A History of Modern

PART ONE: 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.


PART TWO - The Future of Modern

The Future of Modern

You will be commodified...
The Neoliberal Now

The philosopher-poet George Santayana famously warned of history as being circular and so it seems is the history of Modernity – the feudal age was broken on the anvil of mercantilist capitalism, which harnessed the massive potential of new technologies to shape a whole new socio-economic order around maximising financial returns on the endless exploitation of the Earth’s resources, including its human ones. As a combination of technology and economics has led increasingly to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of owners, this elite has been increasingly globalised in its composition and its functioning. And, inevitably, it has sought the means to perpetuate its predominant position in the World Order. Consequently, we have reached the end of capitalist history – in the sense that the Capitalism of Adam Smith, involving the exchange of goods and services for money in a completely open market, exists no more.

It is questionable if such a pure capitalism ever did exist, and indeed, contrary to the claims of many neoliberals, Adam Smith's pro-free trade Wealth of Nations was written as an attack on the crony capitalists of the eighteenth century, the likes of the monopolisitc East India Company, rather than as a defence of big business.  Yet, while claiming Smith's mantle in the name of the free market, more than ever the elite have used para- or non-economic measures to buttress their financial ascendancy. Alongside deregulation of what relatively limited controls existed on business in terms of its accountability and use of resources, including people, neoliberal governments have provided succour to often the most appallingly inefficient private organisations in the procurement arrangements for contracting out of huge swathes of public services, in writing off billions in corporate and personal taxation and generally propagandising for a "business-friendly" environment where any social collectivisation - be it trade unions or public healthcare - is viewed with antipathy.

In the rise of the religious right in the USA, we also see the phenomenon of Christian sanctity invoked in the defence of capitalism - as espoused by all the leading contenders for the Republican nomination in 2012. Rick Santorum even calls on Genesis to support the right of man to use up the Earth's resources because of his God-given Dominion over them - environmentalists by default are agents of Evil in suggesting any limitation of human exploitation of the planet's resources.

In country after country, the doyens of international finance, led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have imposed neoliberal solutions any and everywhere - often at the behest of the USA Government, itself a fully-owned subsidiary of massive global corporate interests. "Liberal democracy", whether exported by bankers or bullets, has emphasised the sale of state assets and the privatisation of state services far ahead of any concern for democratic elections or freedom of speech. Indeed, as often as not, rigged ballot boxes and corruptly "elected" Presidents have been the standard bearers of neoliberal freedom - which is essentially the freedom to buy virtually anything of you have the money to purchase it. Any damage caused to people, society or the environment by the mega-finance merry-go-round is left off the balance sheet, exempted from calculation as mere externalities - the truly horrendous costs of capitalism are hidden away, uncalculated and ignored.

Consequently, in the name of progress, masquerading as entrepreneurs and swirling in a trough of corruption unparallelled in recent history, we have seen huge infrastructure projects adopted by Governments in the supposed public interest but either contracted at huge cost or sold at below market value to big business in as blatant a climate of crony capitalism as anyone could imagine. It has infected nearly every society on the planet. For example,

in Egypt, the ludicrously expensive, environmentally disastrous Toshka canal scheme was used to funnel billions of Egyptian pounds into the hands of construction companies and conglomerates run by the allies of President Mubarak and his US sponsors; the supposed objective was the creation of a new river running parallel to the Nile and bringing huge new areas into cultivation using the same supply of water as now.

in China, massive dam projects have hugely overrun costs and dislocated millions of people as former Communist Party apparatchiks have turned capitalist entrepreneurs on the most favourable terms conceivable from the Government;

in Britain, tens of billions of pounds of public funds have vanished into the shareholders' dividends of private companies engaged in ultimately disastrous projects, such as the construction of the now forgotten and largely unused Millennium Dome, or the welfare-to-work company, A4e, whose owner has become a millionaire from tax-funded contracts to get the unemployed into frequently dead-end, low-paid jobs. She has recently been given yet another Government-funded sinecure as the Czarina for Families, with the objective of giving the benefit of her insights from living in a massive rural mansion to the dysfunctional and feckless families of "broken Britain".

