In what follows I shall develop an institutional analysis of modernity with cultural and epistemological overtones. In so doing, I differ substantially from most current discussions, in which these emphases are reversed. What is modernity? As a first approximation, let us simply say the following: “modernity” refers to modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence. This associates modernity with a time period and with an initial geographical location, but for the moment leaves its major characteristics safely stowed away in a black box.
Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by many, we stand at the opening of a new era, to which the social sciences must respond and which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather that a preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close (“post-modernity,” “post-modernism,” “post-industrial society,” “post-capitalism,” and so forth). Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the manufacture of material goods to one concerned more centrally with information. More commonly, however, these controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the author who has been primarily responsible for popularising the notion of post-modernity, Jean-François Lyotard.1
As he represents it, post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to ground epistemology and from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative”—the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as beings having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place.
A standard response to the sort of ideas expressed by Lyotard is to seek to demonstrate that a coherent epistemology is possible—and that generalisable knowledge about social life and patterns of social development can be achieved.2
But I want to take a different tack. The disorientation which expresses itself in the feeling that systematic knowledge about social organisation cannot be obtained, I shall argue, results primarily from the sense many of us have of being caught up in a universe of events we do not fully understand, and which seems in large part outside of our control. To analyse how this has come to be the case, it is not sufficient merely to invent new terms, like post-modernity and the rest. Instead, we have to look again at the nature of modernity itself which, for certain fairly specific reasons, has been poorly grasped in the social sciences hitherto. Rather than entering a period of post-modernity, we are moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalised and universalised than before. Beyond modernity, I shall claim, we can perceive the contours of a new and different order, which is “post-modern”; but this is quite distinct from what is at the moment called by many “post-modernity.”
The views I shall develop have their point of origin in what I have elsewhere called a “discontinuist” interpretation of modern social development.3
By this I mean that modern social institutions are in some respects unique—distinct in form from all types of traditional order. Capturing the nature of the discontinuities involved, I shall argue, is a necessary preliminary to analysing what modernity actually is, as well as diagnosing its consequences for us in the present day.
My approach also demands a brief critical discussion of some of the dominant standpoints in sociology, as the discipline most integrally involved with the study of modern social life. Given their cultural and epistemological orientation, the debates about modernity and post-modernity for the most part have not confronted the shortcomings in established sociological positions. An interpretation concerned mainly with institutional analysis, however, as my discussion is, must do so.
Using these observations as a springboard, in the bulk of this study I shall attempt to provide a fresh characterisation both of the nature of modernity and of the postmodern order which might emerge on the other side of the current era.
The Discontinuities of Modernity
The idea that human history is marked by certain “discontinuities” and does not have a smoothly developing form is of course a familiar one and has been stressed in most versions of Marxism. My use of the term has no particular connection with historical materialism, however, and is not directed at characterising human history as a whole. There undoubtedly are discontinuities at various phases of historical development—as, for example, at the points of transition between tribal societies and the emergence of agrarian states. I am not concerned with these. I wish instead to accentuate that particular discontinuity, or set of discontinuities, associated with the modern period.
The modes of life brought into being by modernity have swept us away from all traditional types of social order, in quite unprecedented fashion. In both their extensionality and their intensionality the transformations involved in modernity are more profound than most sorts of change characteristic of prior periods. On the extensional plane they have served to establish forms of social interconnection which span the globe; in intensional terms they have come to alter some of the most intimate and personal features of our day-to-day existence. Obviously there are continuities between the traditional and the modern, and neither is cut of whole cloth; it is well known how misleading it can be to contrast these two in too gross a fashion. But the changes occurring over the past three or four centuries—a tiny period of historical time—have been so dramatic and so comprehensive in their impact that we get only limited assistance from our knowledge of prior periods of transition in trying to interpret them.
The long-standing influence of social evolutionism is one of the reasons why the discontinuist character of modernity has often not been fully appreciated. Even those theories which stress the importance of discontinuist transitions, like that of Marx, see human history as having an overall direction, governed by general dynamic principles. Evolutionary theories do indeed represent “grand narratives,” although not necessarily ones which are teleologically inspired. According to evolutionism, “history” can be told in terms of a “story line” which imposes an orderly picture upon the jumble of human happenings. History “begins” with small, isolated cultures of hunters and gatherers, moves through the development of crop-growing and pastoral communities and from there to the formation of agrarian states, culminating in the emergence of modern societies in the West.
