I Modern, Modernism, and Modernity.

The purpose of this essay is to argue that amongst critics of what is called ‘modern society’ or ‘modernity’ only the ecology movement even claims to be able to offer a genuine alternative practice, rather than merely condemning what are really projects in the vein of ‘modernism’ or ‘modernisation’, but not to be identified with practices which characterise modernity itself. Yet even the ecology movement is to be found relying upon the resources of science and technology which modernity affords. Although an increasingly mainstream agenda of ‘green technologies’ like renewable energy and sustainable agriculture might be expected to develop modernity’s powers in a somewhat different direction from the familiar pattern of industrial civilisation, rivalry between growing economic powers in Asia, especially China, and Europe or the United States in development of such technologies follows that familar pattern only too precisely.

The argument here begins by drawing a distinction between (a) ‘modernity’ as a cultural condition with certain common features, raising varied issues (some of them ethical) which have never been resolved, and (b) a range of projects of ‘modernisation’, or ‘modernism’; sometimes associated with the legacy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The importance of this distinction is that criticism, not only of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century itself but also recently in respect of modernity, assumes it to be at least an effect of modernist or modernising projects even if these categories are not being actually confused. That applies especially when apparent failures of modernism in areas such as education or architecture are taken to be an opportunity to rectify the defects of modernity, just because such failures expose as empty a modernist claim that growth and development of modernity is to be looked upon as ‘progress’ – in the sense of improvement in, and raising to a higher level, the condition of mankind. Yet the very fact that post-modernism is not generally called ‘post-modernity’ reveals an implicit recognition of the distinction between modernism and modernity. This essay will focus upon the recent work of O’Hear (After Progress, 1999) as being the most comprehensive example of a criticism, which can be valid in the limited sense of exposing vacuity in ‘progressive’ claims but which misunderstands the depth and scope of the phenomena involved.

In classical sociology since Durkheim and Weber the concept of ‘modern’, which may be taken to describe the fundamental features of modernity, has been identified as incorporating certain recognisable features regardless of whether or not these were to be considered desirable. These could include large-scale organisation, international (or intercontinental) trading networks, a decline in religious and other forms of mythical thought, an economy where machinery is employed on a large scale sometimes replacing rather than merely accompanying human labour, sophisticated and far-reaching forms of technology, including communications, and fragmentation of values leading to the insecurity or rootlessness which Durkheim termed anomie. It should be noticed that, except for the last, each of these features specifically involves a form of practice. In the thinking of Weber even decline of religious thought would mean a practice in the sense that effort to achieve particular goals and aspirations was being transferred from observation of ritual and precepts with a supernatural origin to application of ways of thinking characterised by Weber as ‘rational’. Now, Weber himself became aware during his visit to the United States of a different kind of religious practice involving decentralised competition between churches for congregations as well as the distinctive forms of Christian worship emerging from the former black slave communities.1 Aided by these practices, themselves quite typical of modernity, American Christianity has prospered apparently against the gloomy prognostications of social theorists about modernity. But American religion has achieved its success by copying modern practices, including techniques of salesmanship which sit uneasily alongside the precepts of Christian teaching. It is true that many American Christians (and Muslims) reject modern ideas, not least as regards family life and values, but that is a special case of the way modernity can persist irrespective of belief in any modernist project. It is also worth noting that modern scientific and organisational thinking in secular forms is really based upon empiricism rather than rationalism in an older philosophical sense.2 Decentralised religion does not necessarily mean fragmentation of values, but it lends itself to a plurality of religious forms and theologies which may then impact on values. In a different way the weakening of church establishments has a similar effect. Both assist the absorption of religion, together with its attendant moral teachings and arguments, into political democracy.

Since the later nineteenth and early twentieth century there has been a major change in the perception of ‘modern’ society and its organisation. That is not so much in terms of atomisation and fragmentation of traditional attachments found in smaller communities – for such was a phenomenon already recognised by Durkheim – as in terms of spread of personal choice and associated uncertainty into areas previously expected to be effectively controlled by large organisations of state or private capital, together with officials employed in their bureaucracies. Closely connected with this is a transition from the expectation during the 1930s to the 1960s that modern society would be collectivised according to new organisations of state, party, corporation, and their associated ideologies, which seemed to have replaced older structures of family, guild, and even class, and would pursue ‘rational’ principles, if only in the narrow organisational sense made famous by Weber and Taylor early in the twentieth century. That series of world-historical developments beginning with the destruction of fascism during the Second World War, continuing with moral and social upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s, and then the collapse of international Communism during 1989-91, appears to have eliminated the prospect of a collectivism based upon an undifferentiated populace and with any realistic claim to be more efficient than democracy.