in Greece, a massive scam concocted between American share-traders and the conservative New Democracy party government at the start of the 21st century plunged the country into massive public debt. With breathtaking chutzpah, the same traders subsequently turned the crisis they had made into the fault of the Greek public sector and the European Central Bank, neoliberal to its core, demanded a massive squeeze on the poorest in the country, who subsequently became internationally vilified with complete myths about retirement at 55 and a lazy working life. However, the same financiers who pushed Greece into crisis are now reaping dividends from the projected privatization of much of the public sector in a new smash-and-grab raid on the common wealth in the name of efficiency and entrepreneurship.

and in the USA, a combination of punitive "three-strikes-and-you're-out (for life)" laws and privatisation of prisons has created a massive slave labour force of over two million people hired out to manufacturers at less than 25 cents an hour with no employment rights or protection whatsoever. This industry provides the American military with nearly all their helmets, uniforms and even some of their weapons.

The Neoliberal elite has backed up this plundering of the common wealth with a growing willingness to deploy state security services both in increasingly brutal policing actions (witness the violent eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the London G8 protest) and in increasingly intrusive private surveillance of their opponents lives, whether via the internet or infiltration of the green movement (exposed in the UK by the disgrace of undercover police agents establishing fake relationships and fathering the children of their targets). The media is bought up, public service broadcasting cowed and access to the internet increasingly restricted and commercialised.There can be no doubt that neoliberals, with all the advantages of incumbency, will fight hard and dirty in defence of their privileges; so their opponents need to choose our grounds of battle carefully.

Democratic Space

The architecture and design of towns and cities and people’s dwelling places have always been on the front line of the competing ideas of what modern society should look like and how it should function. The combination of revolutionary culture and commercial development of 19th century Paris made for a sympathetically collectivist experience, where the potency of The Street was evident to both the authorities and the people, with a consequent tendency towards greater social democracy and cohesion. However, function does not always follow form, as we saw in the case of Saint Petersburg with its public spaces without public life.

Boulevards - the veins of Parisian discourse
Since the Agora, the Athenian market place, combined commerce and democratic politics, town centres and squares have been the focus of urban life. Throughout the Roman Empire, the forum was the proudly beating civic heart of any municipality. Here, as well as goods and services, people could exchange news and ideas – throughout history, everything from religion and politics to language and learning has followed the same routes as merchants took. This has persisted as an embedded historical memory which, even today, is often twistingly invoked by big business to justify its profitable engagement with the most unsavoury regimes allegedly for the benefit of their repressed people.

And yet, in more and more western societies, the traditionally public town centre has already gone or is vanishing rapidly; and it is being replaced by private, purely commercial space. Take the city of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, where the rise of the huge out of town Meadowhall Centre has sucked many of the shops and most of the customers out of its High Streets – the Centre, a giant American-style Mall, is privately owned. You can shop until you drop, but you won’t find anyone engaging you in political discourse or asking you to sign a petition as you might have found in an old public town square or street. Lottery tickets and store cards are the only potential life-changing options available. 

Even where traditional town centres remain, some have been sold off or leased to private companies which are free to restrict the types of activities that can take place. In others local authorities impose registration requirements before people can hand out leaflets or talk to other citizens about anything other than where to get ten per cent off hamburgers.

Sadly, all too often, it is taken as read that private commerce is, literally, the only game in town. Particularly under the debt-driven boom of the Blairite New Labour years, Britain saw an explosion in ironically named public-private partnership deals which signed over public assets to big private companies for often minimal redevelopment in return for leasebacks costing tens of billions of taxpayers’ money for decades to come. As Owen Hatherley has written in “A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain” (2010), the result has been a plethora of anodyne, “pointless piazzas with attendant branches of Costa Coffee”. The ill-titled Urban Renaissance drove forward more than ever the syndrome neatly coined by the New Economics Foundation as clone towns, where it really does not matter whether you are in Newcastle or Newquay, Maidstone or Motherwell, you will find the same uniform appearance, the same shops and brands, often even with the same interior layout for stock.

