Retro-modernism

I wrote a lengthy piece about modernism in my last post. Then I drafted another lengthy piece about its critical implications for so-called ‘ecomodernism’, which became so lengthy that it turned into two posts. Then I read over them, and felt – bored.

So it’s probably time to move on from ecomodernism. But there’s a little bit of unfinished business to unfurl in this post before starting on something else. I may even need to spend some time actually farming soon (there’s ewes to lamb and seeds to sow), as well as putting in some research time for my next cycle of posts, so the pace may have to slacken.

Anyway – Unfinished business #1: I got some great feedback to my last post here on SFF, and at Resilience.org and via New York academic Anthony Galluzzo’s site. Constructive, engaged criticism – the blogosphere at its best. I’d argued with the help of the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air1 that agrarian populism – that is, the localist politics of a neo-peasant small farm movement – is not anti-modern, nostalgic or backward-looking but on the contrary is thoroughly modernist in its willingness to abandon the weight of tradition accumulated through the history of capitalist development, and to chart alternative paths to sustainability and social justice. The criticisms that came back to me mostly hinged on a sense that I was over-extending the concept of modernism and effacing its negatives. Reasonable points, calling me back to my more sceptical pre-Berman take on modernism. But I still think Berman opens interesting ways of seeing how contemporary politics – including the green, leftist and agrarian populist politics with which I’m most engaged – have to develop more subtle narratives about history and human agency than they typically do. I hope to come back to this at a later date.

Unfinished business #2: I received some other interesting feedback recently. In my critical post on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future, I implied that their analysis was more ‘grownup’ than that of Leigh Phillips in the latter’s book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts. Srnicek messaged me back, writing “Thanks for the considered thoughts here”. Phillips also messaged me back, writing: “Twig-munching reactionary”. Then he added “I’m only replying to your ‘critique’ that mine is not a ‘grown-up’ argument”.

It’s a sweet thing when you put a tentative hypothesis out into the world and then get the solid proof of it zinging right back at you, and I should probably rest my case right there. But I’d like to probe just a little more at the world-according-to-Phillips in order to wrap up my ecomodernist theme for the time being. Mr Phillips has been promising for a while to write a refutation of my critical commentary on his oeuvre without, to my knowledge, coming up with the goods, so I hereby invite him to do so in a guest essay that I’ll happily host at Small Farm Future. His writing exemplifies what I consider to be various failings of the techno-fixer and/or ‘ecomodernist’ worldview. I’d like to offer a quick two-part overview.

Part I: Ecomodernism as retro-modernism

It strikes me that ecomodernism and techno-fixer approaches generally find a receptive audience among vaguely left and vaguely green folks who worry (albeit vaguely) about the sustainability of our present civilizational course and are therefore predisposed to be positive about local food, organic farming, renewable energy etc. without looking into the issues too deeply or thinking much about how life might change if such approaches were generalised. Works like the Ecomodernist Manifesto or Austerity Ecology are reassuring to them in their business-as-usual-but-raise-up-the-poor-while-defeating-climate-change-while-we’re-about-it optimism (optimism/pessimism is another problematic contemporary duality in the modernism/primitivism mould). To the uninitiated, ecomodernism reveals itself as a fresh new critique of localism, organics etc.

But it’s not a fresh new critique. As I’ve argued in more detail elsewhere2, the ecomodernist critique of localism, agroecology, energy descent etc is superficial, and the alternative narratives it mobilises are not new but are grounded in older liberal, neoliberal and communist modernisation movements which are now manifestly problematic. They involve a psychological flight from seeking an authentic self in favour of a self-overcoming Übermensch3, they involve a notion of modernity as a solidly achieved state rather than a provisional construct apt at any moment to melt into the air; and they involve, too, the notion of modernity as a one-size-fits-all technological culture to be spread by outmoded neo-colonial and/or Fordist means. In all these ways, I’d argue that ecomodernism is retro-modernism – less alive, less open to the changes and possibilities in the world, less modern, than the localism and the ‘folk politics’ that it derides as primitivist, romantic or backward-looking.