It might be objected that a more individualistic version of the definition of both ‘modern’ and ‘modernism’ presumes that conditions in Europe and North America since the seventeenth century are somehow inevitable or universal. But the very fact that a collectivist and organisational interpretation was formerly prevalent within the same parts of the world warns us that the experiences which modernity produces, or indeed attitudes and ambitions which we characterise as ‘modern’, are complex and subject to changing cultural associations. An emphasis on individual choice and on human as a consumer certainly need not mean that what we think of as Western experience means progress towards a better and fuller human existence or that the Occident is somehow taking the rest of the world on a journey to that end. The distinction between modernism and modernity allows a clear distinction between any claim that modernity represents a better or ‘more advanced’ state for humankind, and the condition of modernity itself. It is true as a matter of historical fact that most features of modernity originated in Europe, save for ones still older such as the modern number system which was first imported into Europe from Arab culture, or technologies first developed elsewhere, as in China, but not subsequently pursued there to their later, and most potent, stages. But it is possible to consider such phenomena as disintegration (not necessarily disappearance) of religious culture; squeezing of families and small communities with their ‘organic’ ties alongside larger, more impersonal, and bureaucratic systems; growth of personal choice in matters ranging from marriage and relationships to diet; or growth of urban and suburban environments, as symptoms of a dangerous and degenerative disease. From that viewpoint the definitions could just as well support an argument that modernity is progressive and progressing only in the sense of being something which has first destroyed European culture and is now on the way towards destroying all other cultures as well. That view was integral to what O’Hear (1999) has described as the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ represented by Burke and de Maistre and, to a lesser degree, Herder. Those writers at once formed part of an argument within European culture before that culture arrived at its period of greatest influence elsewhere, and most certainly did not regard its modern features as beneficial to humankind as a whole. In the view which Gray (1995) and O’Hear (1999) have come close to advancing, modernity is indeed of European origin and universal, but it is also a pernicious development harmful to the rest of the world. Where such critics, even from their own viewpoint, make a dubious presumption is that they take it for granted that those who have supported modernist projects over the past three centuries are to blame for encouraging and promoting the modernity disease.

However, no amount of argument about the benefits (or costs) associated with modernity, or ‘post-modern’ uncertainty, reverses the point that considering modernity involves dealing with forms of practice, and not merely with an ideology or dogma. Indeed, the very fact that some thinkers can and do take a highly negative attitude to modernity and its development illustrates the point that modernity needs no ideology of modernism or modernisation, and its future prospects do not depend upon there being such an ideology, let alone that being the prevailing orthodoxy in intellectual, political, business, or other circles. The practices of modernity may turn out not to be ones associated with a collectivist doctrine, or even any rigidly predictable kinds of organisation, but fading of expectations for the future typical of the mid-twentieth century itself reflects the primacy of practice over thought and culture (in the manner of a Marxist sociology without Marxist political doctrine) in defining a contemporary society which is still typically conceived of as ‘modern’. Moreover, definitions offered for ‘post-modernism’ include features normally recognised, not least by modernity’s various critics, as characteristic of modernity – such as denial of certain truths (sometimes even in science). Representative democracy and a large market economy in fact still incorporates collective action and decision-making, the difference being that the collective aspect is kept more in the background where ideas are concerned – that is, the collectivism is chiefly on the organisational and instrumental level, save for special cases such as esprit de corps in the armed forces and popular patriotism or local loyalties. Recent emphasis on consumer choice has actually been enhanced by the recurrent social and economic problems seen with such features as failing housing estates, high mobility and family breakdown or drug abuse, even when accompanied by social welfare provision (or, as supporters of neo-conservative thinking would say, especially when so accompanied). But the expansion of choice and uncertainty actually emphasise these social problems now associated with modernity and, of course, they emphasise the fragmentation of culture long seen by thinkers such as Durkheim or MacIntyre (1981) as characteristically modern. Accordingly, the past generation appears to have witnessed an evolution in which individualist aspects of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ have become more prominent, both in popular and intellectual perception, rather than the replacement of modernity by any more profoundly different form of practice. Moreover it is very possible that growth of security organisation to combat both terrorism and domestic crime will reverse the individualising trend to some degree.