Where in the world?
And outside the commercial zones, the story has been similarly dismal. In Britain, New Labour’s Pathfinder scheme demolished thousands of older Victorian buildings in favour of cheap new build. Rather than expect profit-seeking developers to retrofit buildings that had been built to last, the Modern view was that they should be demolished and replaced using low-cost/ high-profit construction materials and methods which may last two or three decades at most before their maintenance costs will make them unsustainable. Even where, as is all too often the case, the existing, usually less well off population is replaced by the upwardly mobile in allegedly prestigious developments (Hatherley views their Scandinavian appearance with some disdain), they will not stay the course anything like as long as the buildings they replace – and so the Faustian cycle of destruction and renewal will kick in with alarming rapidity. All that is solid melts into rubble and cement dust.

As mixed tenure developments decline and concierge-screened apartment blocks or gated communities become the norm for the aspirational, the slightly more tasteful design of social Darwinism has, in Hatherley’s view, provided an empty, sterile Modernist edifice, “a Modernism without the politics, without the utopianism, or without any conception of the polis; a Modernism that conceals rather than reveals its functions; Modernism as a shell.”

Globally, the architecture and morality of neoliberalism are complemented in dreadful perfection in the emergence of new St Petersburgs in the most bizarre places, each of them a monument to excess, an icon to the blatant greed of an elite that is beyond the reach of any democratic restraint at all. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk in their book, “Evil Paradises: Dreamworld of Neoliberalism” (2007) take a tour of these citadels of privilege. In 19 case studies from Managua in Panama and Arg-e Jadid in Iran, to the notorious new Babylon of Dubai, the epitome of globalised greed, they show the hubris of the Rulers of the World, erecting pleasure domes into the skies, creating artificial ski slopes in the desert and conquering the sea to create a world of their own. All this excess rests on the dreadful exploitation of the planet and its people – a planet where two billion exist on less than $2 per day and where the servants of the rich in these elitist enclaves sometimes sleep on the roofs of these great buildings alongside the chickens that will feed their Masters and Mistresses.

Against Nature - the impossible Dubai
The model for these modern Gomorrahs is, unsurprisingly, California. Although Brecht decided that “Hell must be more like Los Angeles”, this is precisely the unsustainable template for most of these pseudo-paradises. Monk and Davis warn apocalyptically that this is in effect the final stage of late modernity – behind their gilded barricades, the wealthy are gradually readying themselves for the crises to come, their unsustainable lifestyles driving us all towards an ultimate reckoning.

“In the large perspective, the bright archipelagos of utopian luxury and supreme lifestyles are mere parasites on a planet of slums...Viewed as an ensemble, these idle redoubts stand as testaments to the resignation with which humanity squanders the borrowed time on which it now lives.”

The Unreality of the Real

It is a seemingly bleak perspective. Modernity has been bought – or sequestered even – by a self-perpetuating elite which has acquired the necessary means to destroy, deflect or, if necessary, absorb any challenges. It has even been able to bury, deep within the public conscious, the concept that it is something that it patently is not – a “free” market which is increasingly neither free nor, with effectively increasingly limited genuine choices, is it in essence even a market. And, as the Soviet era fades from memory, the vulgarity of Fukyama’s absurd declaration of The End of History and the permanent triumph of capitalism is replaced with a subtler message, calibrated to reassure the masses in the wake of the neoliberal crises sweeping the world economies since 2008.

