We of Modernity

We of Modernity are different from people of Christendom, and from people of all previous societies. We have a far less spooky, less enchanted world. The gods and demons are more distant worries. We are less rooted at a piece of land among the family dead and local gods. Urban life, the anonymous urban crowd, is available and normal. We enjoy our urban detachment from fertile ground, replaced by attachment to a market system. In modernity mobility may be the reigning narrative. Class consciousness is less oppressive and less definitive (another aspect of mobility), leaving us less rooted within social hierarchies. Although we still live within a nexus of social supervision, we have less fear of, less trust in, and less emotional reliance on authorities of all kinds. These mobilities have realized a certain kind of freedom at the price of greater dependence on markets (money) and impersonal institutions. Our individuality looms much larger in our personal experience and we are more often adrift from collective narratives, more often in doubt, feeling the absence of certainty in institutional patterns of meaning.

Since modernity is the cultural sea in which we all swim, there are challenges to finding a critical perspective on it and on our individual relationship to it. Modernity originated in the same region which was for so long a poor backwater on a remote and isolated peninsula of the world, Europe. Modernity is the organization style of those societies which developed after the popular abandonment of European Christendom. Modernity is not elemental in any way, any more than Christendom was, and so there is no essence of modernity, even though a central principle might be identified as the middle class idea of meritocracy, inseparable from mobility. No ultimate divine mind or plan is depicted in the shape of history. History is not sacred or monumental as a whole because it is a haphazard collection of more or less randomly organized experiments by ordinary fallible and desperate human persons, each exercising some creative freedom from their interior non-actuality, in projections into nature and culture. Modernity is a partly random co-existence of conditions and cultural bearings.

The fact that the modern west now dominates the planet as a whole, for better or worse, raises questions about the origins of its peculiar power. The standard answer is that science placed unlimited power into the hands of western industries and militaristic nation states. Historians of science and of the material mechanisms of economic and social change point to the magnetic compass, the printing press and paper, guns and gunpowder as revolutionary forces for change in the old world. However, the west owes all those mechanisms and many more to the Mongol world system (largely based in China), often through Italian traders crossing the Black Sea to meet their Mongol equivalents, and so there is the question of why it was the west rather than the senior cultures of the east which transfigured into this brave new world. A case can be made for the decisive influence of Hellenistic humanism with its focus on individual intelligence, and the way that played out in struggles over thinking within the culture of Christendom.

Modernity and Class Conflict

It is not possible to understand modernity without some consciousness of social class plate tectonics. The beginning of social class structure was the launching of violent appropriation operations by extended family units with a cultural system typical of crime families. Class conflict is, therefore, along with the conflict of gender cultures, central to the political situation of people in all societies. Machiavelli and Nietzsche, for example, were both very clearly conscious of the identity between crime families and ‘sovereign’ power. Both Machiavelli and Nietzsche, along with pretty much everyone, accepted a claim to legitimacy by the crime family class founded on its sponsorship of art, music, and large-scale architecture, generally called high culture or even just culture. The concentration of wealth and capital accomplished by crime family looting and exploitation of others enabled (still does) construction of large scale cultural monuments to beauty, eternity, to the thrill of power, and to the power-class which commands the construction. It is generally accepted that an essence of some mysterious elevating force called civilization springs from those monuments. However, accepting the legitimizing force of such things requires a narrowly selective editing of historical knowledge and requires discounting awareness of living through the work that accomplishes the actuality of culture. Nietzsche recognized class friction as a consequence of crime families and their exploitative ethos of control and inequality, but he admired the will to power, the will to be superman, that has always been characteristic of crime families. Nietzsche is, therefore, a model of the politically right-wing even without being interested in the spooks the Nazis emphasized, such as racial blood and the metaphysical bond between a folk-nation and the soil that nurtures it. Nietzsche was influenced by Max Stirner (1806-56) in asserting that any individual should, as much as possible in personal circumstances, embrace an outlook very close to the crime-family ethos as described in Machiavelli’s The Prince. However, Nietzsche did not believe everyone is capable of being superman. He believed rather that only special persons are capable of that.

To be continued.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.