On such grounds it is reasonable to conclude that modernity is still very much present, indeed, more potent than ever, whatever the fate of any projects for modernisation, or however those may have been defined and understood. Such a conclusion would mean that the importance of the argument about ‘progress’ is confined to intellectual history, since the spread and continued presence of modernity does not depend on whether it is thought to be better, worse, or merely different, compared with practices of pre-modern cultures. As mentioned earlier, the notion of a project of modernism or modernisation has commonly been traced back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and, to a much lesser degree, seventeenth century liberalism or republicanism. This in itself displays the distinction from practices linked to modernity, some of which (especially the centralised state, money economy, or fragmentation of religious culture) can be traced farther back in time than any efforts on behalf of so-called progressive reform or revolution. Some elements of modernity had already emerged in the Middle Ages – for instance, Strayer (1961:80f) explains that in twelfth century Europe what is known as ‘feudalism’ changed markedly in character with a decline of personal service relations between lord and vassals as in many cases money payments came to replace them. That in itself favoured political centralisation into larger units with a growth in the power of rulers of provinces and kingdoms vis-a-vis local lords. Running alongside that change were other features of an incipient modern economy and society, including growth of towns, together with early banking and a money economy. Medieval developments in ideas also pointed the way towards modern themes as the revival of familiarity with classical thought (sometimes through the intermediary of Arabic civilisation that reached its peak at that time) stimulated rational and analytical thought, not least leading to the efforts of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) to reconcile faith with rationality and Aristotelianism – efforts which became central to Catholic orthodoxy but also important in the subsequent history of philosophy. Merely to note these points is to remind ourselves that so much of what we understand by ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’ has an ancestry going back centuries before any project of modernisation was conceived. From that perspective it should be no surprise to find elements of modernity remorselessly continuing and expanding at the beginning of the twenty-first century without reference to modernist cultural projects deriving from the Enlightenment tradition, theories of modernisation in regard to ‘developing’ societies current during the middle of the twentieth century, or indeed any subsequent loss of confidence in modernism. Any understanding of the condition of modernity and modern culture will be limited without reaffirming the old recognition in nineteenth century political economy that ‘modern’ represents a dynamic and expanding form, and not only of economy but society generally. Again, it needs to be understood that terms like ‘dynamic’ and ‘expanding’ imply only that modern phenomena grow and spread in response to those factors which encourage that growth and spread (their dynamics in systems language), and not that such phenomena are in any sense better (presumably according to some objective standard) than any others which they may have replaced. No such value judgement is needed for the argument here.

Such phenomena as international institutions running alongside charities which work on the basis of a universal, not particular, conception of human rights; an ever more interdependent global economic and financial system, fluidity and choice in standards ranging from sexual ethics to artistic endeavour, uncertainty emerging as a principle even for logical and scientific thought, and more informal styles of religious worship (at least in Christianity), can be seen as developing from a long historical background behind the features of what we customarily call ‘modern’. But the presence of any of these is quite distinct from the classic modernist project as such, which may be interpreted as having two interlocking parts. Both of these parts seem to lead to encouraging adoption of modern practices, but they may or may not in fact do so effectively. First, there is the aim of developing and using of sophisticated technologies which would tackle the age-old blights on the human condition of hunger and disease, and second, assessment of social and political organisation and, indeed, values, by standards of rationality which would be meant to serve human needs in the here and now. Any remaining element of the transcendent, such as might be found in Kant’s philosophy, would emerge through reason (or rationality) itself, not through revelation. However, within Enlightenment thought itself there was a different strand most apparent in the Scottish Enlightenment through the thought of David Hume and the political economists Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. By pointing toward empirical sociology and by drawing attention both to analytical deconstruction of values and ideas and to the expansion of a global economic system which, even if it did not proclaim rationalist standards could be examined and categorised rationally, this second strand could, and indeed has, produce a basis for criticism of modernist projects including attempts, for example, to ‘modernise’ developing countries by encouraging them to imitate practice within the ‘developed’ world of Europe, North America, and latterly east Asia and to structure their economies and societies on similar lines thereto.3 The recent arguments around military intervention perhaps with ‘humanitarian’ objectives, as in Afghanistan, have given that kind of criticism a new twist.

Both this kind of criticism of ‘modernisation’ and the idea of Gray (1995) and others that it should be possible for cultures distinct from those of the West to adapt modern economic practices for their own cultural settings are rather ambiguous about how far any project of modernisation or modernising is in fact necessary or even important for the spread or persistence of modernity and its practices. In each there is the idea that, somehow, all cultures can (and should) have the option of selecting out the best features of modernity from the point of view of their own prosperity and survival while being able to leave others aside. It is not always clear exactly what selection is being proposed, but large organisation, both commercial and governmental, is commonly seen as inimical to expressing the needs of people (especially but not exclusively the poor) because of its concentration of power in alien hands. Sometimes scientific thinking is criticised as fostering that undesirable phenomenon.