Displacing the evolutionary narrative, or deconstructing its story line, not only helps to clarify the task of analysing modernity, it also refocuses part of the debate about the so-called post-modern. History does not have the “totalised” form attributed to it by evolutionary conceptions—and evolutionism, in one version or another, has been far more influential in social thought than the teleological philosophies of history which Lyotard and others take as their prime objects of attack. Deconstructing social evolutionism means accepting that history cannot be seen as a unity, or as reflecting certain unifying principles of organisation and transformation. But it does not imply that all is chaos or that an infinite number of purely idiosyncratic “histories” can be written. There are definite episodes of historical transition, for example, whose character can be identified and about which generalisations can be made.4
How should we identify the discontinuities which separate modern social institutions from the traditional social orders? Several features are involved. One is the sheer pace of change
which the era of modernity sets into motion. Traditional civilisations may have been considerably more dynamic than other pre-modern systems, but the rapidity of change in conditions of modernity is extreme. If this is perhaps most obvious in respect of technology, it also pervades all other spheres. A second discontinuity is the scope of change.
As different areas of the globe are drawn into interconnection with one another, waves of social transformation crash across virtually the whole of the earth’s surface. A third feature concerns the intrinsic nature of modern institutions.
Some modern social forms are simply not found in prior historical periods—such as the political system of the nation-state, the wholesale dependence of production upon inanimate power sources, or the thoroughgoing commodification of products and wage labour. Others only have a specious continuity with pre-existing social orders. An example is the city. Modern urban settlements often incorporate the sites of traditional cities, and it may look as though they have merely spread out from them. In fact, modern urbanism is ordered according to quite different principles from those which set off the pre-modern city from the countryside in prior periods.5
Security and Danger, Trust and Risk
In pursuing my enquiry into the character of modernity, I want to concentrate a substantial portion of the discussion upon the themes of security versus danger and trust versus risk. Modernity, as everyone living in the closing years of the twentieth century can see, is a double-edged phenomenon. The development of modern social institutions and their worldwide spread have created vastly greater opportunities for human beings to enjoy a secure and rewarding existence than any type of pre-modern system. But modernity also has a sombre side, which has become very apparent in the present century.
On the whole, the “opportunity side” of modernity was stressed most strongly by the classical founders of sociology. Marx and Durkheim both saw the modern era as a troubled one. But each believed that the beneficent possibilities opened up by the modern era outweighed its negative characteristics. Marx saw class struggle as the source of fundamental schisms in the capitalistic order, but at the same time envisaged the emergence of a more humane social system. Durkheim believed the further expansion of industrialism would establish a harmonious and fulfilling social life, integrated through a combination of the division of labour and moral individualism. Max Weber was the most pessimistic among the three founding fathers, seeing the modern world as a paradoxical one in which material progress was obtained only at the cost of an expansion of bureaucracy that crushed individual creativity and autonomy. Yet even he did not fully anticipate how extensive the darker side of modernity would turn out to be.
To take an example, all three authors saw that modern industrial work had degrading consequences, subjecting many human beings to the discipline of dull, repetitive labour. But it was not foreseen that the furthering of the “forces of production” would have large-scale destructive potential in relation to the material environment. Ecological concerns do not brook large in the traditions of thought incorporated into sociology, and it is not surprising that sociologists today find it hard to develop a systematic appraisal of them.
