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Peter Wagner

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Peter Wagner

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We live in a modern age, but what does 'modern' mean and how can a reflection on 'modernity' help us to understand the world today? These are the questions that Peter Wagner sets out to answer in this concise and accessible book. Wagner begins by returning to the question of modernity's Western origins and its claims to open up a new and better era in the history of humanity. Modernity's claims and expectations have become more prevalent and widely shared, but in the course of their realization and diffusion they have also been radically transformed. In an acute and engaging analysis, Wagner examines the following key issues among others: - Modernity was based on the hope for freedom and reason, but it created the institutions of contemporary capitalism and democracy. How does the freedom of the citizen relate to the freedom of the buyer and seller today? And what does disaffection with capitalism and democracy entail for the sustainability of modernity? - Rather than a single model of modernity, there is now a plurality of forms of modern socio-political organisation. What does this entail for our idea of progress and our hope that the future world can be better than the present one? - All nuance and broadening notwithstanding, our concept of modernity is in some way inextricably tied to the history of Europe and the West. How can we compare different forms of modernity in a 'symmetric', non-biased or non-Eurocentric way? How can we develop a world-sociology of modernity?

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Part I: Re-theorizing Modernity
Retrieving Modernity’s Past, Understanding Modernity’s Present
The most common – even though far from unproblematic – view about modernity holds that this term refers to a novel kind of society that emerged from a sequence of major transformations in Europe and North America, culminating in the industrial and democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Significantly, this view often entails both that these transformations catapulted Europe (or the West) to the front position in the course of world history and that the thus established western model would diffuse worldwide because of its inherent superiority. Thinking about modernity thus meant thinking about globalization, even though these terms have come into frequent use only since the 1980s and 1990s respectively.
Global – or universal – significance was claimed for European modernity from the very beginning. A key event in the formation of what we consider to be modern Europe was the so-called discovery of the Americas with their hitherto unknown populations, and this event triggered European reflections about the nature of humankind and provided a background to philosophical speculations about the ‘state of nature’, as in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690). From René Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) onwards, Enlightenment thought claimed to have established the very few, but absolutely firm, foundations on which universal knowledge could be erected, most basically freedom and reason. The American and French Revolutions were seen as having inescapably introduced humanity to liberal democracy, based on individual rights and popular sovereignty. Already in his Democracy in America of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville considered equal universal suffrage the telos of political history. And from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) to the mid-nineteenth century, political economists claimed to have discovered in market self-regulation an absolutely superior form of economic organization. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels provided an image of economic globalization whose evocative power has not been surpassed.
A common basic understanding of modernity underlies this debate, which stretches over more than two centuries and addresses very different aspects of human social life. Modernity is the belief in the freedom of the human being – natural and inalienable, as many philosophers presumed – and in the human capacity to reason, combined with the intelligibility of the world, that is, its amenability to human reason. In a first step towards concreteness, this basic commitment translates into the principles of individual and collective self-determination and in the expectation of ever-increasing mastery of nature and ever more reasonable interaction between human beings. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1793), as well as the granting of commercial freedom, can be understood as an application of these underlying principles of modernity, as can the technical transformations captured by the term ‘industrial revolution’.
These principles were seen as universal, on the one hand, because they contained normative claims to which, one presumed, every human being would subscribe and, on the other, because they were deemed to permit the creation of functionally superior arrangements for major aspects of human social life, most importantly maybe the satisfaction of human needs in market-driven, industrial production and the rational government of collective matters through law-based and hierarchically organized administration. Furthermore, they were seen as globalizing in their application because of the interpretative and practical power of normativity and functionality.