II The futility of opposition to modernity.

However, a further clue to the independence of modernity from any modernist or modernising projects may be gleaned from the way critics of such projects can find themselves acting like the fly which struggles to escape a spider’s web only to tighten its own bonds. Such a fate might be suffered by critics like O’Hear (1999), who sees modernity as denying a vision of mankind provided by religious conceptions in particular (and who therefore might be described as being more ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’) as well as by the pluralist strands previously referred to. The characteristic aspirations and aims represented by the critics turn out to require modern practice for their achievement, and so they can be found to encourage the spread of modernity or modern practice regardless of any modernist project. In the case of arguments for the possibility of selecting out some aspects of modernity considered desirable, like more productive technologies, the accompanying supposition that other, less edifying, aspects of modernity can then be left aside depends upon the assumption that modernity does not represent an integrated structure of practices – and associated patterns of thought – which depend upon one another. It is necessary only to consider the case of technologies applying the results of scientific thought and investigation to see that it may not be possible to partition modernity in such ways.

In the case of O’Hear (1999: 139f) criticism of modernity, and some apparently connected features like democracy, displays anxiety to avoid the Hobbesian model of an individualistic striving for resources. That is, the ‘war of all against all’ which many political scientists have seen as typical of democratic societies and in which, as O’Hear says, no one is seeking anything ‘more elevated than an increased share of the national cake’. In some cases, such as religious groups, something more ‘elevated’ may also be pursued. Yet without broad agreement on values within a community which O’Hear, like so many before him, sees as characteristic of such pre-modern societies as medieval Europe, any spiritual vision can be pursued only by similar methods to those used for promoting the more profane aims of other groups and individuals, such as television media, educational courses like the Alpha course, or lobbying of public authorities. The only supplement in case of a religious group would be if its own members can pursue and attain their spiritual aims by their own efforts without participation from others in society. That applies regardless of the fact that each major religion clearly represents a tradition which is pre-modern in its origins and can be expected to approve of modern developments only in so far as its tradition and values are being respected. Yet with regard to Christianity in particular O’Hear (1999: 158-9) himself points to its contribution to modernity (and modernism) in a manner somewhat similar to the argument of Roberts (1985) in The Triumph of the West. O’Hear says that ‘Christianity teaches…that human reason is given to us by God to understand His truth and that the natural world is God’s handiwork. Both philosophy and science, then, are part of the vocation of the true believer and encouraged by his faith….’. He adds that ‘Christianity, along with Socratism, also produced [the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment], just as it produced the characteristic morality of the Enlightenment.’ Thus, O’Hear is fully in support of the view that ideas typical of modernism like the equality of man and universalism are derived from Christian sources, whilst Roberts had also emphasised the legacy of classical Greek as well as Christian thought for stimulating faith in human reason. Bearing in mind the massive contribution made by Islamic culture in the early medieval period to development of European civilisation in fields such as mathematics, philosophy and commerce, at least some parts of such an argument can be applied to Islam as well as to Christianity.

If such historical arguments are sound we need not expect that increasing the part played by, for example, religious societies in everyday life by such means as faith schools and involvement of faith groups in welfare provision will impede practices which we understand as modern. But if we are concerned about the chaotic and fragmented nature of modern culture, or about a Hobbesian scramble for limited resources, then we may find that religious societies can form part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The fate which threatens the Middle East region in particular is one which Hobbes himself hardly encompassed (although it was happening in his own time) – that is, war between religious communities. From the time of Hegel onward efforts to secure a solid community of values capable of pursuing spiritual and intellectual goals without monetary and other resource constraints have been liable to fall into the trap of accepting a continual state of war between the communities. Indeed the external conflicts appear to play a positive role in terms of maintaining spritual community in the sense that communal identities may be more clearly recognised both by their own members and by others thanks to the conflict between them. But if communal patriotisms, including in the cases where ethnic or cultural identity and religion are intertwined, are not contained within a peaceful setting they have also a very different effect even when conflict takes the limited form of intermittent violence accompanied by heavy expenditure on security preparations rather than of outright warfare. There has long been a direct connection between war and unlimited expansion of modernity simply because of the destructive power unleashed by war, especially with modern weaponry. Once a war between cultures ceases to be purely a metaphorical war of ideas and moves to actual violence the danger in terms of communal traditions themselves becomes that of general destruction amongst all with modernity as the only reconstruction left at the end. To a lesser degree the point still applies with limited and intermittent conflicts which may indeed enhance recognition of communal identities but also extends their submergence into modernity through expanded use of security technology and, indeed, large scale security organisation. For that very reason anyone hoping to pursue more ‘elevated’ aims than simple self-interest, but aims which will require large expenditure of resources by others apart from those already committed to these aims cannot shirk the task of persuading those others both to accept the elevated aims themselves and to trust the believer(s) that he, she, or they are sincere in their commitment and not merely using the (say) spiritual aims as a diversion to conceal profane purposes which might not be found so inspiring. (In contemporary societies fear of that sort of deception can be so pervasive that a declaration of profane objectives appears the more trustworthy). Accordingly, although O’Hear and many others may wish that contemporary societies – most of them now democracies – would be willing to devote resources to values like those which inspired the builders of cathedrals and temples, for that to become reality they must take on the task characteristic of modernity (not modernism, which typically assumes the task unnecessary) of persuading others to agree and avoid the danger faced by religious publicists around the world of appearing as just another promoter who may be none too honest in advertising a product.

