Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

I’ve spent – wasted, probably – a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing various techno-fixer scenarios for achieving future sustainability and social justice, most notably that of the self-styled ‘ecomodernists’1. I’m not going to rehash that here, but in this post and the next I’m going to come at the underlying issues from a different angle by reflecting on the question of modernism, which suggested itself to me through a rereading of the late Marshall Berman’s brilliant book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. At issue is the question of whether there’s a way out of the airless dualism in contemporary thought between modern/high tech/progressive/optimistic/positive/rational/urban vs primitive/low tech/reactionary/pessimistic/negative/romantic/rural that so disfigures debates about farming and social futures. Sorry to harp on about it, but I think it’s important. I’ll get back to some more on-farm content after these two posts.

I first read Berman’s book thirty-odd years ago – required reading as it was then for every trendy young cultural theorist – and was reminded of it recently while reading Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips, who invoked it in support of his enthusiasm for heroic, large-scale technological modernization. I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’. Indeed, even the passage from Berman that Phillips cites is quite ambivalent1. And so it proved on a rereading. In fact, it made me wonder if Phillips had really read the book – entertainingly, in view of the sub-theme that’s emerged in my engagements with him over exactly who’s read what, as elaborated by Ruben, my Canadian mole. I suppose I should be grateful to Mr Phillips for drawing me back to Berman – perhaps the price of reading the latter’s exceptionally good book was having to plough my way through the former’s exceptionally, er, not so good one…For reasons I’ll come to in my next post, I should probably try not to annoy Mr Phillips any more than I have to.

Anyway, the thesis I want to develop with Berman’s help is that a future neo-peasant society – relatively labour-intensive, relatively low-tech – of the kind I’ve long advocated involves a modernist vision, notwithstanding the common tendency to dismiss such thinking as backward, romantic or primitivist. Indeed, I think it’s a more supple and sophisticated form of modernism than the modernism of the ecomodernists – but that’s something I’ll pursue further in my next post. Perhaps I erred in my engagements with the ecomodernists by accepting their framing of the debate, allowing them to appropriate the idea of modernism for themselves. If what they’re describing is modernism, my thinking ran, then I guess I’m not a modernist. But here’s Berman’s opening definition:

“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern:  from Marx and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.” (pp.13-14)

So that’s modernism, huh? Show me where to sign!

Berman suggests that the great thinkers of the 19th century who first wrestled with the problem of modernization were more subtle and alive to its ambiguities than we are today, when we tend to either embrace it blindly or condemn it out of hand, supplanting open visions of modern life and the possibility that it can be changed to suit contemporary needs and problems with closed and monolithic conceptions of what modernity entails. Quite so. In a long and brilliant chapter that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize, encompassing the history of St Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s musings on class conflict in the modern city and the 19th century significance of London’s Crystal Palace, Berman draws a distinction between modernism as an adventure and modernism as a routine – more specifically, the social adventure of challenging fixed traditions and cultural conventions on the one hand, and, on the other, the routine of becoming subordinated by those immense and crushing bureaucracies.

In a moment, I’ll try to sketch the implications of this for my own concerns to articulate a small farm or neo-peasant future, but to further that aim I first want to look at another brilliantly-realised part of Berman’s book – his analysis of Goethe’s Faust. Again, I can’t do it – the poem-drama or Berman’s interpretation of it – any justice here, but I want to highlight three of Berman’s points that are relevant to my purposes. First is the notion, personified in the figure of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles, that modernity is about endless development – development of the self and of personal agency and capacities, and development of society and its capacities. Although the engine of this developmental process in modern capitalist societies is money, capital accumulation, this isn’t the fundamental purpose. Worldly wealth is a recurrent fantasy in many societies, not limited to capitalist ones – to be rich, happy, and influential – but in capitalist societies that alone is not enough. Change and development become goals in themselves – constant change, constant reinvention, constant growth, a constant tearing down of the old and a ringing in of the new.

