Saturday, December 19, 2009

On modernization and its discontents

In one of my early posts engaging with Josipovici's On Trust, I opened with this passage, which actually is from his equally excellent study, The Book of God:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
I'm interested here in this question of point of view. Because not only is it their own point of view, Luther's and Spinoza's, it is in fact our point of view. We have adopted wholesale this point of view; it would have been difficult for us not to have. Not only do we experience capitalism as natural—it's the air we breathe—but we experience progress as natural, technological progress in particular. We simply expect it to happen, as if it were causeless (though we may chalk it up unthinkingly to "innovation" or "human ingenuity", each only made possible by that natural market).

I find, in my intermittent attempts to take on Marx, that I am vastly more interested in his analysis of capital than I am his theories of history. The teleological view that history has certain necessary stages strikes me as deeply problematic, though not uniquely so. Marx and his successors were working within a widely shared set of beliefs, a set of beliefs that took such progress as both necessary and good. They have done great work to unpack the complicated workings of capital so that it can be seen to be historically contingent, but I'm less persuaded by the historical project itself.

But why am I talking about Marx here? I'm not sure I have, just yet, a satisfactory answer. I look on the history of modernization with unease and from a historically privileged standpoint. I want to ask questions about the overall justification of that modernization. We hold onto its inevitability and necessity as a matters of faith. We are conditioned to tacitly accept, if we don't always come right out and say it explicitly, Marx's characterization of the "idiocy of rural life". Modernization is seen as necessary in order for freedom to truly exist, in order, indeed, for us to be in a sense truly human.

And yet, I am not automatically given to anti-modernism. I wouldn't know what to do with myself in a rural, unlinked environment. I love big cities, I like basic dentistry, I like refrigerators, ice cubes, regular electricity, running water, rock music and jazz, movies, the telephone, email, etc and so on and on. I have a hard time conceiving of myself living in a different time, so used to the amenities of modern life am I. But with the real possibility of drastic climatic change as a result of global warming, such modern life may not be sustainable for long. And that's not the only reason to question the very lives we lead—that is, questions arise in the area of viability, yes, but also justification, moral and otherwise. Our lives, as we live them, are only possible as a function of massive global inequality and widespread privation, both of which appear to be necessary outputs of the capitalist system. We cannot all be modernized, even without the spectre of global warming. And, of course, now, as ever, there are those resisting attempts at modernization, just as their counterparts resist, as they always have, the wholesale theft necessary to keep the system running. Marx called this process "primitive accumulation"—the capital accumulation that was necessary for a capitalist system to get going in the first place. Capitalists needed to have stolen a whole bunch of shit in order to amass piles big enough to get the ball rolling. It was Rosa Luxembourg, I believe, who observed that this process must be ongoing—capital must continue to look "outside" itself to get what it needs—and feminist critics of Marx, for example Silvia Federici (I've just read her excellent Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, which has much bearing on these matters), have observed further that this process of accumulation amounts to a war against women.

This is not the first time I've touched on these topics, but I hope it will be the beginning of a more extended and fruitful exploration of the problems.


J.R. Boyd said...

That's a great point about women. That's exactly why I think we have to go to them and listen.

Richard said...

Thanks, J.R.; I agree with you, of course.

By the way, I've updated the post to reflect, in the last paragraph, that this is not the first time I've touched on these issues, etc.

Unknown said...

When it comes to nineteenth century theorizing about modernity vs. natural nature life, I'll take Thomas Paine over Marx any day:

"To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

"Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.

"The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich.

"Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state."

Richard said...

Thank you, Aaron. That's great.