It is also noteworthy that O’Hear displays the uneasy relationship with Christianity shown by some of modernity’s critics – a relationship which in more extreme cases from Nietzsche to Casey (1992) can develop into hostility based upon a militant paganism. But he thereby opens the door to a dialectical understanding of modernity (if not modernism) as being itself a product of the very ideas, beliefs and practices it would deny, as if on an updated Hegelian model. Where Christianity itself is concerned, such a model might characterise the doctrine of God’s gift of reason to all people as the thesis, the mystery of faith as the antithesis, and secular rationalism as the synthesis in ‘modern’ history. Such a model might even accommodate the American scene and newer styles of worship if ‘rationalism’ were interpreted in the limited organisational and instrumental sense.4 For many reasons ranging from desire to preserve piety to respect for non-European cultures O’Hear might not wish to develop such a model, but it can be useful to bear the possibility in mind as a way of making sense of that complex reality which a concept of modernity has to encapsulate. The more so since there are other reasons in addition for suggesting that religions, and especially Christianity, have played, and continue to play, a part in accelerating the growth of modernity, including through links with other secular values also (rightly) seen as threatened by modernity but yet which also contribute to its development and expansion. It is quite natural that a characteristically Christian idea of service and sacrifice, and even acceptance of suffering, should attach to the claims of patriotism and/or nationalism. Loyalty to local community or family had always been an obvious way to practise an ethic of service and to make sacrifices, at least apparently on behalf of others. Christian ideas of humility seem to clash with the aspect of pride in communal achievements and heritage which these values also carry, and such thinkers as Machiavelli and Rousseau have argued that Christian ideals do not fit well with the patriotic and republican ideals they admired. However, the connection to modernity can be cast more widely since any form of patriotic and communal effort, from small family and tribal groups to city and regional communities to extensive nation states, can be expected to have a similar role in modernity’s expansion. Not least in the global economy of today where the influence and standing of communities and nations depends so heavily on their ability to draw investment for anything from community prestige projects like staging the Olympic Games to reliable long-term employment prospects, which naturally means maintaining a stake in the future economy. At the same time, the ancient part played by war in stimulating both capital investment and technological invention through development of weapons and military provision remains potent in the twenty-first century, alongside communal loyalties and identities and then personal sacrifices which are (as Hegel observed) seen most clearly in war. Whether this presence emerges in purely secular form or in some connection with religion – for instance in a claim that a specific war is justified in religious terms as with resistance to international Communism, or the quite different case of blurring of political and religious conflicts in the Middle East – the practical impact of war in disrupting existing social structures (sometimes to the point of leading to revolutions), bringing forth or adoption of new technologies, and stimulating capital investment both to prepare for and fight a war and then for subsequent reconstruction, applies in any case. The case of war, but also of economic competition, shows that a dialectical relationship with modernity can be seen also in respect of those ‘pagan’ values sometimes held out as a contrast to Christianity. In all these varied ways the spider of modernity may feast on traditionalist and localist flies.

