Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Essay - A History of Modern

A History of Modern

“Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes into sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along, only to be swept away in its turn.” – Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”, c.150

From time immemorial, humans have pondered on our place in the Universe and the purpose of our lives, at once pregnant with such great potential and yet so painfully transient. For many centuries, the differences between each succeeding generation were normally of little apparent or immediate effect. Empires rose and fell, religions came and went, but for most humans, toiling in subsistence level agriculture, little changed. Even the impact of new technology, such as the adoption of the stirrup and the changes it drove in metallurgy, horse farming, trade, military tactics and wider social relations took decades if not centuries to make itself felt.

This is not to say that everything was fixed in stone – the periodic insurrections of the peasantry from the days of the bacaudae at the end of the Roman Empire through the Thessalonican Zealots of the 1340s to the Reformation and beyond demonstrate a far from settled consensus of society's functioning. Yet, many aspects were relatively unchanging until the Mercantilist era from the late fifteenth century through to the eighteenth. In western Europe, the Catholic Church usually buttressed the existing feudal order and so the mass peasantry remained in thrall, owing their duties - their feu - as servants to their noble Masters, who in turn pledged allegiance to the King, whose legitimacy was derived from God alone. For example, in spite of the killing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the great English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 repeatedly looked to the King for salvation from the excesses of his nobility rather than sought to undo the system itself.

But with the Europeans' circumnavigation and eventual conquest and colonisation of much of the globe, the Mercantilist era created new understandings and possibilities that began to challenge long established concepts and social structures. The learning of the Renaissance was to spark new thinking and challenges to the teachings of the Church, ultimately spawning the Reformation and the collapse of the Catholic and, in time, Christian monopoly on European faith.

As organised religion incrementally lost its grip on society and the growing merchant classes began to assert their economic power over the declining feudal nobility, new ideas about the rights of men (but, as yet, far less frequently women) emerged – though “new” may not always be the correct appellation. In many cases, ideas were revived from ancient days as Renaissance learning borrowed concepts kept alive and developed by Byzantine and Islamic scholars through western Europe’s long Dark and Middle Ages. In particular, classical Hellenic concepts of democracy and the legal equality of citizens were re-oriented to the new age. 

The technological possibilities created by the invention of machines and, in particular, the harnessing of steam, drove forward ideas of new ways of life and living. Finance- capital - became the predominant force in the new Capitalist society. Factories were built to transform raw materials into hitherto unknown products for a growing middle class of merchants and industrialists - the bourgeoisie. Remarkably quickly, a commercialism that would be far from unfamiliar to people in the early twenty-first century emerged: albeit initially for a small class of people, shopping became a combination of leisure and status, nearly an end in itself, almost before Queen Victoria ascended the British throne in 1837. And, amplifying this phenomenon, much of the subsequent progress of both the Victorian Age and following eras has been measured by the availability of increasingly sophisticated consumer goods, to a wider group of people, but still deeply skewed between rich and poor.

The Great Exhibition of 1852 epitomised the spirit of this new age, celebrating as it did the burgeoning cornucopia of produce and goods from around the Imperial British domains, the first truly global power, brought in tribute to be displayed to an astounded public under the swirling iron and glass of the Crystal Palace in London. This most esoteric of buildings was the first of its kind and was to assume an almost mystical significance to Russian dissidents like Dostoevsky in representing the modernity denied them by the Czarist authorities. Yet, in a touchingly pertinent example of the kitsch of the times, its groundbreaking significance has been degraded over the decades as its design has been used, adapted and incorporated into tens of thousands of mundane PLC headquarters buildings as corporate lobbies and faux atriums - all to show that they "do modern".

