My beef with modernism

In an exchange with possibilitymagazine I wrote

To me the problems famously associated with postmodernism – its tendency towards subjectivistic solipsism, in particular – derive more from its liberalism than from postmodernism itself. I am interested in helping to advance a postmodernism congruent with relational and materialistic thinking.

I was asked why I find this important to achieve. I’d like to answer this question, as briefly as I can.

My main problem with modernism concerns its attitude towards socio-cultural difference.

Global difference

A modernist celebrates a certain cluster of cultural and institutional formations that emerged in Western Europe in the last few hundred years, which are alleged to have universal value for humanity. This cluster is called ‘modernity’ or, if we are being multicultural, ‘Western modernity’.  Typically modernity is perceived as consisting of:

  • scientific rationality,
  • industrial capitalism, and
  • the sovereign state, in either its liberal-democratic or state-socialistic variations.

But modernity also extends to include the art, music, literature, philosophy, politics, gender relations, etc. of modern people, that is, people live their lives in accordance with modern institutions.

Crucially, for the modernist, modernity is in some definite way better than everything that came before it — so much so that the erasure of non-modern (‘pre-modern’) socio-cultural forms through the advance of modern forms is a good and desirable thing. This is what modernists mean by ‘progress’.

Chandigarh, India

Often this modern/pre-modern dichotomy gets projected onto entire cultures: modern cultures are enlightened, democratic, free, prosperous, dynamic, etc., while pre-modern cultures are backward, superstitious, despotic, etc.  This gross chauvinism is not a necessary feature of modernism; critically aware modernists will recognize that even the most ‘advanced’ Western societies have poverty, corruption, superstition, etc. However, they perceive these as the vestigial remnants of pre-modern social forms. The remedy is: more modernity. Modernists perceive modernity as, in Habermas’s famous words, “an unfinished project”.

Conversely, modernists oriented to multiculturalism will recognize that pre-modern cultures had their moments of brilliance. North African Muslims invented algebra and modern medicine; the Iroquois League employed a division of powers; etc. But these achievements are evaluated by the standards of modernity, as potential contributions to modern culture.

In the end, for the modernist, everything that is ‘pre-modern’ or non-modern must move aside to make room for modernity. Other ways of living, of being, of experiencing the universe, must perish — or at least withdraw into private life and become inconsequential folkways, like the fondness of Ukrainian-Canadians for perogies and kubasa.

For thousands of years the human species has existed as a vast web of complexly different local societies with different local cultures.  These cultures do more than simply set different rules for social interaction; they enable different ways of being human.  But this complex web is becoming increasingly integrated at a global level. We could say that that process began in 1492, and it has been accelerating ever since.  Where there were many societies, we will have one global society.  What form will that society take?  Will it have one dominant culture, one set of values and norms for deciding how people should live? Or will it have many?  How many different ways will there to be human? Can we live together without becoming the same?

Local difference

This problem of cultural difference is one example of the more general problem of difference. Another situation in which problem of difference manifests itself is in organizing for bottom-up social change. Imagine a group of people in a room together trying to form a movement. They have to decide what their main goals will be, what strategies and tactics they will pursue, how they will make decisions, how they will allocate resources, and so on.  Many potential differences.The group can’t do everything; how will it resolve these differences?

Montréal Student Strike

One established way of resolving these differences is to create a hierarchical structure in which some people have authority over the group as a whole, on the basis of some putatively democratic process like voting. This allows certain differences to disappear simply by excluding them from consideration.

For a variety of reasons, many social movement activists have been turning away from hierarchical models towards radically horizontal organizational forms – organizations without fixed leadership structures or even identifiable leaders at all, often with decisions made on the basis of some form of consensus rather than voting. These organizations can be very inclusive. But they still run into problems of difference.

