3 September 2017

Some Thoughts About Modernity

I'll have what he's having.
If academics love anything, it's to squabble over definition of terms, whether it's because it's too general, teleological, materialist, theoretical, anthropocentric, or just plain "problematic." Even something like the term "species" which the average person learns in middle school how to define turns out to be hella difficult to define. And among these wars of definition, modernity stands out as one of the most nebulous terms. As each discipline has its own internal debate on whatever the hell it really means, trying to find a consensus definition a little more precise than "something not ancient" (and let's define ancient as something not modern!) seems futile. I personally don't care too much about these debates; rather than being real issues, they seem more like problems we inadvertently created for ourselves because our brains desire specific ways of subjective categorization which the universe just laughs at and refuses to play along. That being said, I couldn't help but think about one way to look at modernity when I recently read Seeing Like a State. So in this post, which isn't meant to be a review of the book in any way, I'll touch upon the book's idea of high modernism as I ponder about modernity in general.


Anyone who's ever read anything about how taxation or administration was actually carried out on the local level in pre-modern states will instantly realize just how feeble pre-modern states were in comparison to the ones we live in today. The popular image of an all-powerful authority backed by military might that the Roman, Chinese, or Ottoman empires that once seemed so alluring to me as a kid now seems rather hollow upon realizing how hard it was for these states to actually make their power felt on the local level. So for me, the growth of state capacity throughout history is a topic I have a deep fascination for, but it's important to realize that this growth of the state was a double-edged sword. With stronger states came unprecedented ways to inflict misery upon people on a mass scale. While I had previously read about collectivization in the Soviet Union, China, and Tanzania, I usually encountered them within a uniquely socialist context, the kind that classical liberals love to present as part of their talking points in addition to quoting Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. As such, it was refreshing to read Seeing Like a State, in which author James C. Scott searches beyond their socialist context to frame these disasters as something ultimately rooted in modernism. More specifically, he looks upon them as the end result of high modernism which he defines as thus:
What is high modernism, then? It is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied— usually through the state — in every field of human activity.
Panopticon, the machine that socially engineers virtue.
In the pre-modern form of governance, few rulers would have dared to harbour sweeping visions of engineering the ideal society. Consensus-building and cooperation with local elites was more often than not the norm (there are exceptions, of course, but usually in the face of dire threats), and this favoured the status quo. Even in Imperial China, where one might suppose the unusually large bureaucracy would empower the state to be more proactive, the mandarins who passed the meritocratic examinations were a tiny fraction of the population at large and as they were routinely rotated from region to region, they were heavily reliant on the un-meritocratic class of local clerks. As such, the imperial China we remember today has a particularly strong reputation for its conservatism. But the birth of enlightenment ideals and the scientific revolution which accompanied the growing fiscal-military states of early modern Europe led to an unprecedented situation where the motive and means for state-enforced social engineering were set. The motive of high modernism spurred the intellectuals and political elites to now reject accepting society in the flawed form that it was in favour of the ideal form that it should be. Meanwhile, the means to empower this spirit was enabled by expansion of state power backed by new forms of taxes such as the income tax, as well as taxation levels that far outstripped those of pre-modern states. Thus we hear of social-engineering projects such as the Victorian poorhouse founded upon the idea that the condition of poverty was a moral failing. As such, the state had a duty to proactively intervene in society to engineer a spirit of self-improvement and hard work that would better fit the burgeoning liberal economy in a modern world on the constant search of progress. While these progressive, utopian measures of social engineering could range from success to failure, they would only be warped into living nightmares if a state were to grow so powerful as to be deaf to the society whose benefit the state supposedly existed for. It is this context in which Scott examines the failures of Prussian scientific forestry or agricultural collectivization in 20th century socialist states.
The complementary nature of high modernism and authoritarianism that undergird human misery is a historical point I wish more modern "leftists" could keep in mind as I look at the current hullabaloo over antifa. In real life and internet discussions, you sometimes encounter the notion that socialism in the Soviet Union and China failed because they were too authoritarian. That's certainly not an unreasonable point, but I think it's a half-truth at best. You could easily flip it around and say that socialism failed there because its leaders were overly idealistic. When we look back with the benefit of hindsight, it can be difficult to make sense out of the millions who died in China's Great Leap Forward because it looks like a case of sheer stupidity on an unprecedented scale. But what dryly written history books on the topic fail to adequately capture is the spirit of self-confidence, righteousness, and an unwavering belief in a utopia that paved the road to hell. Or as the famous saying puts it, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." It's not bad to desire progress, but the act of achieving progress requires healthy post-modern skepticism. High modernist dogma that humans are wise enough to know exactly how to mould a perfect society and even nature itself, when combined with the authoritarian means to accomplish it, is a highly dangerous combination.