Now, capitalism is not arrogantly triumphant; rather, as Mark Fisher notes in “Capitalist Realism” (2008), it is pragmatic – it is post-ideological because, in this narrative, all ideologies have failed. In the absence of ideology, capitalism emerges as the natural system and so any challenge to it can only, by default, be a ludicrously fantastical and counter-productively ideological one. Quoting Badiou, Fisher expands of this reductive (yet seductive) call to inaction: “We live in a contradiction. A brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian – where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So, instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible...Our democracy is not perfect. But it is better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism...We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda."

Fisher pointedly describes this capitalist realism as “analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.” Long gone is the pioneering spirit of the dawn of the Modern Age, the belief in progress, in betterment – however unevenly distributed or brutally attained, all the proponents of Modernism from Goethe onwards held to a belief that science and reason could deliver a better life for all. Whether the utopianism of Chernyshevsky’s chessboard mega-towers or the ville radiuese of Le Corbusier, in their divergent but Modernist minds, even the poorest would have happier, more contented lives.

Instead now, in the twenty-first century, the gap between the richest and poorest on the planet is greater than ever before. And abject human misery is the default experience of more people than ever before. It is a searing indictment of our way of life that when there is more than enough food to go round, two billion go to bed hungry while hundreds of millions face the problems of obesity. Even in wealthier countries, the imbalance is obscene – for example, in 2004, the mean annual income of the top 10% of US families was nearly 18 times that of the lowest 40%. With the emergence of new capitalist elites in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China, the skew of wealth is on a relentless trajectory which terminates in the twisted towers above the dunes of Dubai, the megaliths of modernity gone wrong.

Amidst this gloomy prognosis, some of the elite seek to paint a different picture – Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in particular have sought to spearhead a sort of kinder capitalism, the former in particular articulating an ethical outlook which was never particularly apparent in his ruthless development of Microsoft to a position of near monopoly of global IT software products. Both men have made great play in public about their devotion of much of their wealth to charitable causes – like all charity, ultimately based on the random desires of the donor rather than the actual needs of the recipients. And yet, in his book, “Creative Capitalism” (2010), which I purchased at a suitably low market price in a remaindered bookshop, Michael Kinsley documents a nauseating, self-congratulatory conversation between these would-be gods of charitable largesse, the Smashy and Nicey of contemporary capital. It puts into some context the value they really place on corporate social responsibility:

Bill Gates – So someone can read the words “creative capitalism” and say “Ok, Bill Gates said that you should serve the poorest two billion (people) and ignore profit.” That’s not what I intend to say at all, but then I am being a bit ambiguous about how far you go in being willing to give up something. Am I saying one per cent? Two per cent? Three per cent?.....

Warren Buffet - .....Ace Greenberg used to insist that all the managing directors of Bear Sterns give four per cent to charity and in December each year he would go round and talk to everyone who hadn’t yet given his four per cent. And he told all the Jews that they had to give any shortfall at year-end to Catholic charities, and he told the Catholics they had to give it to the United Jewish Appeal. Well, this would be a variation on that. Take three per cent – pick a figure – of corporate income (to be administered by corporations for society’s benefit)...If there are things to be done in society that the market system doesn’t naturally lead to, something like this would be a supplement to the invisible hand.”

Three per cent. In a world where the richest man on the planet, the ironically named Carlos Slim Heliu of Telmex, holds more wealth than the annual GDP of some eighty countries, these Masters of the World are generously prepared to surrender about 3% of their corporate income - on the condition they get to administer its expenditure themselves and, as the conversation winds on to show, as long as their donations generate goodwill that leads to further profit generation.

There is no more momentum to be had from this accountant’s view of the modern world. The neoliberals have largely removed objective truth from the public domain in any case; so Gates’ and Buffet’s calculated self-justification of their privileged wealth appears as nothing more significant than a half-hearted defence of a system for which no one outside the elite has any regard beyond a resigned acceptance of its claimed inevitability.
Capitalism - the least bad system? Carlos Slim Heliu, centre, was worth $63,100,000,000 at September 2011. His fellow humans, left and right, from America and Africa were worth less.