A second example is the consolidated use of political power, particularly as demonstrated in episodes of totalitarianism. The arbitrary use of political power seemed to the sociological founders to belong primarily to the past (although sometimes having echoes in the present, as indicated in Marx’s analysis of the rule of Louis Napoleon). “Despotism” appeared to be mainly characteristic of pre-modern states. In the wake of the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, Stalinism, and other episodes of twentieth-century history, we can see that totalitarian possibilities are contained within the institutional parameters of modernity rather than being foreclosed by them. Totalitarianism is distinct from traditional despotism, but is all the more frightening as a result. Totalitarian rule connects political, military, and ideological power in more concentrated form than was ever possible before the emergence of modern nation-states.6
The development of military power as a general phenomenon provides a further case in point. Durkheim and Weber both lived to witness the horrendous events of the First World War, although Durkheim died before the war reached its conclusion. The conflict shattered the anticipation Durkheim had previously held that a pacific, integrated industrial order would naturally be promoted by industrialism and proved impossible to accommodate within the intellectual framework he had developed as the basis of his sociology. Weber gave more attention to the role of military power in past history than did either Marx or Durkheim. Yet he did not elaborate an account of the military in modern times, shifting the burden of his analysis towards rationalisation and bureaucratisation. None of the classical founders of sociology gave systematic attention to the phenomenon of the “industrialisation of war.”7
Social thinkers writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not have foreseen the invention of nuclear weaponry*
But the connecting of industrial innovation and organisation to military power is a process that dates back to the early origins of modern industrialisation itself. That this went largely unanalysed in sociology is an indication of the strength of the view that the newly emergent order of modernity would be essentially pacific, in contrast to the militarism that had characterised previous ages. Not just the threat of nuclear confrontation, but the actuality of military conflict, form a basic part of the “dark side” of modernity in the current century. The twentieth century is the century of war, with the number of serious military engagements involving substantial loss of life being considerably higher than in either of the two preceding centuries. In the present century thus far, over 100 million people have been killed in wars, a higher proportion of the world’s population than in the nineteenth century, even allowing for overall population increase.8
Should even a limited nuclear engagement be fought, the loss of life would be staggering, and a full superpower conflict might eradicate humanity altogether.
The world in which we live today is a fraught and dangerous one. This has served to do more than simply blunt or force us to qualify the assumption that the emergence of modernity would lead to the formation of a happier and more secure social order. Loss of a belief in “progress,” of course, is one of the factors that underlies the dissolution of “narratives” of history. Yet there is much more at stake here than the conclusion that history “goes nowhere.” We have to develop an institutional analysis of the double-edged character of modernity. In so doing, we must make good some of the limitations of the classical sociological perspectives, limitations which have continued to affect sociological thought in the present day.
Sociology and Modernity
Sociology is a very broad and diverse subject, and any simple generalisations about it as a whole are questionable. But we can point to three widely held conceptions, deriving in some part from the continuing impact of classical social theory in sociology, which inhibit a satisfactory analysis of modern institutions. The first concerns the institutional diagnosis of modernity; the second has to do with the prime focus of sociological analysis, “society”; the third relates to the connections between sociological knowledge and the characteristics of modernity to which such knowledge refers.
1. The most prominent theoretical traditions in sociology, including those stemming from the writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, have tended to look to a single overriding dynamic of transformation in interpreting the nature of modernity. For authors influenced by Marx, the major transformative force shaping the modern world is capitalism. With the decline of feudalism, agrarian production based in the local manor is replaced by production for markets of national and international scope, in terms of which not only an indefinite variety of material goods but also human labour power become commodified. The emergent social order of modernity is capitalistic in both its economic system and its other institutions. The restless, mobile character of modernity is explained as an outcome of the investment-profit-investment cycle which, combined with the overall tendency of the rate of profit to decline, brings about a constant disposition for the system to expand.
This viewpoint was criticised both by Durkheim and by Weber, who helped initiate rival interpretations that have strongly influenced subsequent sociological analysis. In the tradition of Saint-Simon, Durkheim traced the nature of modern institutions primarily to the impact of industrialism. For Durkheim, capitalistic competition is not the central element of the emerging industrial order, and some of the characteristics upon which Marx laid great stress he saw as marginal and transitory. The rapidly changing character of modern social life does not derive essentially from capitalism, but from the energising impulse of a complex division of labour, harnessing production to human needs through the industrial exploitation of nature. We live, not in a capitalist, but in an industrial order.
Weber spoke of “capitalism,” rather than the existence of an industrial order, but in some key respects his view is closer to Durkheim than to Marx. “Rational capitalism” as Weber characterizes it, comprises the economic mechanisms specified by Marx, including the commodification of wage labour. Yet “capitalism” in this usage plainly means something different from the same term as it appears in Marx’s writings. “Rationalisation,” as expressed in technology and in the organisation of human activities, in the shape of bureaucracy, is the keynote.
Do we now live in a capitalist order? Is industrialism the dominant force shaping the institutions of modernity? Should we rather look to the rationalised control of information as the chief underlying characteristic? I shall argue that these questions cannot be answered in this form—that is to say, we should not regard these as mutually exclusive characterisations. Modernity, I propose, is multidimensional on the level of institutions, and each of the elements specif...