None of these claims, however, was straightforwardly accepted. Even though the intellectual commitment to these principles was possibly widespread, considerable doubts existed about the possibility or probability of translating these principles into institutional arrangements without considerable modifications and losses. Among the early critical reflections, only two shall be mentioned. Immanuel Kant was committed to the idea of enlightened and accountable government and expected the republican principle (though not the democratic one) to flourish worldwide. However, he did not believe in what might have been considered the crowning of this process, the creation of a world republic, but argued for the normative superiority of a global federation of republics instead (On Perpetual Peace, 1795). Karl Marx’s ‘critique of political economy’ (thus the subtitle of Capital, 1867), in turn, undermined the belief that the transformation of the human being into a market agent was based on the principles of liberty and equality, as political economy had suggested. Rather, this novel social formation, which he referred to as bourgeois society, divided humankind into two classes, the owners of means of production and those who had only their labour power to sell, who stood in an increasingly antagonistic relation to each other.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the trajectory of European (or western) societies had separated so considerably from those of other parts of the world that the particularity of ‘Occidental rationalism’, as Max Weber put it – not without hesitation – in the introduction to his comparative sociology of world religions (1920, now mostly read as the preface to The Protestant Ethic), had become a key topic of historico-sociological investigation (for a recent analysis, see Pomeranz 2000). The ambiguity of Weber’s terminological choice has stayed with the debate on modernity ever since. Weber seemed to claim both that rationalization had western origins and even preconditions in western cosmology and that it had ‘universal significance’, adding to the latter the much-overlooked parenthesis ‘as we [presumably the westerners] are inclined to think’. Thus, it permitted both the promoters of later modernization theory and those more recent authors and advocates of the theorem of multiple modernities to refer to Weber as the main source of inspiration. The former, headed by Talcott Parsons, suggested that the western ‘breakthrough’ to modernity would (need to) be emulated by elites in other societies because of its normative and functional superiority, and that therefore western modernity would diffuse globally in processes of ‘modernization and development’, as the sociological jargon of the 1960s had it. The latter, inspired by the late Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, were not denying the ‘universal significance’ of western social transformations since the 1700s, but held that the encounter of other civilizations with western modernity did not lead to the mere diffusion of the western model but rather to the proliferation of varieties of modernity generated by the encounter of different ‘cultural programmes’, which had consolidated much earlier, with western ideas and practices.
The opposition between neo-modernization theory and the multiple modernities theorem, which marks current sociological debate on modernity, tends to sideline the third aspect of Weber’s view of ‘Occidental rationalism’, namely a profound scepticism as to the fate of modernity. From this angle, Weber’s reflections stand mid-stream in the tradition of a profound critique of modernity that was elaborated between the middle of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century, with Karl Marx marking the beginning and Theodor W. Adorno the end, at least in its strong form, of this approach. Marx accepted the modern commitment to freedom and reason, as his expectation of a future ‘free association of free human beings’ demonstrates, but emphasized the impossibility of realizing it under conditions of class domination. Market liberty in bourgeois society would lead to alienation and commodification, human beings relating to each other as things. Similarly, Weber saw the Protestant Reformation as an increase of individual autonomy, eliminating the institutional mediation of the church between the believer and God (The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, 1904/5 and 1920). Once the social ethic associated with Protestantism, which emphasizes professional commitment and success, had contributed to bringing about the institutions of modern capitalism, however, a rationalized conduct of life would be imposed on the inhabitants of the ‘dwellings made of steel’ (the rendering of Weber’s stählernes Gehäuse as ‘iron cage’ is rather misleading) characteristic of modernity. Adorno and Max Horkheimer (Dialectics of Enlightenment, 1944) provided the most extreme version of the theorem that the modern commitment to freedom and reason tends towards self-cancellation in its transformation into historically concrete social forms. They see the origins of this regression in the very philosophy of the Enlightenment that, in its insistence on the knowability of the world, transforms all qualities into mere quantities of the same and reduces the unknown to the status of a variable that is subject to the rules of mathematical equations. Such conceptualization entered into a totalizing alliance with industrial capitalism and produced, by the middle of the twentieth century, a society dominated by a culture industry in which nothing could be heard or touched that had not been heard or touched before. Novelty and creativity were equally eliminated in societies as otherwise different as the mass culture of the United States (the text was written in Los Angeles), Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Such radical critiques of modernity gradually lost their persuasive power during the second post-war period of the twentieth century. An echo of them is found in Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of ‘one-dimensional man’ and ‘one-dimensional society’ (1964), a diagnosis the reception of which, in the student revolt of the late 1960s, both demonstrated its appeal and tended to undermine its validity since ‘the cultural revolution of 1968’ arguably (re)introduced a plurality of dimensions into the contemporary world. When Zygmunt Bauman revived the analysis of modernity as the obsessive attempt to create order and eliminate ambivalence (Modernity and the Holocaust, 1989; Modernity and Ambivalence, 1991), he did so partly in historical perspective, offering a novel view on the Nazi genocide of the European Jews as an utterly modern phenomenon, and partly situated his own writings at the exit of such organized modernity towards a postmodernity that reintroduced a concern with freedom, even though possibly a transformed and reduced one compared to earlier promises.