In turn, catastrophic events like wars or natural disasters draw attention to another dimension of the complex involvement of religion in general (not only Christianity) with modernity, i.e., practice of charity. The virtue of charity itself has contributed to developing the idea that even if misfortune is inevitable we have an obligation to help its victims in the most effective ways we can. But late Victorian disenchantment with attempts to tackle social deprivation solely by private charity was followed in the later twentieth century by disenchantment with social welfare under state auspices; alike as a means to removing unemployment and poverty themselves and as a way to enable the poor and deprived to begin playing their full part in society as active citizens. But loss of confidence in each never meant abandonment of what might be termed a modernist project for tackling misfortune by means of social – if not state – organisation with ‘rational’ objectives. Leaving aside the question of whether the appeal of charity as such has anything to do with rationality, such a project will allow a simple return to a pre-modernity approach of understanding the aiding of unfortunates in terms of simple religious or personal duty. For example, in present day Palestine (i.e., within a Muslim context where the Christian division between sacred and secular had never been developed in the same way) Hamas has become in part a charitable organisation providing educational and welfare support within Palestinian communities. Such a development means that sheer exigencies of counter-terrorist strategy or peace making in the Middle East region can be expected to demand either that Hamas be persuaded to renounce its methods of violent action if there be no alternative available for its charitable activities, or else that an effective alternative for those activities be found and put in place as rapidly as possible. That is because of the many people found to turn to Hamas, not necessarily out of commitment to its political objectives vis-a-vis the state of Israel or approval of its methods of political action, but because no one else seems able or willing to help them with their personal problems. In this case we may find charity, and religious organisation of charity, playing precisely the opposite role in politics from that of pacifying popular discontents which Marxists, amongst others, assumed.

But, ironically, it is precisely those who distrust modernist ideas of utility, such as the notion that provided charity fund-raising events are successful for the account book we need not concern ourselves with the motives of those taking part, who would be most anxious to invoke the aspect of charity as a personal virtue, finding those with ulterior motives wanting from the charitable point of view. That may require some system of social regulation to prevent undesirable characters from becoming involved in charitable work. In any case, the opportunities which modernity offers in profusion for ulterior motivation in chartiable activity cannot be denied simply by rejecting a utilitarian approach to the ethical problem itself.

III Ecology and alternative practice.

The point may not be clear in most contemporary discussion and argument about modernity in relation to ecology, but the ecology movement as it has developed over the past half century incorporates a hidden claim to offer an escape from the spider’s web. Unlike more traditional critics of modernity, ecologists attempt to promote an alternative practice to modernity as well as criticising the claim that modernity is beneficial (just because they seek to turn modernity, especially technology, in a different direction in order to make it beneficial). O’Hear and even more radical pluralists certainly oppose any claim that modernity is necessarily beneficial, and therefore oppose classical modernist thought, but do not offer an alternative form of practice or to remove the demand for resources that modernity affords. Theorists of the ecology movement like Goldsmith and Chaitanya appear in a different light, in the first place because, even while demanding local action, they reject modernity in its present form on the universal ground that it is not sustainable, i.e., it consumes (material) resources at a rate beyond anything the world can provide. The associated idea that survival should take precedence over (economic) growth leads, in itself, to rejection not only of any modernist utopias but also to rejection of any particularist claims or identities if their assertion makes growth in consumption of resources a necessity. That is why ecologism typically leaves religious or pagan ideas in the background even when the practices of tribal communities which are seen as sustainable are endorsed.

The peculiarities of the ecological movement as it has developed since Murray Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment (1962)6 and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) are displayed in the way ecologism generates a critique of both modernism and modernity itself, and certainly rejects the notion that modernity automatically means ‘progress’ to a better life for humanity, and yet accepts in its own way some features of modernism, such as a plea for more ‘rational’ organisation of society and economy and, indeed, adopting a universal viewpoint expressly intended to be applicable to the whole world and every human being. The ecology movement from Bookchin onward has pleaded for decentralised organisation as well as recognising that specific ecological problems will be local, and the best methods of environmental management will vary according to local circumstances. But the fundamental principles of sustainability and incorporating environmental costs into economic assessment are intended to apply universally. What is emphatically not included in that is any claim that modernity (and the European backgound still less) represents progress in the sense of improvement and advance upon the past. That is well illustrated by the respect environmental campaigners accord to ancient tribal cultures which have succeeded in managing their environments in a sustainable fashion.

At the same time, the ecological standpoint is to be distinguished sharply from ‘post-modernism’. In so far as post-modernism is understood in terms of fluidity, indefinability and multiplicity of groups or signs, it can be seen as characteristic of modern society and modern trends in art, maintained and reinforced by the global economy with its plethora of competing signs and attractions. All these features are suspect in terms of the arguments put by the ecological movement about scarce resources, although they can be interpreted as parts of an ‘ecology’ of modern society. Jarvis (1998: 334) suggests that architecture is the one area where the term ‘post-modern’ has acquired a reasonably clear-cut meaning. But architecture is also unusual in being a case where modernist (or modernising) projects, at least as conceived after the 1920s, were not only felt to have failed on their own terms of providing a beneficial environment for ordinary people but also where opponents of modernist projects, including such developments as tower blocks and open plan estates, could claim to have had a definitive and practicable alternative to offer. Otherwise, ‘post-modernism’ has appeared rather as a group of critiques of modernism and modernity, but not as setting an alternative practice on the lines of ecologism.