Peasants, released from feudal obligations, were obliged instead to earn their living through waged employment in cities and towns where they became one of the three key resources - labour, plant and capital - that drove the new, increasingly urbanised industrial age. In theory, they were free to sell their labour to whomsoever they pleased. Yet in practice, the economic imbalance between the owner-employers and their workforce rested on a grossly unequal foundation, one much aggravated by the appalling working and living conditions of the newly emergent proletariat or working class. In workplaces bereft of any health and safety considerations and cramped into cramped and dreadful, high density housing, the poorer classes existed in dire poverty, with men, women and children working and dying in the most hellish of conditions.

In England, as elsewhere, the continuance of the Master and Servant laws even to this day as the legal underpinning of the employment relationship clearly betray its fundamental inequality of power. The development of trade unions and the socialist movement towards the end of the nineteenth century would only partially - and temporarily - mitigate what Marx would later call "the dull compulsion of economic relations."

Nevertheless, technological and social change encouraged a more enlightened, questioning society, one marked by the idea of constant progress – in learning, in culture, in technology, in living. The short and brutal lives of the past could be set aside and in their place, through science and reason, the modern age could - eventually- offer more and more humans (who eventually would include women as well as men) all manner of new possibilities, both individual and collective. Hence the brutal period of industrialisation and its attendant ills was held to be an unpleasant but necessary rite of passage in the transformation of society.

This stripping away of old norms – principally about deference to a hierarchical order of society held to have been set in place by Divine Will – and their replacement by new concepts, by default, had to concede at least some theoretical equality among humans. The classical Athenian notion of citizens with collective, democratic sovereignty over their state, coupled with the need for new economic relationships to permit the fullest exploitation of both colonies and coal, destroyed centuries of ossified social relations. With ever faster and powerful industrial developments creating more and more ever-changing needs and outcomes, the illusions of the ages, cracked for centuries, were finally shattered as the French Revolution of 1789 was followed by the English Reform Riots of 1831 and the Continental Revolutions of 1848.

Karl Marx: foreseeing our times
And it was in that last, seminal year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels issued their powerful call to arms, “The Communist Manifesto” which lyrically caught the zeitgeist of the times with its analysis of the rise of the new capitalist economy and its impact on the old order:

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

Marx and Engels were writing over a century and a half ago, but their words could be applied to almost any period since, including now. The pace of change our world has seen, entirely driven on by humanity, has been breathtaking in both scale and speed. Consider someone of ten years of age watching the Wright brothers precariously taking to the air on their rickety-looking airplane, Kittyhawk at the turn of the twentieth century – the same person would still have been short of their eightieth birthday when Neil Armstrong stood on the surface of the Moon.

And so for the last two centuries, uniquely in human history, a new idea of humanity’s place has come about, both in terms of our relationship with our species’ past and our hold over our world and its resources, and all that means for us. In a word, we have become “modern”. This term was first used to describe contemporary humans by the French writer Baudelaire in the early 19th century. It is a phrase that at once marks current (and recent) generations as being distinctive and, by implication, better than those that came before.

The Price of Progress?

In his great work, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”(1982) , the American writer Marshall Berman takes a long view of modernity. While it is a conceit of the modern age (at any juncture in its existence) that modern is the immediate period of "now" alone, Berman shows how concerns about modernity and the impact of the choices made flowing from its many possibilities have existed almost as long, indeed even longer, than the concept itself.

In its broadest terms, the Modern Age set out on two parallel but quite separate tracks - the essentially materialistic scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment and the equally progressive but more spiritually pluralist and humanistic tenor of the Romantic Movement. Whilst the former saw the rapid progress of modernity, the immediacy of its demands and possibilities, as both the challenge and the fruit of empirical Knowledge and Reason, the latter held to more ecumenical truths. The Romantics, whilst equally disavowing traditional Christianity and exploring ever wider aspects of learning, nevertheless found meaning in the senses, in feeling and spirit as much as logic. If the Enlightenment had found a new God in the deductive science of mathematics and physics, the Romantics found their gods in the creative arts, in literature, theatre, music and painting. And so, while both embraced the fruits of the Renaissance, unbound by ancient restrictions, their objectives were quite divergent, and from the outset, they were frequently at odds with each other.

