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Modernity

1. The nature of modernity

Source: Oxford University Press

The ecology of pre-modern societies was largely agricultural, based on using renewable resources in restorable conditions, but modern societies in pursuit of greater productivity, profits and the spread of ‘well-being’ are built around machine processing of unrenewable resources. Constant technological progress is required to keep ahead of accelerating consumption, as is the flexibility to switch from exhausted resources to new ones. Incessant change becomes central to cultural experience. The agenda for change is, however, concentrated in the hands of relatively few, is partial in scope and largely arbitrary in its effects. Thus its forms are felt as ambiguous and conflicted. Modernity is the accumulating impact of these forces of modernization on individuals, societies and environments.

New ideas and modes of expression have occurred in many societies throughout human history, even in civilizations that changed as slowly as did that of ancient Egypt. Also frequent is the sense of being modern—that is, being up to date, ‘of today’, or, less strongly, part of the present or recent past. Modernity, however, is much more active, engaged and widespread than these occasional and circumstantial occurrences. It is what happens to both everyday and exceptional experience when large sections of a society are undergoing modernization. It is an unfolding of active processes, of changes in all spheres, away from accepted traditions, customary conventions and current practices towards imaginary, often utopian, futures. It is experienced as a constant encounter with the new as a set of challenges and thus demands a reorientation of our sense of self around the presumption that change is the inevitable result of the functioning of forces outside of ourselves, is largely unpredictable and yet may be influenced, to some degree, by individual belief and action. Modernity provokes a preoccupation in us with its definition, occurrence and significance. Modernity is living in, and with, perpetual flux.

In The Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newly formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (Selected Works, p. 38)

These changes had been resisted from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The poet Oliver Goldsmith, in his essay Visit to Elysium of 1773, was rudely confronted by Luddite reality: ‘I should certainly have fallen beneath the hands of this company of men, who gloried in the title of Modernicides’ (Miscellaneous Works, London, 1837, I.213).

While many of these ideas were nascent in the Renaissance (leading some to label it the Early Modern period), it was during the 19th century in Europe that modernizing forces came to dominate material life: the capitalist system of economic exchange became nearly global; industrialists used new technologies and rationalized management to introduce mass production; faster means of transportation and communication spread everywhere; millions of people migrated between nations and into cities; governmental and corporate surveillance became increasingly pervasive and was strongly resisted by organized and revolutionary political movements; everyday life was secularized, traditional values were cast as mere nostalgia, and popular culture was shaped into spectacles infused with desires for commodities. Overt ideological struggle is thus characteristic of modernity. At stake is the direction of modernity itself. Typically, attempts are made by some to recruit modernity’s victims as willing subjects and by others to encourage them to radical resistance. Both sides, however, share an assumption about the inevitability of a modernized future, while rejecting continuity from the past and viewing its persisting forms as anachronistic survivals. They aim to reduce actual global diversity of outlook by insisting on the necessity of unifying, integrative conceptual frameworks, by promoting abstract organizational forms over individual choice. They oppose the inherited hierarchies and also the autonomous differentiality of tradition-based communities—especially those beyond the major European cities—with claims that rationality, materialism and pragmatism are essentially universal. In general, the rhetoric of disruption disguises modernity’s fundamental sleight-of-hand: its eventual absorption of tradition, otherness and its own novelty into its expansionary self.

The ideology of modernity is evident in its narratives of universal liberation, a number of which compete and combine. They all presume European leadership and include the revolutionary overthrow of aristocratic, theocratic order to establish the democratic nation state, the promise of progressively increasing wealth for all offered by the political economy of capitalism, and the hope for the realization of rationality in the minds and actions of men held out by Enlightenment philosophy, above all by Kant and Hegel. Marxism, a widely influential ideology during the period of modernity’s hegemony, was a critique of these narratives accompanied by its own narrative of the revolutionary destruction of the bourgeois state, the establishment of a socialist state and, eventually, the communism of pure liberation. A less systematic critique of modernity was offered by such philosophers as friedrich Nietzsche and martin Heidegger and by such political philosophies as anarchism.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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