The Future of Modern

And here sits the opportunity for those who want to return to the Modernism whose absence Owen Hatherley laments – Modernism with politics; Modernism with the Polity; Modernism for people, not profit. But while resolutely rejecting the grand narrative of neoliberalism, we must be deeply mindful of the need for true humanity in the alternatives we construct.

As far back as Dostoevsky’s warnings that a combination of love for humanity with hatred for actual people (is) one of the fatal hazards of modern politics, the challenge for those advocating a better world for all as opposed to a minority has been to show both that it is more than a dreamland in itself and that it is not to be achieved through some rigid ideology that in its prescriptive nature becomes self-defeating. In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), Marshall Berman queries the inevitability of a communist society as predicted by Marx on the basis that the very freedoms communism would bring would immediately undermine it – either because some people would actively choose to undertake a different path; or because communist society would have to actively suppress such choices, thus removing at a stroke the freedom it promised.

Whether egalitarian or not in their conception, the paternalistic dangers of grand, top-down Modernism illustrated by Goethe’s Faust need to be the lodestar for any who seek to snatch the concept and reality of the Modern from the neoliberals’ clutches. Both Chernyshevsky and Le Corbusier’s dreams of great scientifically planned mega cities would always be doomed because of their inherent lack of human scale - both had the potential to degenerate into the dystopian uber-city of Fritz Lang's epic film, Metropolis (1927). The early Soviet writer Zemyatin, concerned by the fantasies of super-cities that sliced across the ideological divides of the 1920s, recast Chernyshevsky’s chessboard urbanism with one where its cities were constructed out of ice to symbolise its inherently inhospitably to real people, its sheer size coldly crushing them. “We are just little creatures...little animals,” one of the characters in HG Wells Things To Come protests when faced with the prospect of relentless development and endless "progress" to the stars and beyond.

The world of tomorrow faces massive challenges – environmental degradation, food insecurity and resource scarcity, ever rising demands for currently dwindling reserves of energy, continued increases in economic inequality, chronic financial instability and, underpinning all of these and more, growing low level conflict and terrorism punctuated  by greater conflicts (all the more dangerous with the gradual spread of nuclear weaponry). Neoliberalism cannot provide a solution – although it will certainly provide a harshly authoritarian and violent response to its troubles. Nor can any remedy be found by a return to an essentially illusory "pure" capitalism, with its ludicrous commodification of everything and anything and theoretical assumption of inexhaustible supply (regulated only by the magical Invisible Hand of the market).

Baudelaire saw the Parisian boulevards, The Street, as the repository of change. It was here that the People and people could meet and mix, understand and develop their ideas. It was along these broad expanses that public life could take place, just as once thousands of Athenians gathered to hear and debate with Pericles, Alcibiades and Socrates. Recent years may have seen the streets in many cities cleared of anything more subversive than the ubiquitous metal chairs outside chains of coffee shops, but starting with the anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s, there have been sporadic instances of protest against the prevailing Worldview. This crystallised as the banking collapses of 2008 and 2009 profoundly shook public confidence in capitalism. Since the first protesters arrived in Cairo’s Tahrir Square just over a year ago, the world has seen a remarkable, global demonstration of the People and people against the “capitalist realism” that supposedly provides the foundation stones of post-Modern society.

Baudelaire - the father of "Modern"
In city after city, first the protesters of the Arab Spring and then of the Occupy protests seized public spaces, their spaces, back from oppressive authorities and the private owners who claimed them. And with powerful effect they used the New Street - the virtual highways of the internet - to garner a worldwide movement, loose and amorphous, but unique to our times, a glimpse of something not possible before the very latest stage of modernity.

The foci of the protests have been varied, although the greed of the global elite has featured frequently, and even after many months of legal wrangling and numerous brutally violent attacks by the authorities (viz the facial pepper spraying of a sit-down protest in the USA and similar assaults by police on a man in a wheelchair and a woman in her eighties), the Occupy Movement remains slow to adopt any particular political perspective. Perhaps reflecting the success of the neoliberals in establishing the idea that capitalism is the sole viable system, there is an apparent hesitance to propose any clear alternatives.