For example: what happens when you get a 9-11 truther in the group? Or an entitled, arrogant white male who will not accept the need to modify his style of engagement so as not to exclude women? Or someone who spews racist language but refuses to see anything wrong with that?  David Graeber calls this the “wingnut problem”, and observes that this problem often causes consensus-oriented groups simply to break apart. Of course, the group could just forbid certain behaviours or exclude certain individuals. But then it has ceased to be entirely non-hierarchical. To me this is an interesting challenge: how to resolve the wingnut problem non-coercively? I’m convinced that there is a theoretical dimension to this kind of problem through which a professional academic like myself could make a useful contribution.

I’m very interested in helping to find non-hierarchical solutions to the problems of difference at both the local and the global levels.  I find that this concern tends to put me in opposition with people who identify as ‘modernists’ or who celebrate the value of ‘modernity’, and I find that postmodernist theory at least attempts to explore these issues, although often on more liberal terms than I would like.

Hence my somewhat unusual interest in a post-modernist historical materialism.

9 thoughts on “My beef with modernism

  1. I like where you’re coming from. I’ve seen what self-avowed modernist thinking can do to a cranky old reactionary’s grip on reality in a world rapidly fulfilling the more abstruse apocalyptic predictions of the early postmodernists. But I also think postmodernists are fun to tease. I’ve dedicated a new category in my blog to tongue-in-cheek constructive criticism of postmodernist mannerisms that make New Age religions seem more coherent and grounded. Check it out, maybe you’ll be tickled.


  2. I’ve had these thoughts of yours in the back of my mind for some time now… and got the opportunity today to collaborate my thoughts –


    Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    The film, Invictus, tells the remarkable story of a leader who made an unpopular decision because he realized that his people did not know better – they were not empowered enough to see the long term effects of where they were going… they were not empowered enough to give meaning to their new democracy.

    When Nelson Mandela was elected president, the racial tension and a strong feeling of retribution towards the whites of South Africa was in the air; ‘It is time to give these racists a taste of the horror they put on us.’ One could say the country was psychologically bent in this direction. Even during rugby games, the blacks in a stadium were cheering against their home team, Springboks, as it represented an era of apartheid.

    Don Beck had been a key figure in developing a multidimensional model for understanding the transformation of human values and cultures. His priority was in being able to practically apply this understanding into real life situations. One of the key things that struck out for Beck, and for Mandela, about this unique predicament in South Africa, is how to bring about a peaceful abolishment of apartheid. It usually, left to its own devices, does not happen that way. When India gained its independence it came at a grave aftermath of religious riots.

    Beck made more than 63 consulting trips to South Africa between 1981 and 1988 and documented his role in the book: The Crucible: Forging South Africa’s Future (1991) with Graham Linscott:

    “My role was to shift the categories people were using to describe the South African groupings from ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘class’ into the natural value-system patterns and the dynamics of change. Many were able to connect across these great divides to find the basis for a sense of being ‘South African.’ Mr. Mandela sought for a non-racist, non-ethnic, non-tribal, and non-gender society, one based on human respect and mutual accountability.”

    Beck and Mandela decided to use the rugby game as a unifying force for a splintered nation. The kind of thinking that passed between them were geared around ‘a new consciousness for a world in crisis.’

    This lead to an incredible story that, as has often been said, would hardly be believed if it was fiction. If it was fiction, it would be a fairytale.

    But the heart behind this story is the understanding of Spiral Dynamics – arguably the most accurate model of cultural development and social consciousness.

    “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

    Spiral dynamics is a multifaceted theory, but I find it a great crime that there is little down-to-earth explanation of it being given for the layman. I am going to highlight some key elements of the theory in a visceral way so that by the end we can integrate these ideas to see what is going on:

    A boy or girl raised up in a culture that think of the French as an obtuse and arrogant bunch, but has never met a single person from France, is going to be influenced by the community he or she is brought up in. Until one day, when he finds himself traveling France, and begins to step into their shoes; feels what they feel, sees where they are coming from.

    In this way, globalization has been profoundly unifying in how we begin to think of ourselves as human beings, rather than as French, or Christian, or wealthy. This kind of empathy begins to dissolve discrimination.