These retro-modernist leanings are disguised to casual readings of the main ecomodernist texts, but are not hard to discern (by ‘disguised’ I don’t mean in a deliberate, conspiratorial way – rather, they figure as an implicit set of unexamined assumptions). The disguised leanings of the ecomodernism associated with the Ecomodernist Manifesto and the Breakthrough Institute are towards neoliberalism (I’ll take the BTI’s professed pro-poor narrative more seriously when it campaigns as vociferously on green boxes as on golden rice). And the disguised leaning of Phillips’ Austerity Ecology is towards Bolshevism.

Part II: Ecomodernism as Bolshevism

Let me illustrate that briefly. Phillips stridently denounces Bolshevism and I don’t doubt that he feels as genuinely opposed to the excesses of the Bolshevik regime as anyone. Indeed, I think ecomodernism in its various incarnations is usually a genuine attempt to reckon with the problems of social justice and sustainability we face in the contemporary world. It’s just that its retro-modernism reconstitutes the problems it’s trying to redress so its solutions become self-undermining. In Phillips’ case, his arguments rest implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, on so many commonplaces of communist/Bolshevik ideology that it seems hard not to locate his analysis within communist retro-modernism, and hard to imagine how a political programme based on it would avoid the excesses of that ideology.

I wrote a more detailed critique of Phillips’ political theory, such as it is, elsewhere4. Here I just want to identify in short form the five main Bolshevik elements I discern in it.

  1. ‘Democracy’ – Phillips invokes democracy as a kind of deus ex machina to right the wrongs of contemporary global governance, but provides no account of what such a democracy would look like, and no account of what the political communities it’s organised within would look like either. This was also a failing in Marx (cf. Berman: “Marx never developed a theory of political community…this is a serious problem”5). The omission haunts the history of communism, and underlies the problem of democracy in places such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, neither of which have ever been conspicuously democratic. In Phillips’ democracy “all economic actions occur as a result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society”6, a strong utilitarianism of the kind which is notoriously ruthless towards minorities and pariah groups. I fear the democracy of Mr Phillips very much.
  1. Global government – But there would be no escaping it, because Phillips aims for a single global socialist government. This would return us to good old-fashioned communist orthodoxy – the orthodoxy of Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin that sought a global communist revolution, before Stalin gave up the ghost with his unambitious ‘socialism in one country’. According to Phillips, a global government is necessary to foster the rational decision-making demanded by the severity of the problems we face – at which point, his democracy really does start to look rather GDR-like.
  1. Big kit – And let it not be said that Phillips’ programme lacks for ambition. He quotes what he calls the “continent-straddling ambition” of the old left, approvingly citing Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”7. You could doubtless argue that breakneck Soviet industrial development brought benefits to an underdeveloped country. You could also argue that indeed it broke a lot of necks – mostly those of peasants, who bore the brunt of the country’s modernization, and in some respects still do. In the face of Phillips’ enthusiasm for what he calls ‘big kit’ solutions to global problems, I find Berman’s a more salutary voice: “Millions of people have been victimized by disastrous development policies, megalomaniacally conceived, shoddily and insensitively executed, which in the end have developed little but the rulers’ own fortunes and powers”8. As energy and climate crises loom, sadly I think we can expect to see many more such grandiose projects, delivering less than they promise, and quite possibly less even than their antecedents achieved, while clothing themselves in a techno-modernist rhetoric that’s contemptuous of humbler, less chancy, more sustainable and less grandiloquent ambitions. Phillips’ writing no doubt gives a foretaste of what’s to come, as does Graham Strouts’ enthusiasm for the idea of Hinkley C as compared to EDF’s unenthusiasm for its actuality.
  1. The working class: Phillips espouses another old-fangled orthodoxy about Marx’s ‘new-fangled men’, which was crude enough in Marx’s own writing and further debased by the Bolsheviks, namely that the proletariat is the privileged historical subject: “the working class is not just the liberator of itself, but of all mankind. It is the universal class”9. But the proletariat that emerges from Phillips’ pages is shallow, censorious, materially-oriented, pleasure-seeking and status-obsessed – basically indistinguishable from the capitalist bourgeoisies it supposedly replaces. Peasants have never really fitted into the ‘universal class’ rhetoric of vulgar Marxists, who generally like to speak for them and tell them what they ought to want: “It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturist – or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine – any day”10. It also takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks built their regime substantially on the back of peasant rebellion and then, believing they knew what peasants really wanted and what was of ‘maximum utility to society’, returned the favour by murderously expropriating them. Peasants are too often written out of history by soi disant sympathisers who don’t want to romanticise them.
  1. The terror: And finally there’s Phillips’ taste for a mode of discourse that deals in archetypes rather than arguments, and sometimes doesn’t seem a million miles away from hate speech. So I, for example, am dismissed as a “twig-munching reactionary” while others figure as an “army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells”11. And so on. I suppose there’s a danger of taking this all a bit too seriously, but then what are the implications? That Phillips’ analysis isn’t serious? It seems clear that he thinks it is – in which case I’d have to say that the way he engages his foes is…serious. Hacks with literary skills of this sort did a roaring trade in the 1930s, writing prepared confessions for show trials and anti-kulak posters. I hope they never get anywhere near political power again. If they do, I wouldn’t bet against me finding myself in a court some day confessing my degenerate kulak praetorian fascism. Until then, I plan to call it as I see it. Not everything Phillips writes sounds Bolshevik, but for me there’s a preening, self-regarding character to much of it that’s redolent of historic communist autocracy. It traduces the subtlety and variety of socialist traditions into rigid, bombastic certainties. And if it were to be realised politically, it would make the world a more frightening, more repressive and indeed a less sustainable place. Or, to quote from Anthony Galluzzo’s splendid piece of invective, Phillips uses “a Stalinoid rhetoric of productivism” involving a “cult of quantitative production-technological development and outputs-while reifying (rather than abolishing) the worker”. Quite so. This is old, old wine. Not even the bottles look that new.