Such a view about modernity undergoing a major transformation had indeed arisen in the late 1970s, pioneered by Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition (1979). Lyotard radicalized the earlier sociological debate about a transformation from industrial to post-industrial society, promoted by authors such as Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell, by suggesting that the emerging social configuration was of such novelty that established concepts could no longer grasp it. Thus, his work contributed to launching a broad investigation, which has characterized much of political philosophy and comparative–historical sociology since, into the openness of the modern commitment to freedom and reason to a plurality of possibly interpretations. As a consequence, the earlier opposition between an affirmative view of modernity as the institutionalization of freedom and reason, on the one hand, and the critical analysis of the self-cancellation of the modern normative commitment, on the other, could now be reread as evidence of, first, the ambiguity of the conceptual underpinnings of modernity and, second, the variety of possible translations of those commitments into institutionalized social practices, such as democracy and capitalism (Wagner 2008).
This insight gave new impetus to research on modernity. In political philosophy and social theory, the nature of the ambiguity and thus plurality of the modern commitment required further investigation, not least with a view to understanding the degree of openness of this commitment to interpretation and to reviewing, not necessarily discarding, the universalist claims that had accompanied this commitment from its beginnings. In social research, the hypothesis of a recent major transformation of ‘modern societies’ between the 1960s and the present has informed many analyses from the mid-1980s onwards. Such research will need to address in particular the question whether such transformation, if it is ongoing, shows a specific direction breaking with or confirming the tendencies of modernity as they had been postulated in earlier theorizing. In the following, chapter 2 will address the question of the recent transformation of modernity and the plurality of modern forms from the angles of both political philosophy and social research. Chapter 3 will take up the question of the historical direction of the transformations of modernity and will review the concept of progress in this light. And chapter 4 will suggest a novel conceptualization of modernity that lends itself to the comparative analysis of contemporary societies and their historical trajectories, to be embarked on in Part II of this book.
Capitalism is the currently predominant mode of economic modernity, and it has been the central target of critical social theory since Marx. In turn, democracy is the dominant interpretation of political modernity, but it has been much less in the focus of social theory. Chapter 5 will ask whether capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked to each other, as much social theory has assumed, but it will renew this question in the light of the current debate about the unavoidability of neo-liberal capitalism and the prevailing image of incessant ‘waves of democratization’ across the globe. Chapter 6 will bring together the insights from the preceding chapters to explore the possibility of a comparative sociology of modernities, which will need to investigate whether (a) the observable plurality of modern forms of socio-political organization is (b) created from within specific historical trajectories and to explore (c) the conditions for persistence of such plurality under current conditions of globalization (Wagner 2011).
This threefold task is mindful of the interpretations given to Weber’s reflections on modernity, but the current condition of global modernity tends to sharpen the issues raised in earlier theorizing. The plurality of modern forms may lend itself to varieties of world-making projects (Karagiannis and Wagner 2007), but at the same time the often observed homogenizing tendencies of globalization may impose a return to the view of modernity as a single and unique form of social and political organization that is without lasting alternatives. In that latter case, though, the critique of modernity may emerge in a new guise, as the critique of anomic individualization and reification that entails the risk of loss of world as a meaningful dwelling space, of worldlessness (see Arendt 1958 for the latter term; Honneth 2005 for the former). Chapter 7 will pursue this investigation further by focusing on one particular society and polity, South Africa, to understand how its historical trajectory was entangled with, but also differed from, the one of European modernity, if and how its post-apartheid modernity is specific in the current world context and, finally, how far we can learn from South Africa’s modernity about the possible plurality of modern forms of life today. Chapter 8 returns from this case to the general agenda and will try to outline the contours of a world sociology of modernity that takes up the Weberian agenda in the light of the ‘cultural problems’ of today.