That process causes suffering. In the poem, Faust’s tragic lover Gretchen comes to grief because ultimately she can’t or won’t transcend the traditional, religious, small-town world from which she comes, a world that takes revenge on her for her temerity in even trying. As Berman puts it, the Gretchen tragedy

“should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearning for the worlds we have lost” (p.60)

Amen to that. But the problem is, our crude 21st century versions of modernism want to subsume every possible critique of modernity into such nostalgic yearning, as if being Gretchen is the only possible alternative to being Faust. I’ve been accused of ‘romanticising’ the past often enough by people I’ve tended to assume haven’t bothered to read what I’ve actually written, but perhaps it’s more that the Faust-Gretchen duality is so deeply ingrained in their thinking that they can only comprehend anti-Faust as pro-Gretchen (yep, I’m looking at you Graham Strouts). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for those happy souls who are content never to stray beyond the comforting confines of that duality, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly say to enlighten them3. But for the more intellectually curious, it’s worth mentioning two other relevant individuals in Faust, Philemon and Baucis – a sweet old couple who live a simple, rustic life in a cottage surrounded by lindens in the land where Faust is conducting his giant engineering projects. In Berman’s words

“They are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete” (p.67)

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership….
Hence is our soul upon the rack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack

That rage at obstinately unmodernizable people or those who speak up for them always feels close to the surface in modernism – and I think the more so in contemporary modernism which lacks the sophistication of its antecedents and which now finds it harder to do as Faust did and quietly arrange to have Philemon and Baucis removed (though it still does a pretty good job). Hence we get all manner of trickery of the kind evident in The Ecomodernist Manifesto and similar works – that, actually, everybody wants modernization, apart from a few romantic intellectuals who are complacent in their own privilege; or that unmodern people engage in unsustainable practices that can’t be allowed to continue; or that although modernization may inflict some temporary hardships upon those accustomed to a different way of life it will ultimately prove to be in their best interests. In my opinion, these are little more than salves to the modernist consciousness seeking its worldwide ownership, but washing its hands of the human cost.

Berman writes that Faust “comes to feel it is terrifying to look back, to look the old world in the face” (p.69) and to me this exactly captures a rage in modernism that troubles me. If we’re relaxed and confident in ourselves, we feel no need to belittle others’ achievements and to exaggerate our own. Nor do we want to be anyone else, because we’re happy enough being ourselves, but we’re open to the possibility of learning new things from other people, including people who some might say are beneath our contempt – for our part, we feel no need to judge. That genre of ecomodernist writing that contemptuously asks which period in history the critics of modernisation wish to return us to misses the point that there is no such period – the point, rather, is that we can open-mindedly learn from other societies, including ones from the past, rather than assuming that they have nothing to teach us and are beneath our contempt. I’d like to think that this view could command widespread agreement as a matter of simple cultural maturity – our way is not the only way – quite apart from the more practical lessons we might learn from the low energy societies of the past as we face an uncertain and quite possibly lower energy future ourselves. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If there’s one thing in contemporary culture I’d like to help change it’s this complacent assumption that primitive/modern is the only necessary lens for observing history – a complacency redolent of modernity as routine, not modernity as adventure, that more open vision of modern life of which Berman spoke.

The widespread tendency nowadays to dismiss non-modern peoples past and present, to impute a misery to their lives that we claim to have transcended, may sometimes have a factual grounding but I think also speaks to an anxiety that for all our restlessness, our endless growth, our appetite for the new and our contempt for the old, we haven’t found what seek, and we are not at peace. Indeed, the whole point of that restless modern urge is that we never can be at peace. Leigh Phillips makes that point explicitly and sees it as a positive – never be satisfied, always demand more – without seeing the psychological cost that our emphasis on constant self-reinvention imposes, and the cost in blood that is paid for it by the Philemons and Baucises of this world (or, if he does acknowledge the latter cost, he imputes the problem to ‘capitalism’ and considers it soluble through socialism, without seeing how the problem moves more deeply within modernization processes which both capitalism and socialism manifest).

The final point to make about Faust, which emerges from the last, is that there is no still centre towards which modernity is reaching, no finally achieved perfection. Again, it’s possible to see a positive side to that, but also an uncomfortable truth that appears to be lost on the ecomodernists – namely, to quote Berman again, that “yesterday’s Fausts may find themselves today’s Philemon and Baucises” (p.79). That indeed is the whole axis of the Faust myth: “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go” (p.70).