Berman explores in depth the seminal work of one of the earliest Romantic writers, Goethe’s Faust, to examine the ancient parable of how a man might lose his soul to inherit the earth and how even well-intentioned development with the aim of improving lives can in truth destroy the very things humans value most – the relationships we cherish and our place in nature. 

The climax of Faust, completed in 1831, astoundingly foresees a myriad of subsequent technological, social and political changes. In the story, the giving over of a vast pastoral paradise by a feudal King to Faust and Satan to build massive new cities and factories, all with the ostensible purpose of improving the lot of the people, kills tens of thousands in its creation but Faust relentlessly develops for as long as any space remains untouched. Even the creations he has made are frequently torn down and rebuilt almost as soon as they are erected. Ultimately, with the murder of two kindly old people who refuse to move out of their original homestead – the very last piece of undeveloped land – Faust is exhausted and Satan finally snatches him away to his eternal torments.

Berman uses this analogy to show how, contemporary to Goethe, Czar Peter the Great conceived his capital city St. Petersburg as a completely artificial creation (built on a swamp) and how it sat apart as a beacon of modernity in what remained the essentially feudal state of Imperial Russia. With Peter’s successors admitting little in the way of socio-economic or political change, the great city while having the appearance of modernity was in effect sterile, with “the paradox of public space without public life.”

Berman - seeking a new modernity
By contrast, subsequent events in Paris, as Hausmann and Napoleon III smashed great boulevards through the twisted old lanes of the medieval city, fed ever more development, both of political change and what was seen as economic progress. Berman shows how this course was embraced by both capitalists and radicals – the boulevards became the veins drawing the lifeblood through this most revolutionary of cities, transmitting news of events and ideas and leading to hitherto unknown social mixing and aspirations.  Some of this thinking would reach a neo-faustian apogee in the early twentieth century, when architects like Le Corbusier developed ideas and designs for massive, entirely planned cities, like St Petersburg begun anew rather than developed on from or even grafted onto existing polities. Social engineering - ranging through varying ideological constructs - sat at the heart of these concepts.

It is this aspect of modernity – the thinking and morality behind the design and architecture of our cities – that has almost certainly had by far the greatest impact on the modern world and humanity’s relationships with both our environment and ourselves. How space is used, how buildings function, what they permit and what they prevent are key to our social discourse, or lack of it. In the public domain, architecture assumes a huge significance in what its form represents - from the broad expanses of Hausmann's multi-purpose boulevards to the solid, brutal, controlling edifices of Stalinist realism through to the mysteriously swirling spires of reinvented gothic constructions beloved of Victorians keen to demonstrate their new-found wealth.

The Russian radical, Chernyshevsky, writing in the 1860s shortly before his Siberian exile and long, slow death at the hands of the Czarists, had imagined a new Russia in a piece titled “Vera Pavlovna’s Fourth Dream”. In this, the old cities and towns had been replaced by a carefully planned grid of geometrically perfect, giant towered communities, each with thousands of inhabitants, living in social equality in self-sustaining habitats. In between would be lush pastures producing food and providing huge recreation areas. In such a utopia of plenty, all social tension and personal animosity was removed and people lived in perpetual harmony and peace.

Le Corbuiser’s vision was somewhat less egalitarian and far more brutal, although he himself claimed, perhaps echoing Faust, that his intentions were to provide better communities. He advocated wiping the slate clean by flattening existing cities and starting again. To replace them, he designed giant towered communities and advocated zoned cities – with industrial, commercial and residential areas; all carefully socially segregated. Superficially delightful parks and lakes would serve the more utilitarian purpose of keeping the classes well apart, an early example of today’s gated communities for the rich and paranoid.

Le Corbusier’s ideas were never implemented in full – but they have informed much of the thinking behind subsequent large scale housing developments in both Europe and North America, many of which have led to tragic outcomes for their inhabitants and their wider societies. And, with others, he fed the ideas that, at one stage, reached a frightening and dark zenith in Albert Speer’s designs for Hitler’s Germania, the new super-city that was to replace Berlin had the Nazis triumphed in the second world war.

