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A Modernity Critical of Modernity

These days, amongst radical academics and in chic activist circles, it is often considered progressive to oppose "modernity."  The post-modern and post-colonial paradigm, and its influence on large sectors of the left, has led to a wholesale rejection of modernity: the argument is that the epoch of modernity, the so-called "Enlightenment" which witnessed the rise of new sciences, due to its connection with the dawn of modern colonialism and European racism, is entirely eurocentric, totalizing, and oppressive.  Modernity is that era, we are told, that excluded the vast majority of the world to a harsh paradigm of science and vicious scientific intervention––modernity is the culprit behind capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc.  Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha, for example, argues that a radical project should be "a much more substantial intervention into those justifications of modernity––progress, homogeneity, cultural organicism, the deep nation, the long past, that rationalize the authoritarian, 'normalizing' tendencies within cultures." (Bhabha, Nation and Narration, 4)  For Bhabha, radicalism comes from the margins, from those spaces filled with people violently excluded by modernity, and the aim is to reject the totalizing and "normalizing" project of modernity itself.

Although I agree that modernity has been exclusive, that it has been connected to great crimes, it is important to note that the wholesale rejection of modernity utterly misses the target.  Were people excluded from modernity because the modern project is necessary exclusive, or were they excluded because of those social relations and forces that were and are in charge of modernity: the boundaries that kept its radical project limited within colonial-capitalism.  Was what we call "modernity" responsible for these crimes or was the crime the control of its radical project by noxious ruling class forces, the same forces that went out of their way to destroy, steal, and/or prevent technological and scientific progress in those societies that it dominated and still dominated?  In response to Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad writes:
"Bhabha, of course, lives in those material conditions… which presume the benefits of modernity as the very ground from which judgments on that past of this post- may be delivered.  In other words, it takes a very modern, very affluent, very uprooted kind of intellectual to debunk both the idea of 'progress' and the sene of a 'long past', not to speak of 'modernity' itself, as mere 'rationalizations' of 'authoritarian tendencies within cultures' – in a theoretical mélange which randomly invokes Levi-Strauss in one phrase, Foucault in another, Lacan in yet another.  Those who live within the consequences of that 'long past', good and bad, and in places where a majority of the population has been denied access to such benefits of 'modernity' as hospitals or better health insurance or even basic literacy; can hardly afford the terms of such thought." (Ahmad In Theory, 68-69)
 But what is modernity in the first place?  This is an important question because the rejection of modernity often comes from people who cannot say what they mean by "modernity"––often it is conflated with multiple ideas until modernity becomes a synonym for everything terrible in the modern era.  Most of the time it feels like people are talking about a period of history, the so-called "modern" period, and then conflating this with an ideology, a mode of production, a practice, and a host of other contradictory definitions.  There is no "modern mode of production" unless we mean that the mode(s) of production in which we live are contemporary.  Targetting modernity without having a precise definition of modernity leads to a vague definition of oppression where one can ignore those processes that are actually responsible for violent exclusion.

The radical third world political economist Samir Amin defines modernity as a break with metaphysical alienation, the point where humans realize that only humans––not gods, not fate––make and are responsible for human history.  For Amin, however, the project is incomplete because it is also limited within the confines of capitalism/imperialism/colonialism: we might understand that humans make history, but that understanding can be bound up within a system of economic alienation.  Moreover, the project is incomplete because metaphysical alienation still lingers, wielded by the supposedly modern ruling classes, to thwart any human progress beyond the bounds of world capitalism: the rise of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, with its emphasis on astrological pronouncements about the "end times", is an example of the type of pre-modern obscurantism that suits the aims of the ruling classes in these supposedly modern times.
 "Modernity is still unfinished, and it will remain so as long as the human race continues to exist.  Currently, the fundamental obstacle setting its limits is still defined by the social relationships specific to capitalism.  What the postmodernists refuse to see is that modernity can progress further only by going beyond capitalism.  Unfortunately this possibility seems inaccessible at the present moment.  For the "failures" of modernity and the aggravation of conflict that has brought with it that wave of violence––recognition of which is the source of the postmodern thesis––are results of the evolution of that same capitalism and signs that it has reached the end of the historical path at whose earlier stages it could still, despite its specific contradictions, appear synonymous with progress.  Today the choice 'socialism or barbarism' is truly the choice confronting the human race." (Amin, Spectres of Capitalism, 103)
We also understand that if modernity is defined in the above manner––the dawning understanding that we are unfettered by metaphysical alienation that produces scientific and social progress––we also need to understand that modernity was not simply European.  Only eurocentrists claim that this is the case, naming Europe and its colonies the bearers of modernity when in fact these spaces are also riven with numerous pre-modern ideologies.  The modern break from metaphysical alienation and the spirit it produced was evident across the globe.  Walter Rodney speaks of modern mathematical and scientific principles that were stolen by European colonialism.  George Manuel and Michael Posluns discuss progresses in agricultural science that were also made to be part of the European "modern" project.  Kwase Wiredu speaks about the evidence of what would be called "modern rationality" in African cities and villages pre-colonization.  And Fanon argues for the end of the colonial limits of modernity and an extension of the Enlightenment––a new Enlightenment––pushed by decolonization.

This is why, in Eurocentrism, Amin speaks of "a modernity critical of modernity"––that is, an understanding that the emancipatory tools of modern reason can be used against this current stagnant understanding of modernity in order to complete the project of modernity itself: "based on the demand for the emancipation of human beings, starting from their liberation from the shackles of social determination in its earlier traditional forms." (Amin, Eurocentrism, 24)

Modernity is not the problem, is not responsible for the horrors it is often assigned by post-modern theorists.  For if modernity is nothing more than a break from metaphysical alienation then it also leads to an understanding that we as humans are responsible for these horrors––not the gods, not some cultural essence of good/evil.  To focus on modernity is to ignore the structures of global capitalism that controls and mobilizes the scientific advancements that emerged through the modern break with metaphysical alienation.  Thus, "the challenge with which emancipating reason is confronted today is to invent effective means that may enable us to progress further towards well defined ends, advance in the direction of liberation from market alienation, move away from practices which destroy the potential of nature and life, and focus on the abolition of gigantic so-called development (material) disparities inevitably produced by the polarizing expansion of global capitalism." (Ibid., 22)


  1. What a great post!! A wholesale condemnation of modernity is, in its nature, deeply anti-feminist. One has to be blind not not recognize that - even though the feminist struggle is very far from being over - there has never been a moment in the history of humanity that offered as great a liberatory potential to women as this one.

    What we need is not to give up on the unfinished Enlightened project. We need a serious analysis of how the defects of this project can be addressed and its benefits maximized.

  2. Indeed. Wholesale condemnations of modernity are not only anti-feminist but reactionary in multiple ways. After all, the religious right also rejects modernity, and the idea that humans make history, for obvious reasons: if you want to sell anti-scientific creationism (and everything that goes along with that) then you kind of have to be anti-modern.

  3. JMP, check out Dilip Gaonkar's introduction to Alternative Modernities--it's quite sympathetic to the Amin you quote, though less explicit about the role of modernity in "liberation from the shackles of social determinism".

  4. I just looked it up on googlebooks: looks like good stuff. It reminds me of some of the arguments made in Kwasi Wiredu's book "Cultural Universals and Particulars."


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