But I think I’ve pretty much said my piece. Phillips has been promising for some time to unmask my innumerate arguments, and to provide the evidence to prove I’m wrong (another worrying ecomodernist tic, as if sifting different political philosophies and orientations to what human life is all about is simply a matter of ‘evidence’). He refers to my “blud-und-boden doom-mongering” which particularly intrigues me – I’d very much like to know what I’ve written that invites the Blud und Boden tag. Actually, I doubt Phillips has read much of what I’ve written. I think he just prefers the dualities of the propagandist – if it’s not standard modernist/rationalist fare then it must be anti-modernist/Blud-und-Boden reaction. In my eyes, what he calls my doom-mongering is a positive vision for a just and sustainable neo-agrarian future. Anyway, I’d be interested to read a genuine critique from him. Well, he knows how to contact me. Leigh, the next blog post is yours for the taking…

References

  1. Berman, M. 1982. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
  1. For example here. And here. And here. And here.
  1. cf. Berman op cit, p.42.
  1. ‘From growth economics to home economics’ – available here.
  1. Berman op cit, p.128.
  1. Phillips, L. 2015. Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Zero Books, p.227.
  1. Ibid p.189.
  1. Berman op cit, p.77.
  1. Phillips op cit, p.153.
  1. Ibid, p.252.
  1. Ibid, pp.92-3.

16 thoughts on “Retro-modernism

  1. Thank you for some fascinating posts here – I’m an avid reader of your excellent blog, although this is the first time I’ve plucked up the courage to contribute below the line. The following thoughts emerged from reading both this post and the one before it.