On the level of ideas the ecology movement transforms an element once common in utopias or revolutionary theories, even those associated in their time with modernist projects. The promise of (future) peace and tranquillity to be reached with some final conclusion to a revolutionary process reappears in a harsher guise. (The Sorelian idea of continual revolution had always been very much an exceptional case.)7 The ecologist concept of sustainability is not presented as the mark of some kind of ultimate utopia but as necessary for survival in the future. In one sense the promise of a peaceful, settled conclusion to the turmoil of modernity was always a response to the experience of modernity’s restlessness and rootlessness. The distinctive feature of the ecology movement is to insist that existing communities need to adopt practices such as recognition of costs to the environment in calculation of national income which would be more compatible with a stable world and so offer a more peaceful and stable way of life. Accordingly, sustainability carries on a theme found in past modernist ideas but, precisely by turning this from a promise of a better world for mankind into a prescription for future survival, it jettisons the idea of progress.

The difficulties begin with the task of reconciling such universal prescription for sustainable living with that emphasis on local community activity and decentralised production which is very characteristic of the ecology movement. That thread in the ecology movement carries much in common with other critics of modernity, although there is perhaps more recognition of interconnections between the practices of modernity themselves. However, just because ecologism demands universal sustainability it must restrict local activity, perhaps through preparation of local resource budgets. In particular, assertion of local or particular identities and ‘roots’ which might demand a higher expenditure of resources required to make such assertions effective against any rival identities would have to be treated as suspect. If it is more accurate to see ecologism as both a new kind of universalism and as a shift in the pattern of technology rather than abandonment of science and its applications, then it might need to be seen as an acceptance of modernity which merely attempts to adapt it sufficiently for humans to survive with it and promises nothing more. In that case exponents of the ecology movement would not even be trying to escape the spider’s web.

The case of the ecology movement would seem to reinforce the conclusion that rejecting modernist thought and projects, as has been done intermittently from the time of the Enlightenment’s critics in the eighteenth century to the present does nothing to challenge modernity at all. At the most there is a prospect that modernity might be modified in certain directions to make it less obviously dangerous for everyday life. Even that proposal now appears confused, especially with regard to energy and climate change.8 However, that shows up another facet of the distinction between modernism and modernity. A basic characteristic of modernism and projects for modernisation has been the aim of minimising risk. It was always part of the definition of ‘progress’ as improvement in human affairs that powers (especially technology) at the disposal of an ‘advanced’ society be used to minimise risk in everyday life from such hazards as disease and hunger. Indeed, other goals of a progressive agenda including expansion of popular education were linked to reducing risk, and to making life and society more predictable and controllable through use of the knowledge and predictive power which science affords. It is part of O’Hear’s opposition to such a risk minimising agenda that he in effect pleads for us to accept that, as Jervis (1998: 311) puts it, ‘our world is experienced as a world of risk’. O’Hear’s attitude achoes that of de Maistre (1965: 260) who said that ‘…if man could live in this world free from every kind of misfortune, he would end by degenerating to the point of forgetting completely all spiritual matters and God himself.’

But the whole ecologist case depends upon an observation that there is no reason to suppose that the condition of modernity, once again distinguished from a modernist agenda, is in fact especially free of risks and misfortunes or even necessarily safer than pre-modern conditions. Some ecological arguments, of course, hold to the contrary that modernity carries risk on a scale unprecedented in the past, with a real danger that much of life on this planet might be exterminated. (That is precisely one part of the uncertainty within the ecological movement itself, which might be taken as an example of the uncertainties of forecasting.) But quite apart from any ecological argument it is apparent that some familiar features of modern life, such as wider opportunities for travel or use of drugs and chemicals to expand food production and protect against disease, carry risks of their own, while modern regulation has not been able to prevent people from courting risk in their own life-styles through, for instance, their sexual activity or drug use. (So much so, indeed, that the assumption of a continuing extension in life expectancy is now seriously questioned). A sheer inability to eliminate risk, together with realisation that risk minimisation remains, in part, an individual personal responsibility which some may deliberately ignore, has itself helped to discredit modernism and its associated notions of progress. It also helps to explain why the expectation in classical sociology that people in the mass would retain confidence in the direction of experts because of their expertise has proved unfounded.