Changing Views of Modernity: From Convergence and Stability to Plurality and Transformations
A concept with a history
Has modernity always been or has it recently become a key concern in social and political theory? In the former view, social and political theory emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the great transformations at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The new social configuration that was forming as a result of the combined effect of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution demanded novel means of analysis and interpretation; and social theory, in particular (without that term yet being coined), was the new intellectual tool to grasp its own present time, that is, its modernity. Proponents of the latter view, in turn, point to the fact that the noun ‘modernity’ has come into widespread use in social and political theory only in the last three decades. A look at this recent development provides us with an angle from which to grasp the longer history and the transformations of the concern with modernity in social and political theory.
Just over thirty years ago, in 1979, as briefly mentioned earlier, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard published a short ‘report on knowledge’, which he had written at the request of the government of Quebec, under the title The Postmodern Condition. Using data about the rapid diffusion of electronic information and communication technology, and building on earlier arguments about the rise of ‘post-industrial society’, he argued that modern societies were undergoing a major social transformation and that contemporary social theory was unable to grasp the nature of that monumental change. He criticized both mainstream social theorizing, epitomized by Parsonsian structural functionalism, and its critical alternative, as the exemplar for which he referred to Jürgen Habermas’s work, for operating with reductionist and overly homogenizing concepts of the social bond, and he maintained that contemporary society was instead characterized by a multiplicity of social bonds best captured by the Wittgensteinian idea of a plurality of language games.
The little book contained provocative material for both political philosophy and empirical social research that, though much of it was not entirely new, had never appeared in such a condensed form. It suggested that modernity was neither functionally nor normatively superior to, or more advanced than, earlier social configurations, as almost all western social and political theory had maintained for one and a half centuries. Furthermore, it denied the commonly held view that modernity undergoes predominantly linear evolution and reaches a stable state at full development. Rather, it was about to undergo a radical social transformation that invalidated many of its promises of human emancipation. And the outcome of this transformation was the coexistence of multiple forms of social bond in the shadow of a diffuse concern with performativity.
In reaction to this provocation, two strands of debate began to form in social and political theory during the 1980s. On the one hand, the foundations of modern reasoning and modern practices were reassessed in more philosophically oriented debates, with Jürgen Habermas defending a sophisticated understanding of modernity in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985) against critics such as Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty moving the pragmatist tradition close to the postmodern agenda in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989). More sociologically oriented contributions focused on the question of the existence and nature of that new major social transformation that the theorem of postmodernity entailed. With Risk Society (1986), Ulrich Beck was among the first to distinguish a first and simple modernity, in his view rather well captured by sociological debate up to the 1970s, from ‘another’, ‘reflexive’ modernity that was about to emerge. In a whole array of writings published between 1987 and 1992, as mentioned earlier, Zygmunt Bauman forcefully distinguished between a modernity obsessed with the creation of order and the elimination of ambivalence from an emerging postmodernity more gently interpreting rather than legislating human relations (Legislators and Interpreters, 1987; Modernity and the Holocaust, 1989; Modernity and Ambivalence, 1991). From a focus on the critique of historical modernity, his more recent writings have turned towards critical assessments of the ‘liquidity’ of current social life (e.g., Liquid Modernity, 2000). Avoiding any strong notions of an epochal break, Alain Touraine (Critique de la modernité, 1992) suggested that modernity had always been characterized by the two tendencies towards subjectivation and rationalization, but concern with the former now re-emerged after a long period of predominance of the latter.
These were the debates in which the noun ‘modernity’ was introduced in social theory and political philosophy, which hitherto had been content with using terms such as ‘modern society’, ‘industrial society’ or ‘capitalist society’ for their main object. The purpose of investigation did not change with the terminology; the analysis of contemporary social configurations and the relations between the human beings that form them remained the major task. However, the change of terminology s...