    I was struck by the contrast in the last post, and in some of the comments, between modernism as a kind of philosophical attitude – ‘restless adventure’ etc – and modernism as a label for a particular set of historical circumstances, mostly entangled with capitalism, and denounced vividly by Vera in the comment thread. There’s a problem with definition here, and I imagine it’s impossible to define modernism without being reductive (a point I think Berman makes if I read your references to him right – I must get hold of his book!). Nevertheless, if modernism is understood along Berman’s lines as restless questioning, then it would surely be inappropriate to label the specific conditions of an historical epoch with it, because modernism must always involve the challenging and overcoming of those conditions.

    Following this ‘modernism as social critique’ vein, I’ve some sympathy with your idea of casting neo-peasantism in this light. However, I think ultimately it should be resisted because of what I see as modernism’s essential difference from any other social critique (such as romanticism for example); namely, its status as permanent, continuous, critique.

    I think you’re absolutely right to highlight the lack of a centre to which modernism points, and to demonstrate the neo-Bolshevik centre that Phillips’ ecomodernism points to; in that sense, his modernism isn’t ‘real’ modernism (neither, I expect I would argue if I’d read the book, is Berman’s ‘routine modernism’, which is surely a contradiction in terms). This also makes your consideration of utopias very interesting, as these are surely visions of a centre to which actions might point. Modernist projects cannot entertain utopias – because they would have to question and subvert them – and perhaps it is your appreciation for modernism’s ‘restless adventure’ that renders even the ‘best’ utopias rather boring for you.

    Nevertheless, you have a vision, as does Phillips, even if the details might change as necessary. And I think visions are necessary; I don’t think humans are able to maintain permanent critique, they also need to be able to rest a while amid a few certainties, even if they are always half-aware that those certainties may one day need to be questioned. So it’s worth considering utopias, even if you never really think you’ll get there, and surely the best of utopias will couple a freedom and will to criticise with space to create a home around a few cherished certainties and beliefs.

    I reckon critique is only one side of the coin, and always works in partnership with belief (a kind of dialectic I suppose). But modernism treats critique as the only game in town. For that reason I think you would be wiser to not to hitch neo-peasantism to modernism, but instead focus (as you have!) on pointing out the anti-modernist elements of belief in the eco-‘modernist’ project.

    Anyway, that’s enough rarefied air. I look forward to the more down-to-earth posts to come!

    • Andrew, thanks for those thoughtful comments. I think you’re right to identify the condition of permanent, continuous critique at the heart of modernism – something that’s not wholly negative, but that does have negative consequences too easily effaced by proponents of modernization. You’re also right that modernism-as-routine is a paradox (indeed that is Berman’s point), though numerous modernist doctrines (eg. liberalism, Bolshevism) have attempted to routinise it. The ecomodernists’ claims to bring the “gifts of modernity to those who have to date been left behind” (Mike Shellenberger’s phrase) imply an understanding of modernity-as-routine – a fixed and determinate ‘thing’ that can be given – which ironically suggests a poor understanding of what modernism is. I think your advice to resist a neo-peasant modernism is wise, and your contrast between modernism and romanticism is apposite. Many doctrines come up with problematic utopias involving no contradictions or inherent tensions – modernism reconfigures this as a kind of endlessly receding future state to which it’s restless, world-transforming energies are ever-directed. Better, I think, to craft a vision of the good society in which the tensions and contradictions are acknowledged and addressed as well as possible rather than construing them positively as a motor for endless change.

      • The ‘non-externalized’ contradictions of your last sentence I think would be what in the salvage economy of our near future could be salvaged as ‘modern’. Those, proper soil test labs, and maybe culticycles 🙂 And public-domain genetic research.

      • Thanks for your reply Chris. I don’t think I’d really appreciated before now the real irony of any kind of modernist ‘doctrine’, in the sense of a fairly fixed set of beliefs or clasims. It would be interesting to think further about the utility of an agrarianist doctrine, and what that would actually involve. Where would the tensions and contradictions lie? How might democratic control of land use and distribution be best flormalised?