    In a strong sense, the spiral dynamics model highlights the layers of communities who are particularly focused on certain sets of beliefs about how the world works, but as you go up the levels, it is very much like gaining a larger horizon in terms of identity. You shift from being purely concerned with your family to being purely concerned with your race, to being concerned with your country, to being concerned with the Earth itself… and further.

    There is nothing negative about being concerned with your family, but at the expense of being biased towards everyone else is sociopathic. You are always dealing with two aspects of identity – one is your individual identity, and the other is a collective identity which shifts dynamically according to the tribe, peer group or community you are hanging out with. But the more you shift between different social groups, the more you gain a larger horizon of outlook.

    Now the criticism against Spiral Dynamics has often been a postmodern angst towards any idea of hierarchy – after all, what have hierarchies done for us? It has created elitism, and ultimately, different degrees of dictatorships. Hierarchies played a pivotal role in the ‘old world’ of not questioning one’s elders, being slaves to caste and class systems, and blindly obeying figures of authority, both religious or scientific. This is the world that postmodernism seeks to break down, and this is why it has gained so much force within social consciousness, and rightly so.

    Yet take the example of George W. Bush and Nelson Mandela, and how they viewed their own sense of leadership. Bush was bent on polarizing his country with fear against a terrorist threat. Mandela was envisioning the polarizing of his country with a healthy sense of pride and belonging – and ultimately, to instill a sense of integrity. The simple philosophy of, ‘We are no better than the wicked if we repeat their actions.’

    Mandela faced the enormous difficulty of even asking his personal guard of black men (formerly labeled terrorists) to work together with the white guards already within the government. He was stubbornly clear that racial bias must stop, from either direction. This was at first an extremely unpopular stance, as the people were of a mentality that you need to ‘choose sides.’ Working with this cultural psychology was not easy.

    Now imagine if we decided to brainstorm what makes good leadership… what would we do?

    We would first gather numerous and varying cases of different types of leadership, and figure out the mindset that each of these leaders were coming from. Patterns would eventually emerge, depending on the quality and depth of the study.

    The fundamentals of the better forms of leadership works exactly at a large-scale level as in small scale. That is, it works exactly for the individual as it does for the community (and this is the part many researchers seem to miss, by getting lost in the trees and missing the forest). We’ve surely heard the argument, ‘what is good for the collective is often not good for the individual. What if an individual wants to own 99 percent of the worlds resources? Good for him, not good for the collective. What if you have to kill one person to save a million? Good for the million, not for that one person.’

    Strong argument, I know. Easy to get caught up in. But let’s step back a little. Is it right to cut off a finger that is diseased to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the body? Of course, prevention is best – if we can manage to save the finger too, wonderful. But if not, better to save the rest of the body.

    What is healthy for an organism? Resentment? Self-Sabotage? We would recognize that of course bias and discrimination is wrong and misleading, and equality is the right approach. Do you know how long it took to get to that? Why did people fight against racism in the US? Why did people fight for liberation in India? Why was the human rights organization established? Was it simply about a majority consensus? A bunch of people voting that they want to be equal to the rest?

    The real question behind all these questions is -Does equality have some independent value – some integrity – some virtue, in and of itself, or are people just fighting for freedom and equality out of self-interest? Surely the minorities don’t have a big voice. It is not in your interest to fight for the equality of American Indians (unless you are one), so why would you?

    Why is equality a ‘natural’ value-system? Who decided that? As we all know, it is not easy to get a bunch of people to agree with each other, so why is the attitude of equality becoming the world consensus measure of goodness?

    The answer to this is the same answer to why there are levels of efficiency and inefficiency in leadership. This is a key element that the Spiral Dynamics model can be practically used to ascertain. Leaders with a wide horizon of vision are few and far between… Mandela, Gandhi, King, Kennedy… but you find in them an attitude that strikingly resembles an appreciation for collective consciousness, and a willingness to integrate opposing ideas.

