Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Modernity and Capitalism

Well, that’s a heavy title.  I’m not going to say the last word about it in a blog post, but I would like to make a fairly simple observation: for at least a century, defenders of capitalism have argued that the two are inextricably connected.  If you like modernity you have to like capitalism, and if you get rid of capitalism you will lose modernity with it.  By modernity I mean a way of life that is science-based, rational and skeptical, technologically innovative, liberal, cosmopolitan and adapted to markets.

The traditional response of the left was to argue that modernity under capitalism is flawed and that a better, socialist modernity is possible.  In other words, it rejected the identity and saw modernity as bigger than any particular version of it.

That position has been complicated by the collapse of traditional models of socialism that do seem to fail the modernization test: they were clunky and inefficient, closed to the outside instead of open, stultifying instead of dynamic.  Now, I can already hear the cries of paleo-socialists in my ear: No!  Socialism didn’t fail in Russia/China/Cuba/wherever; it was encircled by the forces of capital and betrayed from within.  I don’t agree, but I won’t debate it here; my only point is that most of the left is not paleo-socialist, so they’ve had to figure out what it means to be left wing and anti-capitalist in a world in which capitalism and modernity (in their eyes) largely coincide.

The result that seems to be unfolding is a widespread rejection of modernity on the activist/committed left.  This is obvious in a book like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate.  She denounces “western science” and the industrial revolution.  She is against globalization and wants each of us to stay put and cultivate our relationship to the soil—to native plants and local, stable communities.  She has rediscovered spirituality and finds it answers life’s questions better than rational skepticism.  She thinks traditional societies lived better and possessed more wisdom than those swept up in modernity.  And of course, any use of markets (other than carbon taxes) is to be denounced as the sin of greed.

What Klein writes wouldn’t matter so much if they were only her personal thoughts (just like mine don’t matter very much), but the reception her book has received shows she has distilled a worldview shared by much if not most of the left.  Her anti-modernist stance is not even mentioned; it is taken for granted.  Or more precisely, it is how we understand her to be radical and left-wing: that’s what it means to oppose capitalism in the Anthropocene.  (My spell-checker doesn’t recognize Anthropocene yet.  Give it time.)

So that’s how we’ve come full circle.  The identity between modernity and capitalism is no longer offered in defense of the existing order but (or also) as the basis for its rejection.  My prediction is that the benefits of modernity are so obvious and compelling for the vast majority of humanity that anti-modernist leftism will be an evanescent cult, something future generations will look back upon with curiosity.

And I still think we need to consider what form a non- or post-capitalist modernity might take.

(Postscript: If you want to think about how this conceptual turn of events began, you might look at the emergence of postmodernism, which transferred the critique of capitalism to the critique of modernity and arose at about the same time classical socialism/communism lost its intellectual luster.)

(Postscript ^2: This is not about anarchism vs Marxism.  Anarchists used to be modernists.  Read Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops or, for cultural modernism, Emma Goldman's Living My Life.)


Lord said...

I think this shouldn't be limited to the left. Anti modernity seems widely spread among political philosophies even if limited in its appeal. One could as well include the Amish among its adherents. There is just a quasi secular version now, one that fears the future as much as it clings to the past even though that was traditionally a conservative viewpoint, just rejecting different trends and seeking different traditions.

Magpie said...


Peter T said...

I don't think capitalism and modernity are as closely linked as is often assumed. Both are large terms - the capitalism we have today is very different from the capitalism of, say, 1850, and likewise today's modernity (even as you define it) is very different from that of 1900.

So "rejecting modernity" is rhetorical sweep. Klein may have a point in that environmental issues (other than CO2 emissions) are very much local so, if we are to deal with them, the global or large national level of control has to diminish. But I doubt she wants to abandon modern medicine.

DrDick said...

What failed was state socialism, which was over centralized and relatively unresponsive to change. It is also the case that all of the fully socialist economies emerged inc grossly underdeveloped countries, which lacked the foundations of modernity. We have better models in the Scandinavian countries and Labor Party England in the last half of the 20th century (before the forces of reactionary capitalism undid them), as well as in the Mondragon corporation in Spain.

reason said...

"Klein may have a point in that environmental issues (other than CO2 emissions) are very much local so, if we are to deal with them, the global or large national level of control has to diminish. "

I don't think she has much of a point at all. Most environmental issues ARE global. Everything effects everything else. Putting a fence around your county, won't stop a fire or flood from coming through.