Let me now briefly try to pull this together in relation to my thesis that a small farm future is a modernist future. I endorse Berman’s definition of what it is to be modern, a definition that is political and not technological, emphasising a striving for improvement in an ambiguous world full of difficult choices, and in particular the choice of adventure over boring routine or established hierarchy. In some historical circumstances the appropriate modernist choice has been to step away from small-scale peasant farming, and from the boredom and hierarchy it entailed, and that’s probably still true today for some people – though for fewer, I’d submit, than is commonly supposed by many a latter day savant.

For numerous people now living in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, on the other hand, I’d suggest that the opposite is the case. It is more adventuresome and more ‘modern’ to see that the world is changing, that the trajectory of high-tech liberal capitalism is leading us not only into environmental problems but also to economic and political crises out of which we in the global north are unlikely to emerge unscathed, and that an appropriate modernist response is to embrace this changing order by reaffirming the importance of good land husbandry, a defence of localism and local communities, and an emphasis on the limits to consumption – more adventuresome and more modern at any rate than the bureaucratic modernism-as-routine now lived by so many of us toiling in our offices, working for huge corporate enterprises in jobs whose purpose we’ve forgotten if we ever knew it in the first place, before the fearsome commute home through gridlocked streets to our apartments, where we hope the lights will stay on and the goods will keep flowing once ‘they’ have worked out how to sate our cities’ endless appetite for energy. Of course, it’s not easy for many people to escape that life for reasons both practical and psychological. But nor was it easy for their great grandparents to escape the farm or the conservative forces then holding them in their grip. The modernist adventure is never easy.

No doubt there’s a fine line between my argument for peasantisation as modernisation and a nostalgic, conservative hankering after old hierarchies and old certainties – but nevertheless there is a line, and to me it’s a pretty clear one. Berman helps elucidate it in his analysis of how Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the Bronx, where he grew up,

“So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself….the so-called modern movement has inspired billions of dollars’ worth of “urban renewal” whose paradoxical result has been to destroy the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized. The practical corollary of all this…is that in our city life, for the sake of the modern we must preserve the old and resist the new” (pp.295-318)

As in our city life, so in our country life. There was a time when the tractor over the horse, the bulk tanker over the milk churn, or whatever other examples you care to choose, seemed and probably were a liberation. But I don’t think it’s possible to be so complacent about the inflow of new agricultural technology and the outflow of agricultural labour any more. A peasant modernism isn’t against new technology, but it’s not necessarily for it either, and it may often default to older ways of doing things – more human labour, less power-hungry machinery – as a more modern response to our problems.

So if peasant modernism isn’t necessarily for new technology (the tendency to conflate modernisation with mere technological improvement is a mistake that Berman effectively criticises) then what is it for? Well, I guess every political ideology has some kind of future utopia in mind which usually looks…pretty boring. For the techno-fixers and ecomodernists it’s a workless society of urban, wealthy, plugged-in Eloi, drifting around in pursuit of their leisured interests. For a peasant modernist it’s a life lived close to the land and the rhythms of the natural world, a life of hard work sometimes sure enough, but also of human community and folk songs around the fire. In both cases, the adventure of struggling to realise the vision is maybe more appealing than the vision itself. But as I see it, the peasant modernist vision has more intrinsic appeal – there are endless, engrossing ways of improving small farms and the small communities of which they’re a part, whereas post-work utopias evince the same problem that Hannah Arendt detected in communist utopias – “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labor is past” (p.128).

Incidentally, Gene Logsdon has written a nice essay recently which makes similar points to the ones I’m making here, but without the sociological theorising. Perhaps I could learn something there. Logsdon writes,

“One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described…got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore.”

Well said – although I think there are different resonances between North America, Western Europe, and so-called ‘developing’ countries today around this point. Still, perhaps an implication of Logsdon’s argument is that ecomodernism is a form of retro-modernism, attempting to solve old-fangled problems (the hardscrabble life of the small farmer) by old-fangled methods (labour-shedding, energy-intensive technological development). Of course, the life of the contemporary small farmer isn’t easy. But my point is that it’s modern – and usually more so than that of their salaried urban counterparts.