In many ways, Scott's argument that modernity, in the specific form of high modernism, is a root cause of 20th century's tragedies should be familiar with those who've either read or are familiar with Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust. While Hitler's persecution of Jews and other undesirables might seem completely unrelated to Stalin's agricultural collectivization or Le Corbusier's urban planning, they share an underlying common theme of progressivism achieved with rational means. For Hitler, the racialized science which "proved" that Jews and homosexuals were a real detriment to society logically necessitated the persecution of undesirables as a rational means of creating an orderly, healthy society. For Stalin, the goal of creating a prosperous society where the majority would no longer suffer in poverty for the benefit of the minority, the inefficient and backwards state of traditional Russian agriculture was an irrational obstacle to be overcome with rational means of mechanization, electrification, and collectivization. For Le Corbusier, if the physical environs of human society were framed with orderly right-angles and straight lines, then surely its inhabitants' minds would be liberated from irrationality and predisposed to rational thinking. And all three examples were only made possible by a muscular state which believed that it could, and more importantly, should engineer every level of society so as to match their ideals.
Am I the only one who thinks Palutena is a shitty romanization?
It should be Parthena for fuck's sake.
If you subscribe to the belief that modernity originates to the Enlightenment's core belief in human means to enact human progress, then there's an eerily Icarus-like element to the stories of modernity told in both Seeing Like a State and Modernity and the Holocaust. There's a fleeting brilliance, such as Fleming's discovery of penicillin and the subsequent massive drop in deaths from microbial diseases, before we realize we're on a collision path with antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The modernist belief in self-determination of nations as a way of organizing territorialized polities dazzled those who deemed it rational, fair, and ultimately more humane than the rule of monarchy or oligarchy which preceded it, only to be confronted by consequences such as the Armenian genocide ("tragic deportation," if you're a CUP-fanboy). And like Icarus, the fatal realization of our hubris has supposedly heralded the death of modernism and the birth of post-modernism. Even in mathematics, our last great bastion in the certainty of human power and knowledge was smashed to bits by Gödel's incompleteness theorems despite the valiant effort put up by Alfred Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in their Principia Mathematica. But is modernism really dead?
Irony and Cynicism, the hallmarks of post-modernity
This question isn't to deny that post-modernism is a real thing, which I do think is quite clearly observable in both the arts and academic disciplines. What I'm trying to get at is that in spite of all the talk that we live in a post-modern world (or post-postmodern world, if you prefer), many modernist values still remain popular. What are the regressive-leftists if not simply modernist ideologues with an unflinching confidence in their place as vanguards on the inevitable march of progress? And while the whole nonbinary-gender movement couldn't be more post-modern if it tried, I can't help but feel that its subset-movement of transgenderism, with its belief in the power of medical science to fundamentally alter biological realities, reveals a modernist-tinge in which humans are confident enough in their power and wisdom to unilaterally override nature. Meanwhile among the right, many still place their unwavering faith in the free market, efficient market theory, and above all, the myth of the rational Homo economicus, which originates to modernist economic thinkers like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. Lastly, for people on all political spectrum, there's a belief that with the right type and level of government policies, our societies would be so much more improved. While there's certainly always room for policy-improvement, there's far fewer willing to entertain the post-modern idea that individuals cannot be treated as constants but rather as variables who react differently even in the same context. That is to say, there is no "ideal policy" if it causes some people to react favourably but others to react unfavourably. As of now, the question of how pro-social institutions emerge is still murky so just when we should display a healthy skepticism to all ideas, there seems to be a decidedly un-post-modern dogmatism that's rising in Western political discourse. So are people just tired of post-modernism today, allowing modernism to make a comeback? Or did modernism never really go away in the first place? Or perhaps this is all just a completely artificial observation I've clumsily made by using too broad a definition of modernism? You be the judge.

3 comments:

  1. I think you've taken a broad-brush approach to defining it, but fundamentally, post-modernism is nested within modernism. I liken it to something akin to Liskov's substitution principle, the ideology has to function and satisfy all existing constraints, and then more, otherwise it cannot be substituted.

    The reason post-modernism has the veracity and tenacity that it does today as opposed to the Greek skeptics, is because we know so much more about biology (thanks to modernism). Fundamental ideas like tabula rasa have been entirely disproved, so I simply don't believe we can have the same variant of modernism that existed prior. It all requires some form of post-modern spin to justify itself. If there's a fight going on in regards to modernism, it's purely in the post-modern realm of discourse (one that can dismiss and demolish logic and reason with ease).

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  2. Apologies for the unrelated comment, but I was just wondering if the Epilogue for Soil was still being worked on. Really enjoyed that series and am excited to finish it.

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    1. It's coming, don't worry. You'll know when it's done because I'll make a longer post on it.

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