come to mind, one of which is do you think people are becoming more aware of the nature of a collective imaginary because of the COVID crisis? Because so many things we thought were set in stone about the way we're living has shifted on a daily basis? And if so, what relevance do you think this has for us? And do you think that's an opportunity to change?
Tomas: Yes. I think that the COVID crisis has been a wake-up call for many people to start to see current myths in society, like the market myth or the myth of separation, as just that: myths. Especially this myth of separation. I think the COVID crisis has made many of us wake up to the fact that we are much more interdependent than we thought we were. So, in that way the COVID crisis could be sort of an awakening call from the collective imaginary that we are currently living in.
But we should remember that the collective imaginary is really important for the functioning of any society. Not only does it make it possible for us to function in a technologically advanced world, it also informs our sense making and shapes what John Vervaeke calls ‘our salience landscape’. Depending on our collective imaginary, different things become more important, more salient, to us.
We are using these root metaphors and these root myths of the collective imaginary to make sense of the world. But not only does the collective imaginary form our sense making and our salience landscape, it also shapes our desire. And that is why Daniel Schmactenberger pointed out at the Rebel Wisdom festival, with a reference to Rene Girard, that desire is mimetic. This means that we do not even own our own desires, our desires are dependent on our relationships and our collective imaginary. So, these deeper layers of society are incredibly important. And again, as they are to us like water is to the fish, it demands a significant effort on our part to start to see this collective imaginary.
At Burning Man, together as a collective you start from scratch and you co-create a completely new and completely different collective imaginary out in the desert.
However, once you have woken up and see it, once you have taken the proverbial red pill, then you start to see it everywhere. And I could almost point to the moment when I, in a more embodied way, really became aware of this collective imaginary. That was actually when a few years ago, together with my 21-year-old son Alexander, I went to Burning Man. And what got me interested in going to Burning Man in the first place was that I had many friends coming back from that festival, pointing out that they could no longer look at this normal world, the ‘default reality’, with the same naive eyes. Because at Burning Man, together as a collective you start from scratch and you co-create a completely new and completely different collective imaginary out in the desert and you live in that collective imaginary with other values, norms and without any money. And you actually see that for yourself, what it is like to live in a completely different, admittedly not on its own sustainable, collective imaginary.
So, then when you come back to the ‘default reality’, you can't really see the world with the same naive eyes. It’s good that more and more people are waking up to this understanding, and that we are not only rediscovering deep psychology, but that we are also rediscovering deep sociology.
David: Is there anything that we missed so far, Tomas?
Tomas: I'd just like to add that I think that it is important at this point in history that we do a lot of experimentation. That we actually try a lot of things: new ways of working and living together, new ways to organise our businesses and our societies, experiment with crypto currencies and with blockchain democracy. Even if it is extremely difficult to see into the future right now, we still have to try to build bridges into our foggy future.
One experiment that I’m involved in and I would like to mention is related to broad-scale development of transformative capabilities and the development of new psycho-technologies that John Vervaeke has pointed out that we need in shifts like this.
My foundation, the Ekskäret Foundation, together with the Norrsken Foundation in Sweden has founded an initiative called 29k. It is a digital platform where we are trying to see if we can successfully use technology to replicate and scale up some of the facilitation techniques and interventions that we have been using at the Ekskäret retreat centre and that have been used at retreat centres like Esalen in California and many other places for more than 50 years.
For real, deep, personal development and transformation, you do need immersive, real-life experience.
If we can replicate that facilitation in a digital environment it becomes scalable in a completely different way than these in real life retreats. So I think that for real, deep, personal development and transformation, you do need immersive, real-life experience, but you can certainly awaken an interest and also undertake some development work on a digital platform. We have, for example, through video sharing been able very successfully to replicate the concept of intimate sharing circles. It has actually proven to work very, very well. And we can see deep shifts happening at the level of what we see sometimes at personal retreats. So, yes, it's still early days but it is promising.
David: Are these courses at 29k low cost or are they free?
Tomas: Yes! I should have mentioned that 29k is a non-profit organisation and is completely free. It is non-profit, co-created and open source. And that is all part of the dynamics of the platform because we want to invite researchers and practitioners from all over the world to be able to upload interventions, and then to undertake research on how these interventions are working on different target audiences at different stages in their lives, and for people to feel comfortable to share their data. Our users are sharing sensitive personal data so we think it is essential we are a non-profit. We promise never to monetise any data entrusted to us by you. Come in and check it out and let us know what you think.
David: Thank you, Tomas. That was really great.
Tomas: Thank you. Thank you very much, David.
Words by Tomas Björkman
Tomas Björkman is a social entrepreneur, philosopher and co-initiator of Emerge.