Still, I acknowledge various difficulties in my peasant modernist vision. One is how to realise or generalise it. Earlier strands of modernist thought have offered pat answers to achieving their own utopias – Marx’s notion (also espoused by Phillips) that there is an inherent tendency to self-overcoming within capitalism located within the working class, or the strange notion so intricately elaborated by capitalist (‘neoclassical’) economists that free markets deliver what everybody wants, or the even stranger notion elaborated by the ecomodernists that heaven is to be found in a world of urban residence, nuclear power and GM crops. None of these neat resolutions strike me as convincing – but that leaves the problem of how to take hold of the machinery of modernization and create a neo-peasant world out of it. Here I agree with Berman and other writers in the anti-folk politics or anti-small is beautiful tradition like Srnicek and Williams or, hell, maybe even Leigh Phillips, that local particularisms need some kind of meta-local political context to succeed – a context best delivered by agrarian populism in my opinion, though that’s hardly an answer in itself. The other major problem – which is not specific to neo-peasant modernism, but is shared by all modernist utopias – is how to retain the positive force of all that restless striving, self-development and adaptability to change that’s part of the modernist way, while transcending its destructiveness, its anti-humanism and its troublesome tendencies towards change for change’s sake. I confess that I don’t have any simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers. But I’ll do my best to grapple directly with these problems in some future posts.

References

  1. My main writings on this are a critique of the ecomodernist manifesto, along with a follow-up essay, a piece for Statistics Views on ecomodernist approaches to energy and poverty, an essay concerning ‘peasant socialism’ by way of a critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology, a piece about the climate deal in Paris, and my recent essay on Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.
  1. “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London: Verso. Cited in Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & The Collapse Porn Addicts, Winchester: Zero, p.255.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=864

20 thoughts on “Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

  1. I don’t really have sufficient expertise to judge the merits of the different viewpoints on this topic. My brief foray into eco-modernism left me underwhelmed, to say the least. This, however, struck a chord

    I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’.

    My general impression of ecomodernism/techno-utopia is that it completely lacks nuance. It presents a simple story that sounds appealing but appears to ignore many relevant caveats. My own view is that this is a very complex issue and that what will be best will be quite varied (depending on time and place) and it is unfortunate that a great many of those who appear to be leading the ecomodernist movement seem incapable of addressing some of the more nuanced aspects of this topic.

    • Wise words, I think, and similar to what I’m arguing: don’t get trapped in a primitive vs progress duality, and foster diverse solutions rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that characterises both classic modernism and contemporary ecomodernism.

  2. Watching something like ‘Victorian Farm’ (or reading a book on maraîchage), one could be forgiven to think that most tools for small-scale farming were perfected quite a long time ago.
    Low-energy living is also not something unheard of in history, and using forms of cash money in times of either non-existent or failing banking system also has a long tradition.

    So what is it that will keep on modernizing within societies? Will there be something which wouldn’t be easily recognizable as part of a cycle of rise, decline and fall?
    Will we be getting modern mores/gender relations then as the one success story that’ll be left to fend for once the energy descent drives (European) people to take up orthodox monotheism again, and cults starts gaining momentum? Or have we had our version of late Roman Republic “routine excesses”, and will be done with them for good once the framework changes?

    All of this of course presupposes that to choose modernism as routine is no choice at all anymore, much like imagining nuclear power as the wave of the future.
    Feudalism on the other hand probably is.

    • Michael, I’m not sure I completely get your point, but if I understand you correctly you’re asking if there’s anything about ‘modernity’ that will endure in a possible future of energy descent, economic contraction and environmental stress, or whether there would be a reversion to tributary/‘feudal’ relationships? I guess my comments were directed towards shorter-term considerations, but it’s an interesting question. My feeling is that much would depend on the rapidity of the decline and how adept contemporary states and their peoples were at adapting to the changes – I suppose what I’m saying in this post is that if we want to hang on to what now seems good about being ‘modern’ then perhaps we need to be ‘modern’ enough to move beyond an old-fashioned modernism that’s infatuated with increasing scale, energy and workless leisure. It’s plain enough from contemporary history that reversion to naked, coercive power is a ubiquitous possibility. Does anything ‘modern’ survive such reversions? Yes, I think so, and though modernity has its own monsters, my hope is that it would – at least if it’s the kind of modernity described by Berman. But it’s not a given. In any case, if ‘modernism’ is to retain any worthwhile critical edge then it needs to change and develop – the modernism-in-aspic offered up by the ecomodernists and the likes of Leigh Phillips won’t really do.