        I also wonder whether, rather than reclaiming modernism, it might be worth reclaiming ‘romanticism’ from those, such as thge ecomodernists, who use it to mean overlooking the hardship of a land-based life. The assumption is always that such a life is a hair’s breadth from destitution and that a romantic vision basically papers over all the problems.

        But as I understand it, romanticism as critique was more concerned with asserting the primacy of the emotive experience of the individual (including ‘negative’ emotions) over collective subordination to functional imperatives (as in the factories of the industrialising West). A true romantic vision therrefore would not repress ‘undesirable’ aspects of the agrarian life, but would celebrate the hard work involved in attempting to ensure the flourishing of oneself and one’s community within the natural world.

        It seems to me that the successes and failures of a land-based life are uniquely fertile for the cultivation of a romantic critique of the drudgery of present-day economic functionalism or even the worklessness of the post-capitalist vision.

        I’ve got a feeling that much of the above is already present in your writing, but thanks for letting me work it through for myself in the comment thread!

      • And IMO that would be a useful input to broader discussions on sustainability. What social structures have worked in the past as evaluated with a broader set of criteria than GDP/capita, what hasn’t worked, what is working now and what might work in the future.

        And what tech would enable these societies!

  2. Chris, I was saddling up to offer my attacks on points One and Two of Bolshevism 101. But then I went and re-read your article “From Growth Economics to Home Economics” and I am stunned anew. You beautifully articulate Home Economics, and the reasoning and feelings behind it.

    Regarding “If democracy has an upper bound, then small-is-beautiful theorists will have to explain the mechanism through which this upper bound imposes itself” (p.112), I do have an explanation, and I have explained it to Phillips. I wrote about it here:
    http://www.smallanddeliciouslife.com/on-democracy-meaning-feeling-insane-or-when-in-doubt-plant-beans/

    So, I am going to copy and paste a couple of your paragraphs onto facebook, and then I think I will go do some plumbing. If it still seems like I have something say, I will return.

  3. I’m curious about Phillips’ use of “blud-und-boden doom-mongering”. First – the German word is blut not blud…. perhaps a forgivable typo, but I’m wondering if it isn’t a sign of a larger misunderstanding. The Blut und Boden tag you seem concerned about seems most honestly earned by your peasant agrarian views. Before the ascent of the Nazis in Germany there was a cultural movement based on ‘blood and soil’. The blood here is the genetic concept of descent, or the blood of kinship. And boden is soil, the earth of toil for subsistence. Peasant labor was valued and a human relationship to the land more hallowed than mere cropping or shepherding. The Nazis drew upon this and their obfuscation of the term has led to a tarnishing of the original by association with their darker ambitions. But the original notion of Blut und Boden doesn’t seem too foreign to what I understand your worldview to be all about.

    On the matter of doom-mongering, well I’m at a loss to see how Blut und Boden is somehow a doom-mongering philosophy unless one has to dredge Nazi propaganda onto the stage (where it doesn’t belong without a much clearer establishment).

    Come to think of it, the relationship of blood to the soil is a far older literary trope than 19th century Aryan literature. You’ve written on Genesis and the Land Ethic… didn’t Abel’s blood get swallowed up by the earth after Cain stabbed him to death? Perhaps that’s where the doom idea was born??

  4. Och laddie… you canna argue with a bully. But that’s alright, because when he resorted to ad hominems, he lost the argument.

  5. Thanks for the various comments above. Vera, looks like it’s too late – Phillips has accepted my offer! Well, I hope you and others here will run your critical eyes over his response.

