Jeff’s Blog #19: Modernity and Antimodernism

Jeff’s Blog, Volume 19

This week I’d like to write about modernity and antimodernism. These are difficult concepts to get a handle on, or even to define. We’re used to hearing “modernism” refer to an artistic movement, but, as one of this week’s authors points out, the earliest modernists were making art about economic and social change. When sociologists want to distinguish the modern from the premodern, they often reach for the terms gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, or community and society, which Ferdinand Tonnies used to distinguish a world organized around families and communities from one organized around corporations and states. I am persuaded by a definition of modernity as a condition of contradiction. Modern people are unbound by feudal privilege, thrilled at the opportunity to remake the world, but at the same time rootless and buffeted about by change. Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase “creative destruction” may be the watchword of modernity. Or, even better, is this sentence from Karl Marx (criminally underrated as a writer): “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men are at last forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

It seems to me that the only intellectually responsible position is to face modernity with ambivalent horror and awe. Modernization is a liberatory process. Modern people are empowered to create inventions, songs, and lifestyles unimaginable to our ancestors. But, back to Marx, “All our inventions and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and stultifying human life into a material force.” In my ambivalence it turns out I am in good company. The history of modernity is the history of people worrying about modernity, as I learned in some of the books below. But I find this topic especially important to the present. There are obviously intolerable aspects of the nationalist movements that have risen in Europe and the United States, but if we were forced to identify a legitimate intellectual core, I think it would be antimodernism. I recommend this essay from Will Wilkinson on regional inequality and moral polarization. Wilkinson takes the familiar, if tired, “urban elite vs. Real America” dichotomy and reframes it in more sensible (and income-agnostic) terms using a moral typology from the World Values Survey–“secular-rational and self-expression oriented” in cities and college towns vs. “zero-sum survival” and “traditional” values in rural areas and exurbs. J.D. Vance, in his appearance on Ezra Klein’s podcast, made a similar point about the moral disconnect he has observed between Red and Blue America. I have found it helpful to think about this divide as one of modernism and antimodernism.

Of course, as I explore below, modern conservative thinkers rarely live up to the promise of genuine antimodernism. They tend to settle for a cheap facsimile that goes off the rails in blaming women or immigrants or minorities instead of something deeper like individualism, atheism, or the cult of progress. As you can tell, I think there is something worth saving in antimodernism. If you’re even a tiny bit idealistic, the hope is obvious: to hold onto the good parts of modernity while reclaiming some of what has been lost. How hubristic! To embark on a quest that foiled Marx, Goethe, and Dostoevsky! My only counter is that perhaps now, by 2017, enough of the luster has worn off modernity for us to face it unintimidated.

1. All that is holy is profaned
Berman, who I mentioned above, gives an account of the discovery of modernism in the 19th century in his book All That is Solid Melts into Air. This is one of the most profound books I’ve read recently, and one that immediately skyrockets to a list of my favorites. I would classify it as revisionist history through literary criticism: tracing a common intellectual thread through a hundred years of great books. Its first major contribution is a definition of modernism as unrelenting change and development–of self and of society. Berman points out that change is both a process and a destination, and one may be more rewarding than the other. The image that drives this home is a scene from Notes from Underground where the Underground Man contemplates the Crystal Palace, the ultra-modern site of the first World’s Fair. He speculates that designing the palace must have been heroic and creative, but it would not be natural to stay too long: “How do you know, perhaps [man] only likes that edifice from a distance and not at close range, perhaps he only likes to build it, and does not want to live in it.” And so with the modern world.

Construction and architecture provide most of the best stories and metaphors in Berman’s analysis. I thought the most brilliant bit was his discussion of Goethe’s Faust. He calls Faust “the first and still best tragedy of development.” Development is at first glance a strange word for Faust. Or so it seemed to me, because I knew nothing of Part Two! Part One presents the tragic incompatibility of grand ambition with traditional small-town life, as seen through Faust’s doomed relationship with Gretchen (“there is no dialogue between an open man and a closed world”). But in Part Two, Faust progresses from personal development to world development. He stands on a mountain with Mephistopheles, looks over the sea, and rages that someone should be harnessing it for productive use! Faust Part Two is about modern civil engineering projects, and much more. Up until that point, Faust’s superhuman accomplishments had been fueled by black magic–the Devil’s helping hand. Going forward, though, his main magic trick is the division of labor. Forces of the underworld are replaced by forces of industrial organization. Faust organizes thousands of people and builds canals, harbors, dikes, levees, and a great city. The story even includes “the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way–in the way of history, of progress, of development.” It is an old couple occupying the last plot of unclaimed land. Faust has them disposed of. His project complete, Faust has no more reason to exist: “Ironically, once this developer has destroyed the premodern world, he has destroyed his whole reason for being in the world.” Longtime blog readers will recognize that this is precisely the tragedy of finite, as compared to infinite, games.