  3. I apologize for the nebulous parts, Chris 🙂
    I was merely wondering whether the toolkit (in any respect) for facing the coming times really required any modernization, if by that we mean something evolving, something to strive for.
    Because surely in going back to energrtic basics most things – techniques, tools, limitations – can be found in those books people until recently thought were describing a distant agrarian past.
    But there might Jo Waring one field were, even if hard times wipe out the “energetic modernity” of the recent centuries (the routine speed fetish, if you will), a different kind of energy will ensure that falling back into old ways isn’t an option – that the social interactions future societies invent will define their shape much more than their outward appearance, which might look a lot like the small-scale societies of the past.
    How re-feudalization would play into that is yet another question that future societies will have to answer time and again; simply ignoring it as a strong source of relocalization of power won’t do.

    • Yes, interesting points. On the technology side of things I’d see a role for a mixture of older and newer technology (electric fencing…even engines…crop science) on small farms of the future. But, as you say, the modernity would probably be more importantly of a social/political than a technological character.

      Re-feudalization is an interesting concept: people tend to use the term ‘feudalism’ very loosely to mean preindustrial/premodern forms of labour-intensive land husbandry and strongly heritable social status. I’d define it more in terms of post-imperial decline, where local potentates struggle on the one hand to try to fill the void left by an eclipsed larger polity and its forms of legitimacy, and on the other hand to keep control of local agrarian labour. The latter definition in particular does lead to some interesting speculations about how the future may unfold. I plan to write some more about it later in the year – thanks for broaching the issue.

  4. Well done as always, Chris. Ivan Illich’s concept of convivial tools always comes to mind when thinking about which technologies to embrace and which to renounce, as well as in what direction technological ‘progress’ would head if the goals were equity, autonomy, and liberty that does not infringe on others’ liberty rather than, well, profit and manifest destinies. You should write more about the contradiction of utopias you briefly mention: that the struggle to achieve them feels much more lively and fun than the vision itself. Just an idea (:

    • Thanks Sam. Yes while on the topic of rereading, Illich is another figure I ought to reacquaint myself with. And perhaps I ought to write more about utopias – I’m a big fan of utopianism, but there’s not many utopias I’d actually like to inhabit… Do keep in touch with me about your own engagement with ecomodernism, by the way – I’d love to see what you come up with.

  5. Noooo! Don’t give in to the dark side! 😉

    You can’t. It is not possible to “embrace the modern world’s potentialities while loathing and fighting against some its most palpable realities” and turn modernity around. I think it’s an illusion that this is anything more than just keeping on with keeping on, while pretending to oneself that because one “loathes and fights” – whatever that means, not much is my guess – then it’s ok, it’s enough.

    I resent the suggestion that modernity is an adventure – actually, tribal living at its best was an adventure. Subsistence living without a miserable overlord skimming off your livelihood, that was an adventure. Modern living has its adventuresome moments – mostly in the realm of idea and gadget explorations – but it really is a horrible, squat-on-the-couch tedium for most people. And even those who would like to get out of that clingy slime, are mostly stuck in it. A hundred headed dragon; when you cut off one head, two grow.

    Modernity has given us a lot of gifts. But to keep them while shedding the huge burden of shite, is not to remain mired in modernity. It’s taking those gifts – freely thinking minds, some of the comforts, good medical care – put them in a little traveling sack, and embark on a road that goes off the beaten path. Modernity is a “been done to death” path. We need to be bold and strike out where angels fear to tread.

    “cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out”

    That is more bullshit. Iroquois gave the world the Confederacy, and the women were highly respected, but they also tortured prisoners or had them run the brutal gauntlet. We are no better, and possibly worse. We have carved out certain unprecedented comforts and privileges, but have been brutal on a larger and more destructive scale than anyone else in the past. Except perhaps Genghis Khan. And even he only left organic debris and healing followed. We leave poisons that the Earth will not shake off, well, like forever, in human reckoning.

    What I want for the future is lots of different human cultures. The end of domination. True diversity. So that many different solutions to human problems can come forth and be compared. I want enough of this all-devouring horrible Thing that is turning everything living into dead things. And modernity is the force, IMO, that really drove that nail into the coffin.

    I think you may have a point in that reframing modernity might be a good rhetorical device. Maybe. But I am not so concerned about convincing others, as I am in how to live co-civilization, right now. By co-civ, I mean a civilized civilization based on cooperation and nature-mimicry and shared intelligence where we can evolve again, where our culture is a tool for evolution rather than manipulation of the masses to stay stuck.