Berman himself experienced this drive for supposed improvement at any costs when the public planner, Robert Moses, destroyed community after community to build freeways through New York state in the name of progress. His activities, initially supported by the public and State, gradually took on a life of their own, with a relentless momentum to develop forever, never stopping. Anyone who stood in his way found massive financial resources ranged, legally and often otherwise, against them – above all, any opposition to his proliferation of road building in particular was denigrated as being hostile to progress itself. And so, for several decades, although decidedly capitalist, Moses was able to deploy a Marxist argument, portraying himself as the harbinger of the inevitable: “There are people who like things the way they are. I can’t hold out any hope to them...Let them move to the Rockies.”

Moses somehow epitomises the spirit of much of what is modern – it  masquerades as choice and improvement for “ordinary” people, but is in fact coldly impersonal, at best patronising if not wholly exploitative, and aimed at freezing the social relations which, after the capitalist centuries, have now resettled into a new, established neoliberal order. For example, creating a freeway into the countryside was portrayed as a means of giving city dwellers easy access to the pleasantries of green spaces; but Moses designed tunnels in such a way that public buses filled with poor people could not get through them. Talking about a giant artificial beach he created, one of Moses contemporaries put it thus: “He loves the public, but not as people. The public is a great amorphous mass to him: it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons – just to make it a better public.”

The description echoes so much of our modern world: the elitists of Murdoch’s News International who claim to “speak for the people” in their odiously populist editorials while surreptitiously promoting a politics that exploits ordinary people more and more; or Bill Gates' Microsoft Corporation, which ruthlessly copies innovators and undercuts competitors driving choice out of the IT market while claiming to be providing ever more choice to the people of the world; or the Monsanto Corporation, claiming to offer better health and food for all with their genetic engineering programmes while introducing terminator genes to crops which ruin traditional farming methods and tie peasant farmers to purchasing replacement seeds - from Monsanto.

If you oppose any of this, you are delusional, standing in the way of progress, in the way of a better life for you and everyone else. This is the curse of the Modern – and one which often cuts across political ideologies. State Communist regimes such as Stalin’s Russia with its dreadful destruction of the Aral Sea through massive, Faustian schemes of agrarian engineering, or the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s China have promoted progress as cruelly and impersonally as any Moses or Speer.
The Brutality of the Big : the German Nazi Pavilion (left) challenges the Soviet Communist Pavilion across the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower at the 1937 Paris International Exposition.
In Things To Come, the 1930s film of HG Wells book, the lead character declares at the end that there can be no rest for humanity – it must progress or die. In the name of this inevitability, individuals can, even must, be sacrificed. It is a nostrum of ideologues that this is not merely an acceptable form of progress, but even desirable. In the film Children of Men, when Clive Owen’s character, Theo, sees his friend murdered by activists, one of their apologists remarks, “I’m so sorry, but this is part of something bigger than any of us.”

The challenge then is for a new view of modern. The language of the de-collectivised world is increasingly of the individual – a personal sovereignty is manufactured through the new religion of choice. Except it is a false god, because capitalism has now reached a stage where there is less and less choice, even if you have the means to pay for making choices, so many of which are now commodified. The mitigation of capitalist excess on modern society was tempered for a few decades at least by the progressive social attitudes advocated by the socialist and labour movements that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Particularly in Europe for around 40 years after the end of the war, a limited social democratic consensus held in most countries.

But following the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1990s, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc (against whose communism the West had had to provide some sort of alternative mildly acceptable to the masses), capitalism has re-emerged, bloodied (especially after the repeated financial crises since 2008) but unbowed. It has coalesced around the teachings of neoliberalism, a rightwing ideology that advocates free market supremacy and "small state" government reduced to little more than oversight of policing and defence. Consequently, as American-driven international finance has adopted and imposed these values on consumers and societies around the Earth, neoliberalism has become the dominant modern ideology in country after country, and in doing so it has homogenised our world unbelievably quickly.