Berman draws the comparison between Faust and Robert Moses, as well he should. Moses is just one in a long line of developers, modernizers, who fit into the Faustian archetype of summoning forth dark energies of creative destruction to remake the world. But Berman doesn’t go for the predictable bait of anti-growth ideology; he says in a modern society only the most extravagant “thinking big” can possibly open up opportunities for “thinking small.” He sees the post-WW2 atomic scientists, especially Leo Szilard, as those who have best understood the tragic depth of the Faust myth. The scientists have played the role of Mephistopheles, offering a dangerous bargain to mankind. We must decide whether to take it. “In the project of development, we are all experts.”

2. Party like it’s (18)69
Goethe, Marx, and Dostoevsky sensed the tragic contradiction at the heart of modernism from the get-go. But most people were unabashedly enthusiastic about the progress and increasing wealth of the 19th century. In the United States, the most admired public intellectual in the late 1800s might have been Herbert Spencer, best known as a leading social Darwinist, who argued that societies evolve from primitive homogeneity to complex heterogeneity and that material and moral progress go hand in hand. T.J. Jackson Lears’ book, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 is the story of the first generation to turn against modernity. Think of this as the first coming of the 1960s. The revolt came from those who had seen the most modernism: the upper classes. “Many beneficiaries of modern culture began to feel they were its secret victims.” The gist of the complaint, bluntly, was that well-heeled Americans felt they were getting soft. More Americans worked in offices and factories instead of on farms. Decades after the fire and brimstone of the Second Great Awakening, mainstream Protestantism had grown more liberal and accommodating. The public health crisis of the day was “neurasthenia,” which was their word for a nervous condition thought to afflict people who were thinking too much and repressing more “natural” emotions (this is the context in which Freud burst onto the scene). One critic, trying to explain the popularity of Kipling, Stevenson, and other “masculine” adventure writers, summed the malaise up well: “We had become so over nice in our feelings, so restrained and formal, so bound by habit and use in our devotion to the effeminate realists, that one side of our nature was starved. We must have a revolt at any cost.”

The revolt came in the form of several cultural fads with one common thread: to reclaim “real,” “authentic” experience. These keywords would have resonated in the 1960s, as they do today. Indeed, Lears’ central argument is that antimodernism ultimately “helped ease accommodation to new and secular cultural modes.” In searching for authenticity, the antimodernists invented a new culture of consumption: “Their criticism has frequently dissolved into therapeutic quest for self-realization, easily accommodated to the dominant culture of our bureaucratic corporate state.” In other words, potentially liberatory pursuits like yoga, mindfulness, and woodworking are transformed into hobbies and consumer products, palliatives for life under corporate capitalism rather than alternatives.

The Arts and Crafts movement was one leading example. Although we now think of “Arts and Crafts” as a period design style, it was also a political ideology. Printers, furniture makers, and other craftsmen, especially in middle-class Boston communities, disdained factory mass production and aspired to be Medieval artisans. But their critique of factory work was reactionary; rather than worry about the laborer’s lack of autonomy, hygiene, and pay, they worried that factory workers, bored and shiftless, would become criminals and radical anarchists. Would-be reformers sponsored workshops to teach laborers to take pride in their work. Meanwhile, the more affluent craftsmen sold their handmade wares to one another. The resulting “handcraft” aesthetic standards were what Thorstein Veblen was referring to in his early critiques of conspicuous consumption.

Medieval times were a common theme in the antimodernists’ escapism. Just as 1960s antimodernists looked to Eastern spirituality, their 1890s predecessors looked to saints, peasants, cathedral builders, and the works of Dante. One aspect of this cultural appropriation I found amusing was the translation of Medieval Catholicism into an overwhelmingly Protestant world. Lears argues that Catholicism–with its relics, rituals, and stereotypically Southern European sense of emotion–was a welcome escape for adherents of a repressed, bloodless Protestantism. Knights, of course, were the most popular Medieval characters. This is the period when Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Knights of Labor became the most powerful labor organization, and many prep schools, country clubs, and universities adopted heraldic symbols. Part of the appeal of knighthood was its connotation with physical vitality. Lears suggests that enthusiasm for the Spanish-American War stemmed from a pervasive longing for violence as a shot in the arm to a neurasthenic nation: “War was seen as a moral medicine or purgative for over-civilization.”

At the end of each chapter, Lears dismisses each antimodernist fad with roughly the same argument: it was only accommodation and escapism; it did nothing to stem the onward flow of modernity. It’s somewhat frustrating to read a book where you can predict each argument in advance. But I take Lears’ point. We would-be critics of modernity are much too bound up in its riches to stage a serious revolt. If we were to do so, Lears stresses that it cannot be based in self-gratification and self-fulfillment–what he calls the “therapeutic” attitude familiar from the Eat, Pray, Love genre. It would have to be a collective act. At the same time, Lears reminds us that collective antimodernism is a dangerous force in its own right. It’s very easy to blame other people for having made us soft rather than acknowledging we are all both subjects and objects of development. Consider one obvious case: “The Nazi myth labeled the Jew as the quintessentially modern man–urban, ruthless, rational, immersed in the inauthentic realm of commercial exchange. In a sense, the war to exterminate the Jews marked the ultimate extension of one form of antimodernism.”