    This attitude fits higher on the scale of Spiral Dynamics. Some may call this elitism – what a tragic and ignorant over-extension of the word. Infact, we could simply use the measure of great leaders on the scale of Spiral Dynamics to choose our future leaders.

    Is it elitism to say that great leaders come from a deep-rooted mood of equality, whereas the worst kind of leaders are of extreme prejudice?

    This is the paradox – or synthesis of modernism and postmodernism. Postmodernism in itself does not handle duality very well.


    • These are interesting ideas. I can say this, succinctly: we can understand the difference between the sort of ethos you are expressing and postmodernism as a difference in social ontology.

      Your position is explicitly holist, even organicist. You describe society, or maybe humanity, as a larger whole, an organicially integrated whole, of which individuals are merely parts in the way that an individual cell is part of the human body. In this view, social problems result from pathology: if there is war, poverty, inequality, it’s because the social body is diseased in some way; our task is to cure the social body so that the health of society will bring about peace, justice, equality. In sociology, Emile Durkheim took a similar view and his work provides the most famous classic example of holistic thinking in our discipline. You may enjoy reading “The Division of Labour in Society” for its overall orientation, even though many of its specific ideas are outdated or may differ from your own.

      Liberal postmodernists do not see society as having any kind of holistic unity, either actually or even potentially. In this respect they are not alone: neither do liberal conflict theorists, for whom society is nothing more than the sum total of individuals’ actions. Marxists see society as lacking organic unity in the present but believe this unity can be achieved in the future through communist revolution. Liberal postmodernists see local and contingent social formations (like “discourses”, or “narratives”, for example) as having an emergent life of their own, but, unlike holists, they believe that these local and contingent structures never combine to form any systemically integrated totality.

      My own position is somewhere between that of the liberal postmodernists and your own. I see social formations or structures as combining to form systems, but I differ from the holists by supposing that these systems contain fundamental contradictions (of the kind that I have described in my post on “Contradiction”), and I differ from the Marxists by supposing that there is more than one fundamental contradiction at work in society (as I described, briefly, in my post “The Relativity of Bananas Part 4”). And I am more oriented to materiality and practice than to discourse. Hence my coining of a new name, postmodernist historical materialism, for my own position.

      When people differ in their fundamental ontological orientation, it’s rarely useful to argue in the conventional way, trying to come to a common view of things. But it is interesting to exchange perspectives and observations. Thanks for sharing yours!


      • I will respond in full soon, but first some critical background into Spiral Dynamics:

        ‎”But why a spiral, you might ask? Spirals are a dynamic expression of natural and cosmic forces, a “dominant universal fractal” evident in everything from our DNA code to the spiraling galaxies that inhabit the universe. Spiral Dynamics posits that the evolution of human consciousness can best be represented in this way: by a dynamic, upward spiraling structure that charts our evolving thinking systems as they arc higher and higher through levels of increasing complexity. Certainly,human consciousness has dramatically increased in complexity over the span of millennia, as evidenced by our fast-paced highly interactive world.”

        WIE: Could you outline the spiral model with its hierarchy of eight memes, or levels of existence?

        DB: In the language of Graves, the spiral’s “First Tier” is a set of six memes characterized by existence or subsistence. What that means is that we’re more like animals than like gods and we have to deal with what are essentially earthbound existence problems. So the First Tier (BEIGE, PURPLE, RED, BLUE, ORANGE,GREEN) clusters together our “subsistence” or survival-level concerns, while the Second Tier (YELLOW, TURQUOISE) works to create healthy forms of all the First Tier systems in the context of an information-rich, highly mobile global community. While Graves identified eight levels of existence, with a ninth on the horizon, the Spiral is expansive, open-ended, continuous, and dynamic. There is no final state, no ultimate destination, no utopian paradise. It’s a never-ending upward quest, with each stage but a prelude to the next, and the next, and the next.