Yet, talk to the people still (just) at St Paul’s Cathedral in London (facing a bizarre coalition of City-appointed Church Trustees, City traders, and rightwing press which spends more time worrying about occasional graffiti as opposed to the despoiling of the nation’s wealth by our financial elite), and their concerns and nascent solutions chime readily with the ideas of social justice and environmental sustainability advocated by many in the socialist and environmental movements. The increasingly red-green alliances, fused in the concepts of ecosocialism, have often been born of such unformed protests initially against what is wrong as opposed to in favour of something new - as Derek Wall explored in his "Rise of the Green Left" (2011) indigenous Latin Americans have led the way in this.

Traditionally radical: Greek democracy - then and now...
There is a treasure trove of ideas for a different modernity, stretching far back, beyond Marx and Goethe. The Levellers and others in the days of the English Civil War were the first to coherently argue for social as well as political change. And as considered both in this essay and in the previous A History of Modern, throughout the last two centuries, many individuals and movements have argued with some success for the harnessing of the new learning and technologies to more egalitarian and humanistic ends. Ultimately though, the large scale of some distinctly Modernist projects, especially in building, led to concerns about social engineering and a liberal elitism that echoed Dostoevsky’s concerns about loving humanity but hating people.

The antithesis of the likes of France's Le Corbusier and New York's Robert Moses was the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His work repeatedly emphasised the human and the genuinely natural environment. For him, living spaces were not the densely concentrated but simultaneously isolating boxes of his French counterpart – rather, they were constructed in harmony with their surroundings, in some cases, like his iconic Fallingwater house, almost absorbed by their surroundings. Within, there was an emphasis of space and continuity, reflecting a belief in the holistic nature of the human experience – an approach Wright came to refer to as organic architecture.

The future, for there to be one, will have to be more human, more local, communitarian and small scale. Rising transport costs will require more localised production and distribution of goods and services – permitting a return to much greater diversity in ownership, in form and product. Likewise, the need to develop renewable energy such as solar schemes and wind farms will only be viable on a community level - individual household schemes have only a limited potential. This will in turn drive a need for community use of public buildings and structures, existing and new.

The Modern of tomorrow can be very different to what we know now. But only if the Left can seize the moment to show that neoliberalism cannot be repaired, cannot become a magically kinder capitalism. As Bakan demonstrated pretty conclusively in The Corporation, the pathology of corporate capitalism is fundamentally psychopathic, functioning in complete self-interest and without conscience. It's time is over. It has no future to offer humanity.

In its place, we need to develop ways to demonstrate a fairer world, as ever before embracing the potential of new technologies in energy, transport and communications, but with an emphasis on the small, the near, the human. Politics has to deliver genuinely democratic participation at grassroots and a willingness to tackle and dismantle the giant corporations that now dominate our world in the ultimate interests of no one at all. Indeed, many of them are now so massive that they are genuinely impersonal entities beyond the control of any workable group of individuals.

We need governments to take back and simultaneously devolve ownership of key resources, break cartels and limit the size of large companies, foster mutuals, co-operatives and community enterprises, rebuild the public sectors and massively redistribute wealth in all its forms. The concept of the Global Commons, of Earth’s resources belonging to all and held in trust for now and for the future, should be given legal status to replace the corporate privilege that currently dominates our world. Any remaining market mechanism should be heavily regulated to ensure it serves the community, not the other way round.

With its emphasis on an essentially humane perspective rooted in a scientific awareness once ahead of its time, ecosocialism offers the prospect of a final synthesis of the logic and rationalism of the Enlightenment with the more intangible, even spiritual humanity of the Romantic Movement. A sustainable society will at once have to draw on logic and justice to survive. We can and must embrace a more egalitarian future, one that sees economic equality as no less important that political equality: no society anywhere is brazen enough to suggest that some people should get 10 or 20 votes while others only get 1; so if human equality is seen as standard for elections, why is it not the same for access to our limited resources, to the planet that has birthed and nurtured our species? 