    Oh and about the backbreaking stuff that modernist talk about so contemptuously? Yeah, dirt and breaking backs, eeww! While they are sitting in their cubicles, backs out of whack, miserable and unwell. I’ll take the vigorous life any day. LeGuin once said that the noble purpose of human life is to praise creation and to enlarge chances of life. Modernity shrinks them, and sings praises to nothing but itself, like a true narcissistic force that it is.

    • Vera, I enjoyed reading your heartfelt response – and, as usual with your comments, I found myself mostly agreeing with you even though you were disagreeing with me. Then again, I disagree with myself quite a lot of the time. There’s an interesting thread discussing my post in which some folks are making similar points to you here: https://m.facebook.com/comment/replies/?ctoken=10153984488883624_10153985049573624&count=8&pc=1&ft_ent_identifier=10153984488883624&gfid=AQDcNOweLJeSGMrI&ref=m_notif&notif_t=comment_mention

      Some points where I possibly disagree with you, or maybe where we’re just talking at cross-purposes: I agree with you that modern living is mostly not adventurous…but that was kind of my point – to recover modernity as an adventure would have to involve radical changes in the way we relate to each other and the world around us. Though perhaps you’re right that there comes a point when you have to question the usefulness of describing these changes as ‘modernist’ (which touches on Michael’s point)…certainly in my earlier exchanges with the ecomodernists I pronounced modernism dead. Berman part-persuaded me that it isn’t. But if you keep talking to me you may just tempt me back onto the side of the angels 🙂

      Cruelty & brutality: I agree we are no better, and I don’t really subscribe to notions of long-term human social or spiritual progress. On the other hand, I don’t really subscribe to notions of long-term human descent from past nobility either. I think contemporary times have delivered us into some really difficult problems about how to think about history. I’d like to think & write some more about this – but I don’t think it’s all that easy to jettison the problem of modernity in doing so.

      I think I agree with your vision for true diversity & the end of domination – but domination is ubiquitous in human societies past and present, so thinking through what that vision really means and how to enact it is a huge problem.

      Anyway, thanks as always for commenting – it’s great to have got such thought-provoking feedback to this post here at SFF & elsewehere. Much to chew on.

    • Here’s one [much less-succinct, alas] definition, by Keekok Lee, in The Natural and the Artefactual: The Implications of Deep Science and Deep Technology for Environmental Philosophy:

      “Modernity as a concept is European in origin but has since acquired global coinage. It may be defined in many ways. Here, only two aspects will be singled out for comment – its philosophy and its science, which are inextricably linked….From the philosophical perspective, it is defensible and plausible to define modernity in terms of the overthrow of the Aristotelian worldview and its organismic teleological philosophy by the philosophy of mechanism as well as of positivism which began to take shape in the development of Western philosophical thought, more or less systematically, from the seventeenth century onward.”

      “… While the predecessors of modernity simply held nature, as they found it, by and large, to be ordained for the use of man, their successors in the modern era go one beyond, and consciously aspire through their scientific method to control (dead) nature by molding it in accordance with their own ends….the scientific developments of the last twenty years, in particular, molecular genetics and its accompanying genetic engineering, as well as nanotechnology on the horizon, embody the ultimate triumph of this aspiration. One may conclude that the conception of nature as dead matter is what constitutes the definitive break between modernity and its medieval past in European thought.”

      Robert Heilbroner, in The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, also explores the necessity of this novel conception of nature to the licensing of the insatiable plunder characterizing capitalism:

      “Science thus becomes an ideology – that is, an explanatory view of the world. Despite its vaunted “positivist” approach and its shunning of truth by revelation, it nonetheless fills a social requirement indistinguishable from religion. Science is not ideological in the sense of an avowal of social values, or an overt partisanship for social interests. Its ideological aspect lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception – an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation. Capitalism would be impossible in a sacralized world to which men would relate with awe and veneration, just as such attitudes cannot arise in a society in which exchange value has reduced to a common denominator all use-values.

      Capitalism requires and engenders a belief in the indifference of “nature” to the operations performed on it by man, a point of view epitomized by the scientific outlook. The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material world…. The ideological function of science is to delegitimize this animistic view, replacing it with the much more powerful view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.”