        WIE: Why do you use a spiral model to chart the emergence of these evolutionary stages of psychological and cultural development?

        DB: A spiral vortex best depicts the emergence of human systems, or memes, as they evolve through levels of increasing complexity. Each upward turn of the spiral marks the awakening of a more elaborate version on top of what already exists, with each meme a product of its times and conditions. And these memes form spirals of increasing complexity that exist within a person, a family, an organization, a culture, or a society. We all live in flow states; there is always new wine, always old wineskins. And you can see that this whole evolutionary process is working because we’re still here, because we’ve been able to survive thousands and thousands of years of coping with what has been quite a hostile environment. So we have a wonderful species that has an innate capacity to renew itself. That’s what makes us human.


      • Thanks for the comment. I was waiting for your follow up, but there’s already a lot of stuff going on in the passage you’re quoting. It’s generally interesting and I like the basic optimism it expresses. It does seem that Spiral Dynamics mixes ideas from natural science with ideas from spiritual traditions, which is fine with me as long as we don’t mix up which is which.

        Where I might find myself resisting this line of thought is around the notion of a linear hiearchy of levels of development. Evolutionary science shows that the evolutionary process tends to produce increasing complexity over time, but there are two caveats to this. First, complexity does not always supercede simplicity. For instance, very simple organisms like viruses or Horseshoe Crabs can stick around much longer than many more complex forms. The global ecosystem is a mix of complex and simple organisms.

        Second, in a purely naturalistic account evolution is not teleological, that is, it does not tend towards any particular goal or even in any particular direction (other than, outwards in all directions away from its initial starting point). So if one wants to claim that certain evolutionary outcomes (e.g. a compassionate human society) are more likely than others, one has to account for the forces that would cause this to be the case.


      • Absolutely. This is why it is called dynamics, and not linearity. There are case studies where a culture regresses to a prior state due to the change in social circumstances.

        What I am interested in is the understanding of how paradigm shifts within cultures occur, what provokes such shifts, and what are the underlying patterns behind them.

        Chip and Dan Heath, for example, wrote a fascinating book called Made to Stick (and it’s follow-up, Switch) where their main focus is on the bright spots that were used to create social equality and better utility. Made to stick focused more on exactly what the underlying pattern is that makes an idea such as the kidney heist urban myth STICK and spread within cultures so quickly. They then shift to an understanding of how to use the same principles to apply “stickiness” to self-empowering paradigms.

        This, I find, to be profoundly useful.


  3. Hi, Chris. Hope you’re well. We missed you at Sonia’s Sat eve. It was fun, and very sociological and professional.

    I am trying to clarify some points so that hopefully I can clarify which theoretical assumptions are incommensurable and find a communication path. So instead of normal conversation, this is going to seem like I’m looking for data. I’m also probably going to use language you won’t like. Communities.


    “I find that this concern (to ‘find non-hierarchical solutions to the problems of difference at both the local and the global levels’) tends to put me in opposition with people who identify as ‘modernists’ or who celebrate the value of ‘modernity’.”

    You characterize modernists as 1) opposed to post-modernists, and 2) people who “celebrate” or even apotheosize the ‘present’ social relations (as they are embodied materially and culturally)…or perhaps the social relations between 1870 and 1968…or perhaps the “best of” the relations and institutions of that era? Could you specify that? …Do you think this definition would be valid across theoretical communities? …Do people who celebrate and apotheosize such relations identify as modernists? Or did they once? When did people who aggrandize such relations stopped identifying as modernists?