    Andrew: “It would be interesting to think further about the utility of an agrarianist doctrine, and what that would actually involve. Where would the tensions and contradictions lie? How might democratic control of land use and distribution be best flormalised?” Excellent questions, which I hope to address directly later this year (not that I have any easy answers). The main problem with peasant societies historically is that peasants get utterly screwed by aristocracies, but ‘modernisation’ has largely just ducked and displaced the problem. Sharp points about romanticism – I’ve written critically in the past on the notion of romanticising peasant societies, but your point about recuperating the potential subtlety of romanticism is astute.

    Clem – I inadvertently copied Phillips’ misspelling and realised the error only just before you posted. I was going to surreptitiously correct it, but now it’s too late! Anyway, regarding your substantive points, it’s an interesting line of thought. I’m more comfortable with Boden than with Blut – issues of descent and inheritance certainly loom large in any agrarian society, but I’d argue are best kept separate from notions of ethnicity. Blut und Boden ideologies emerged out of 19th century nationalisms in which peasants were often idealised, but mostly by and for the benefit of non-peasants. The Cain & Abel story is interesting – I see it as a parable about the ambiguous (Faustian?) nature of intensive arable farming and the paradoxical way its productivity turns farmers into nomads, in contrast to more extensive hunting or pastoralism, a point nicely developed by Hugh Brody in his book ‘The Other Side Of Eden’. Or, to put it another way, the writers of Genesis seem a bit more savvy about the implications of ‘sustainable intensification’ than the contemporary ecomodernists. There’s definitely a strand of pessimism in that story, if not necessarily doom, and a critique of human hubris that I’d endorse. Still not sure about the blood though…

    Ruben – nice piece. I’m not quite sure what your attacks were going to be, but I’m glad you found the ‘Home economics’ piece plausible. As mentioned above, thinking about what a home economics polity/democracy might look like is high on my agenda. I agree with your critique of contemporary liberal-capitalist democracy. I think Phillips’ democracy would be much worse, though. Anyway, I hope your plumbing went well. And I hope you will return here with more to say…

    Michael – thanks for the list. A balloon debate about salvage priorities from modernity would be entertaining…unless it became a reality…

    • Looking at contemporary German politics, the Boden part certainly seems to be the pivotal one.

      It almost seems as though, in this day and age, once – decidedly non-peasant – politics attempts to negate any connection of a (“modern”) society to Boden (I’m obviously thinking about the handling of the refugee crisis here), the Blut once again finds itself represented at the far right of the political spectrum.

      And Boden with it, because left of the far right no party seems capable of representing it as something other than a bogeyman.
      A powerful absence, expertly kept stumm since WWII, but now rearing its head again because the (fossil) energy needed to keep it locked in isn’t there anymore.

      • Why is it that anytime Europeans stand up for their indigenous cultures, it’s labeled “far right”? It’s getting damn tiresome. It’s not labeled far right when Amerindians do it. It’s not far right when (India’s) Indians did it way back when, with Gandhi about. Etc.

        So much of politics nowadays is about intimidation from both sides of the spectrum, that the distinction has become meaningless.

        I am against the bullies, left and right.

          • Interesting issue, which I think needs a post of its own some time for me to address. But I’m with Ruben. There’s a fine line between localism and nativism, and it’s not one I’ll cross. But I agree that mainstream politics isn’t addressing the underlying issues well in this as in most other areas.

          • Would be good to hear your thoughts. I recently read something that denounced nationalism and even regionalism, while praising localism. Huh? My impression was that as long as you say the right condemnation slogans, you are allowed to have a bit of localism. But not too much. 🙁

  6. So I’ve been reflecting on what modernity is. A large topic, obviously.

    What stands out for me is this: modernity trashes tradition. And tradition is the result of cultural evolution. Modernity replaces it with “creative destruction” while often it is just destruction. Instead of letting things evolve, they crack down, ridicule, intimidate, take over with rational constructs that sometimes pan out, but often they don’t, or have bad long term consequences.

    So we’ve ended up with a cultural clash where people defend tradition just because it’s traditional, and people who insist on throwing it in the dust bin. Appalling.

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