And it will have to be a world that, in its humanity, does not just tolerate but embraces diversity - of ideas, of lifestyles, of belief, of culture. The drive of the Modern we have now is towards a single, global monoculture - whether ever hopeful poor US citizens clinging to the evaporating mirage of making it big; or the Chinese and Brazilians emerging into major economic power status; or the global elite in their pleasure city in the Dubai desert; all roads lead in the end to the American Dream. Yet it is a dream turned nightmare. Like all monocultures when they fail to mix or learn anew, the only real prospect is decline and entropy: like a closed, nationalistic society, or a community that excludes others, or a mind that sticks resolutely to habit and the comfort of the known, ultimately, it will fade and die from lack of challenge, lack of the new, the end of the modern. As resource scarcity and global warming take ever tighter hold, we cannot continue with business as usual and hope to have any chance at all.

We can choose that future - indeed, for now, it is the one humanity has selected. The first Dark Ages saw the combination of a totalitarian Roman political system and a narrow, monotheist Catholic church close down all alternative current of thought, exterminating pagan and heretics and banning philosophy and science as an affront to God, leading, as the historian Charles Freeman put so eloquently, to "The closing of the western mind." So, in yet another circular cycle of history, we can bow down to the new Dark Age of neoliberal economics and an authoritarian state which isolates and demonises even its most peaceful opponents as threats to national security and purveyors of international terrorism. In doing so, we can prolong the excess of the tiny elite who are driving our planet to conflict and exhaustion, we can endorse the rapine of our natural resources and prejudice the future of our own and the next generation.

Or we can choose to question - we can return to the spirit of challenge and change which is at the heart of true modern progress. We can combine the glorious potential of our modern world with its science and technology with a re-embracing of Nature, our place in it and our common humanity. It is a travesty of the glorious potential of our modern world that our carbon emissions are in fact growing faster than ever, when we have technologies that can deliver sustainable, clean energy to the entire planet - we can choose differently. Likewise, there is food enough to go round - even in many of the poorest parts of Africa, famine has come not because of the collapse of food production, but because of its commodification by international food speculators and its seizure (often violently) for export as cash crops to the richer societies. Again, this is a choice - choice driven only by the economic ideology we choose to use. As we have seen, the creativity of the human mind and spirit offers many and better alternatives.

We are at a nexus. As never before, the world is facing the deepest of crisis – the threat of the collapse of human civilisation before the end of this century; and even the possibility of the destruction of our species, as well as many others. The problem is of our own making, driven inexorably forward by a system that is out of control, that has no centre, no benevolently guiding Invisible Hand.

But the answer is ours as well. Trotsky warned of “Either socialism or barbarism.” We can yet embrace a new sustainable and happier Modernity, a Future Modern where we cease being victims of the allegedly inevitable and instead share our world with each other, with Nature and with the countless generations still to come. 

The choice is ours.

Of everything we've made. 
The times it's worked before... 
Of all the things we've said. 
They've always worked. Before today.

"Meditations" - Marcus Aurelius, pub Penguin Books (1964)
"All That Is Solid Melts Into Air - The Experience of Modernity" - Marshall Berman, pub Verso (2010) 2nd ed.
"Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism" - Ed by Mike Davis & Daniel Bertrand Monk, pub The New Press (2007)
"The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith & The Fall of Reason" - Charles Freeman, pub Pimlico (2003)
"Capitalist Realism - Is There No Alternative?" - Mark Fisher, pub Zero Books (2009)
"A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain" - Owen Hatherley, pub Verso (2010)
"Creative Capitalism: Conversations with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet & Others" - Michael Kinsley, pub Pocket Books (2010)
"The Rise of the Green Left - Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement" - Derek Wall, pub Pluto Press (2010)