    How does the modernist triumphalism or embrace of a particular set of ruling relations differ from any marketing era over the past 500 years? Would post-modernists be the people who celebrate and apotheosize the hegemonic social relations from 1968 through…1998? the present? Whence the break in the ideological continuity, from an historical-material perspective? Is the category ‘post-modernism’ a specification of the liberatory justifications of a post-1968 (imagined) change in the structure of global capitalism’s ruling class? Is it thus the subject, as you allude above in dismissing liberal postmodernism, of ongoing struggles to assert various claims (including representation claims) on surplus distribution by variously excluded positionalities, or at least strategic claims on “undeserved” exclusion. If I may extend to another example your profession to contribute theoretically, can a postmodernist perspective, which would be historically embedded in an era’s hegemonic and counterhegemonic claims–and thus interested, ever permit the evaulation of validity in political claims (politics in the broad sense, ie occuring in academic discourse)?

    If so, and to the extent that such a postmodernism uses historical materialism to situate and evaluate, what is it doing (presumably on some quantum or systematically-distinct level) that historical materialists have never done? It can’t be something about especially seeing non-class social hierarchies, and the postmodernist perspective is itself quite famous for not seeing particuarly clearly certain social relations. What is particuarly exceptional (in an historical-materialist sense) about the postmodern moment or viewpoint? (You know. I like to disentangle exceptionalist claims, social networks, and marketing when considering problem construction and truth claims.)

    I can guess that you’re marrying postmoderism and historical-materialism on a paradigmatic level because you think one can and should fuse their strengths and jettison their flaws (in terms of what relations they can see), rather than adjudicate the validity of their claims or assess the merits of their horizons.

    As well, there’s always the point that if two camps actually have distinct paradigms, that means their assumptions should be incommensurable–which means you can’t fuse them. The theorist has to pick a side (which must be network-driven, no?) in any given analytic instance, and so the claims about fusion become particularly imperialistic (theory imperialism), rather than clarifying.


    • Hi Mara! Good to hear from you. I’m sorry I missed the party on Saturday; I hope there’s another one soon that I can attend.

      Thanks for these very interesting and challenging questions. Some of them, especially the more empirical ones in your earlier paragraphs, I don’t have good answers to. I’m going to start at the end and work backwards.

      You write

      “The theorist has to pick a side (which must be network-driven, no?) in any given analytic instance, and so the claims about fusion become particularly imperialistic (theory imperialism), rather than clarifying.”

      I have two responses. (a) Even if Marxism and postmodernism were both distinct paradigms, it would be possible in principle to construct a third paradigm out of a synthesis between the two. (b) But actually I don’t think that postmodernism is a paradigm in the sense that Marxism is; it has no singular exemplary text or shared methods of inquiry or common ontological concepts. There are common epistemological orientations and some distinctive historical claims, but this falls well short of a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense. Thus I think it is possible to appropriate postmodernist ideas into Marxism without theoretical imperialism.

      I should declare that I’m much more interested in the epistemological positions taken by postmodernists than in their historical claims, some of which I find ludicrous (post-capitalist society? really?).

      (I should also say that, in terms of my training and the reading I’ve done, I’m not so much a Marxist as a sociologist whose epistemological framework is dialectical historical materialism and whose telos is radical socialism, i.e. workers owning the means of production and the abolition thereby of class as such. How much of a Marxist this makes me seems to be a matter for debate.)

      What does a postmodernist historical materialism propose to do that hasn’t been done before? I’m hesitant because my knowledge of Marxian thought is far from comprehensive but I would offer this: it would theorize the task of world-historical communist revolution without recourse to epistemological or ontological universals, about human nature or rationality or anything else.

      It seems to me that the predominant mode of Marxian politics, going back to Marx himself, is oriented to consensus and therefore dependent on universals. You can see this in Marx’s own personal conduct: before all else we must agree on one single analysis of the situation, which means agreeing on one single vocabulary and one single mode of rational. Of course if all human beings share the same essential nature and/or if Reason is universal then this is entirely sensible, but if we don’t accept such universalisms then this mode of politics is irreducibly violent. To put it in Wittgensteinian terms, Marx’s conception of the world-historical achievement of revolutionary proletarian class-consciousness seems to imply the universalization of a single language-game, and I find the prospect of this universalization both infeasible, and horrifying to contemplate.


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