3. The best the far right has to offer
On that note, fast-forward to eastern Europe of the present day. Communism is mostly in the rearview mirror. But not everyone thinks liberal democracy is any better. At least not Ryszard Legutko, a Polish philosopher and politician, who argues that both communism and liberal democracy push inexorably toward progress and modernity, sweeping all that came before into the dustbin of history. Both are integrated political/cultural systems with no room for dissent. This is the argument of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, one of the hottest books currently circulating in the antimodernist Christian right (think Ross Douthat and friends). This is a very frustrating book. It offers a formidable, legitimately powerful critique of liberalism, and then squanders the moral weight of that critique on mundane bigotry you could find in five minutes on Twitter. What to do with such a book? As a political matter, it might be reasonable to ignore such people. But as a student of ideas, I feel compelled to follow good ones. Maybe the most important task is to confirm that Legutko’s good ideas can stand alone without his bigotry.

Legutko offers criticism of the individualism he (and Berman) takes to be at the core of modernity. He says liberalism is “anthropologically minimalist” in its conception of human beings. By “minimalist” he means a lack of any particular aspiration for what a good human life should entail. The only principle actively affirmed by liberalism is equality, but in his view this equality requires a regrettably low standard for language, education, and moral conduct. People are free to become whatever they want, but not encouraged to become anything particularly good. Classical liberals like J.S. Mill insisted that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” but modern liberalism forbids looking down on other people’s priorities. He argues that our reverence for individual satisfaction elevates entertainment to an inappropriate level of cultural relevance. He believes fear of sin is a crucial motivator that we have all but lost. In a clear hint of where his practical politics lie, he focuses closely on what he sees as the worst excess of consumerism: sexual liberation. Modern unrepressed sexuality marks the ascent of pleasure as a yardstick of human existence. While “happiness” or “fulfillment” have long been important moral concepts, they can only be achieved over the course of a full life, whereas “pleasure” can be achieved in short isolated moments. To agree with all of Legutko’s disdain for modern individualism, it probably helps to have grown up Catholic. But in general I find this a valuable corrective to the dominant culture. I recognize, of course, that individualism may be the only option in a diverse society incapable of agreeing on universal standards for virtue.

Legutko follows his discussion of individualism with a critique of how politics works in liberal democratic societies. At its least original, this is just the standard argument against interest group politics and identity politics. The more interesting aspect is his claim that liberalism is totalizing in a similar way to communism. I should note that Legutko has impeccable anti-totalitarian credentials as a former leader of Solidarity in 1980s Poland. Just like communist regimes could not tolerate a shred of anti-communist dissent, he says, liberal societies cannot tolerate illiberalism. In this sense liberalism is not a theory capable of being disagreed with, but a religion: “In a sense it is a super theory of society, logically prior to and higher than any other. It attributes to itself the right to be more general, more spacious, and more universal than any of its rivals.” He worries
that liberalism tends to politicize everything by turning social groups into something closer to political parties. This is his objection to multiculturalism: that it is not really about culture, but about weaponizing culture to form a more divisive politics. Legutko especially objects to liberal attitudes toward discrimination and intolerance. In his view, a liberal society–which prizes equality above all–should leave room for dissenters to be intolerant. It’s an interesting question: what does pluralism really mean? Is it pluralistic to say that if you’re not for pluralism, you’re on the wrong side of history? Legutko thinks that this totalizing liberal vision is why liberal democracies are suspicious of families, communities, and religious groups, which are independent power structures of alien illiberal character. For example, some families afford men unequal power over women. Legutko thinks this should be the family’s prerogative to decide and not a matter for the liberal state to settle…by criminalizing domestic abuse.

See what just happened there? We were coasting through some unorthodox but thought-provoking political philosophy, and then suddenly you notice the real-world implication is it should be legal (if immoral) to beat your spouse. Welcome to the experience of reading Legutko. For the first few chapters, it’s unclear which aspects of modern life are animating his lament. Capitalism merits nary a mention. In the second half of the book, it becomes clear: Legutko is just one more guy who thinks women, gay people, and immigrants have too much power. Yawn. He sees Christianity–the bedrock of European civilization–as under attack by at least some of these forces (it’s less clear what women have done wrong in this context). I kept finding myself surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t have been, by what a large share of his complaints concern sexual politics. The main “moves against Christianity” are “in-vitro fertilization, so-called reproductive rights, and rehabilitation of new sexual disorders.” He contradicts his previous argument for a more robust pluralism, where no ideology stands above others, in saying that Christianity should have special pleading. It is “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal democratic anthropology.”

In fact, that may be so, at least applied to religion broadly. But only if we are talking about a version of religion that emphasizes humility, charity, and human frailty, not one obsessed with sexual regulation. I am struck by the centrality of religious discourse to all robust statements of antimodernism. Toward the end of No Place of Grace, Lears writes: “Liberal Christianity has forgotten the stratum of hardness in the Christian tradition, evaded the tragic contradictions at the heart of life, and lost much of its ability to impart a sense of gravity and larger meaning to the human condition.” As I continue to explore antimodernism, I plan to read more religious writings. Reinhold Niebuhr, Marilynne Robinson, and the history of American Evangelicalism are on my list. Please share your suggestions with me as well.

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