Yet once again the condition of modernity, and indeed its dangers, continues without reference to the reputation of modernisms. Jervis puts it that ‘…the incalculable and unaccountable consequences of our actions both stimulate the imperative to greater order and control, yet also, subtly, subvert it…’ In fact, as the nineteenth century Positivists anticipated, democracy (which O’Hear accepts with reluctance) proves to be a more unpredictable system than modernists would wish. If democracy also proves to be the only way that public trust may be sought, let alone retained – for instance because expert elites are not in fact capable of providing the reliable, efficient and honest direction that positivism had envisaged – then a substantial measure of uncertainty and risk must be accepted. Whether modernity would then be any more likely to afford room for an ‘elevated’ vision of mankind such as O’Hear would like to see remains an open question. If, however, we at least come to accept that ‘after progress’ in fact turns out to be ‘more of the same’, so that we abandon any illusion that merely disposing of modernist projects will of its own accord enable us to even control modernity, let alone escape from it, we are then free to investigate whether ecological sustainability or anything else can allow us to escape from the spider’s web.


1. Niall Ferguson (op cit.) suggests that the contrast in the fortunes of European and American Christianity since the nineteenth century is due to the inefficiency of state monopolies applying in the case of religion as well as business. But there is probably also the factor that, without any church establishment, American Christians (and Jews or Muslims) could accept their fragmentation with diverse froms of worship and competing churches rather than pretending to a unity which did not really exist.

2. The philosophies of Popper and logical positivism, which are often characterised as 'rationalist', appear much more compatible with the concept of rationality which Weber and Taylor employed than rationalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth century sense, which meant the epistemological theory that certain knowledge can be derived by rigorous argument and proof from certain axiomatic principles. See also H. Brown (1988) for a recent study of rationality and expertise.

3. See Frank (1996; Chase-Dunn, 1989; Chirst, 1977; Chirot, 1994 and Wallerstein (1974) for criticism of the modernisation theory from the perspectives of Marxism and dependency theory. Marshall Salin's Stone Age Economics (1974) takes issue with the idea that industrialisation and modernisation free people from the drudgery of pre-industrial societies.

4. Naturally, the older idea of reason derived from Greek and Christian philosophy and then modified by the Enlightenment, conveyed a much wider sense of character and thinking than the narrow instrumental sense of rationality.

5. Bookchin's first development of an ecological critique of modern capitalism was published under the pseudonym 'Lewis Herber'.

6. The Sorelian notion of a revolutionary 'myth', especially bearing in mind that myth as a dramatic narrative has an ongoing role quite apart from any events which the narrative may relate, may be contrasted with Trotsky's idea of permanent revolution developed to deal with eatablishing socialism in a 'backward' (i.e., not extensively industrialised) country such as Russia itself. 

7. By taking a stance opposed to most ecological warnings of danger ahead, the self-styled 'Rational Optimist' Matt Ridley, who is himself an ecologist, in effect returns to a more traditionally modernist (if that is not simply an oxymoron) position.


  1. Bookchin, Murray, (1962), Our Synthetic Environment, Knopf, New York (see note 6 below).
  2. Carson, Rachel, (1962), Silent Spring, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Casey, John, (1991), Pagan Virtue, Oxford University Press.
  4. Ferguson, Niall, (2011), Civilization: The West and the Rest, Allen Lane, 275.
  5. Gray, John, (1995), Enlightenment’s Wake, New York, Routledge.
  6. Jervis, John, (1998), Exploring the Modern, Patterns of Western Culture and Civilisation, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 311, 334.
  7. Lively, Jack (ed. & trans.), (1965), The Works of Joseph de Maistre, London, George Allen & Unwin, 260.
  8. O’Hear, Anthony, (1999), After Progress: Finding the Old way Forward, Bloomsbury, esp. Ch. 5, 6.
  9. Roberts, Dr. John , (1985), The Triumph of the West, Boston; Little, Brown.
  10. Seignobos, Charles, (1939), The Rise of European Civilisation, Jonathan Cape.
  11. Strayer, Joseph R., (1961)., ‘The Development of Feudal Institutions’, Twelfth-Century Europe and the Foundations of Modern Society, Marshall Clagett, Gaines Post & Robert Reynolds (eds.), University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 80ff.
  12. Weber, Max, (2002), The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, Stephen Kalberg trans., Roxbury, First published in German 1904-5.