      (Heilbroner hastens to clarify that “the usefulness of science as an ideology for capitalism does not imply that it could not serve another master….The aspect of science that capitalism seizes upon is the reduction of the universe to an array of units of energy that can be legitimately used for any purpose whatsoever. The purpose for which the regime of capital uses them is a source of inexhaustible surplus to be gathered by the perpetual motion of M-C-M’.)

      “… What Marx does not remark … and Berman does not explore, is that the forces of production alone were not enough to allow capitalism to achieve its material triumphs. It needed also the “permission” of nature itself, a permission that could only be achieved by draining nature of its vast animistic sensibility, leaving behind an uncomplaining grid of space and time.”

      If Lee is right, it was the precisely the philosophy of modernity that “drained nature of its vast animistic sensibility.” If so, then it begs the question whether modernity can or should be reclaimed as a concept on which to hitch a new peasantism. (Conversely, whether restoring such a sensibility is a necessary condition of overcoming capitalism, or of fostering a new peasantism, is a separate, and debatable issue, but assuming that it is, if I understand Berman’s notion (via Chris) of modernity correctly, real modernity, being creative and reflexive, could effect this non-modernist turn (if it’s deemed necessary); i.e. real modernity is actually non-modernity, or, the word is a bit meaningless. Maybe a different word than modernity would serve this purpose better?)

      • Thanks for that Alex – interesting & useful commentaries. I’ll be writing some more about this later in the year so it’s probably best if I hang fire until then. I agree there’s a danger of terminological quibbling with the term. But I do think we have to reckon with it…probably dialectically. Anyway, more on this in due course – many thanks!

  6. Great stuff. Thanks for the Berman ref. My only question – now that Goethe has been broached… with Faust no less… why didn’t Nick make an appearance. I think you missed a real opportunity there.

    Come to think of it, given what I just offered for a definition of modernity, Nick might be quite the pundit for matters of modernity. He has so much rapped up in eternity. Is there a train ride to London, or perhaps up to Scotland, anytime soon. A visit with ol’ Nick might be just what we need.

    • Funny, it didn’t even occur to me to look Nick up in relation to this post. A missed opportunity indeed. In fact, I haven’t seen him for a while now. But I’m going up to Scotland again soon, so I’ll keep a look out for him…

  7. Where do I sign up for this future?! It makes me very happy to read this article, and a little less alone.

    For the last 6 months I have been very slowly building an idea for a novel set at the end of the century where of course I highlight and contrast how different societies have addressed energy descent and environmental, and economic crises. It’s been remarkably difficult for me until just recently to break out of the dualistic way of thinking about the future – even though I’m aware of the widespread use of binary thinking. Almost unwittingly so I had managed to create a fictional world of the future that looked far too much like the past. It only dawned on me in the last month that I had done that. It’s a peculiar trap of contemporary thought.

    All I can say of my own vision of a landscape of small farms is that I hope we can keep electric fencing! I mean how else would we mob graze and practise silvopasture?! 🙂

    The idea that I would like to put forward is that many have a mistaken understanding of what a utopia is, and thus that any vision for the future that imagines it to all be ‘sorted’ is naive. A vision for the future must surely be complex, and many aspects of it are surely to be unknown. So I immediately recoil whenever anyone tries to present me a perfect vision of the future where all humans lives in peace and happiness (except those that don’t of course but we’ll just conveniently ignore that as it doesn’t fit our vision). An interesting point you raise above is how does any society deal with the restless striving in a constructive manner?

    This piece reminds me of John Michael Greer’s writing about the myth of progress that has considerably influenced my own thoughts over the last 12 months. That essentially our culture is stuck in a narrative of transcendence via some divine intervention (it could be Jesus or it could be Capital T Technology) where we are ‘taken’ to a paradise, or transcendence via apocalypse (as per the four horsemen, or the hollywood-esque survivalists notion of all-out war) where only the good guys remain and from there we build a happy peaceful world. Whether via a divine intervention or apocalypse both versions seem trite and naive. Interesting how strongly religious mythology can influence such a secular society as ours (or in my opinion not that surprising). If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy John Michael Greer’s weekly narrative piece called Retrotopia – which is a version of the future that retains elements of current society’s better parts whether technological or ideological, with the better aspects of the recent past. It’s an interesting landscape he paints.

    Thank you for introducing me to Berman, I look forward to reading his work.

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