Stand in any street in any town and you could indeed be in Anytown. Cairo has its Starbucks, Moscow its McDonalds and the same chains provide the same pre-packaged goods in nearly every corner of the planet. More and more companies are owned by giant multinational conglomerates, all seeking to maximise profits by minimising costs through economies of ever greater scale. Even on the internet, just six addresses – Google, Youtube, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia and Twitter – consume the majority of global hits. A mere one thousand corporations control over 90% of global business, effectively beyond the reach of any national public regulation.

Goethe and Marx predicted much of the last century and a half with a prescience that is profound. With the current long-term crisis of capitalist finance, the potential for a further paradigm shift in social and economic relations as the latter forecast is arguably more possible now than twenty years ago – but it is not inevitable that it will lead to the communitarian society Marx and Engels advocated.

The bottom line is that we do not live in a purely capitalist society. Rather, we live in a neoliberal society. Just as in the Middle Ages, the King and the Barons enlisted faith in God to retain their legitimacy over the exploited peasantry, so now the neoliberal elite, the financiers, the corporate heads and their political puppets, have enlisted the Market as their Divine Right to rule. With the supposed End of History meaning that “Free Market” economics are the only game in town, the modern public retain astonishingly high levels of trust in the economic system, even if they often distrust those at the helm. Hence, once the odd sacrificial goat, like Fred "the Shred" Goodman of RBS is stripped of his knighthood (but not his pension), even many in the Occupy Movement hold out hope for a sort of nicer capitalism run by well-meaning, honest bankers. Even now, relatively few question whether the actual problem is the system rather than the people chewed up in it (some much more willingly than others, of course).

The End of Modern?

To achieve this, the neoliberals have closed down the Modern Age as we knew it. The time of capitalism ended maybe 25 to 30 years ago, when Reagan and Thatcher and their allies around the world began to dismantle the collective social consensus in western Europe and in the even less socially conscious USA.
In defence of "market democracy" - 84 year old woman
pepper sprayed by the police in Seattle protest
While studiously maintaining and even extending the myths of "free" market competition and of the entrepreneurial economy, they have in fact manipulated access to markets to exclude competition; they have privatised huge swathes of the public sector (often with huge taxpayer subsidies as sweeteners), making obscenely profitable commodities of things such as social housing, health and education; through organisations like Blackwater, they have brought mercenaries back into vogue like some medieval throwback; they have warped the copyright and patent laws to the benefit of huge corporations; and they have rolled back the already fairly limited employment rights and health and safety protection for workers. And, to consolidate their grip, through the "emergency legislation" of the never-ending “War on Terror” the neoliberals have equipped what they see as the core or even sole legitimate function of the State – the security apparatus – with the means of controlling and neutralising any effective challenges to the new status quo.

We have come full circle from the dawn of the Modern Age. The time of Reason has been replaced by a new, unquestioning faith in the pseudo-god of the Holy Market. To be Modern is to not question, not rebel, but to accept the inevitability of so-called progress, even if it is indeed an increasingly authoritarian progress with an appalling level of human cost and suffering. Faustus triumphans est!

The challenge to the Left, to those seeking genuine, sustainable, humane progress, is to develop a new narrative that will expose and challenge this stultifying, destructive consensus. For the future of our species and our planet, we need to take back progress and create a new Future for and of Modern.

Everything you say everything you do
All the things you own, all the things you knew
Everyone you love, everyone you hate
All will be erased and replaced.


  1. Please recaption Paris 1937 Expo photo to say Eiffel Tower or some people may begin to doubt your indubitable historical erudition.

  2. Diana
    Thanks - of course it's the Eiffel Tower; I could claim to have been testing you, but that would be a bit neoliberalish of me. Thanks for pointing out my topographical error! :)