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Formulating a future: the case for anti-modernism (part 1)

One of the best things about life is the strange bedfellows you find in it. It makes for one heck of a slumber party.

I was thinking about this recently, because I happened to follow out the links that people have been putting in to my posts one afternoon when I had time to kill, just out of curiosity. I do this periodically, but I’d never done so systematically, or sat down to really sort through them. And the juxtaposition, say of the black women survivalists with the urban Catholic distributist nuns, the anarchist social critics and the right wing ones, the Belizian Mennonites, the Mormon food storage people, the Pagan Fiber artists, the Baptist farmers, the socialist Baptist farmers, and the guy who occasionally sticks my pieces in with his essays on South African poetry made for a truly engaging collage. And it got me asking - what do all of us have in common?

We certainly don’t share a primary political bond, or religious faith - or at least most of us don’t. After my post recently on the role of religious communities in the future, I got emails from members of 27 distinct religious groups, not to mention plenty of athiests and agnostics. My readers cross the political spectrum.

National bonds, cultural ones, racial and ethnic ones - all of these are too variable to provide primary common ground. Even common belief about climate change, peak oil or the financial situation isn’t sufficient - I have quite a few readers who are climate change dissenters, but who share my perspective on other grounds, and plenty who think peak oil is a hoax, but have agrarian priorities. And while I disagree with them, I’m truly glad they are part of my readership, since being agreed with all the time is bad for my intellect, not to mention dull.

In the end, there is a common ground, however, and it is simply this - most of my readers come to this blog with a pervasive sense that what industrial society seems to promise them either has not arrived, or is not coming. They see no future for themselves in the path we’ve been on.

And they are not wrong. The whole premise of modernity as we practice it now is that future generations won’t mind the fact that we are using resources they will require, polluting and destroying the future capacity of the earth. The whole and most fundamental premise of modernity is this - that because progress always goes forward, there is no need to consider the future. And thus we create a culture that reverses the ordinary human desire to pass down to one’s posterity more than one already had - now we arrange life so that the future serves the present - children as yet unconceived will pay our debts and clean our messes. The future is always and inevitably enslaved to the present, and since we do not wish to acknowledge this, we do not enjoy looking at the moral consequences of this, there is no reason to think much about the future at all. Thus, modernity at one blow disposes of any future that doesn’t look like a science fiction movie.

I think it is important to realize that we cannot separate out the failures of industrial society in the present from the failures in the future. That is, peak oil and climate change (and the food crisis, overpopulation and the financial crisis and any other problems you want to pile on to the list up to and including waxy yellow buildup) are fundamentally, symptoms of a larger societal problem - industrial modernization. I don’t think that the root cause is energy depletion or the side effects (ie climate change and pollution) of energy use - that too is a symptom of a larger mindset that says that all we have to do is pour more and more resources into technologies and “development” and we can create paradise.

I don’t, thus, want to speak, as some people do, of energy as the master resource in this. Energy is extremely valuable - but the roots of our fossil fuel dependence go deep into our colonial past, and our dependence on the energy of human labor in slavery and colonialism.

And ultimately, it is this that my readership has in common - anti-modernism, a fundamental skepticism that economic growth, more energy, more technology, more shiny things, minor economic social change and other incremental variations on the same basic themes can resolve the deeper problems. Fundamentally, most people have either made a leap to the belief that some new model is required, or they are on the cusp of such a leap, struggling to balance the fact that our society views the price of modernity, even the costs to (and of) the future as a reasonable one, a mere side effect of a progress that is simultaneously inevitable and necessary to keep us all from an endless misery and suffering.

It would be easy to reject the idea of anti-modernity - after all, one could make the case that many positive and noble ideas and advances from longer lifespans and the germ theory of disease to voting rights for women are a product of modernity - reject modernity, the reasoning goes, and we’re back to wallowing in our own filth. Nor is it particularly politically realistic to imagine a wholly agrarian society, in a world of nearly 7 billion people. And this is a reasonable point, to a point. This is one of the reasons I don’t call this agrarianism.

And this would be a fair critique were anti-modernity purely retrospective, the nostalgic longing for a golden past - in that case it would be easy and right to correct it with the reminder that the past was not golden. That’s the cartoon version of anti-modernism, in which it is simply a longing to go backwards. But backwards is a direction not available to us, even if we wanted it. Anti-modernism begins from modernism, from an industrialized society with the germ theory of disease and depleted farm land, civil rights laws and toilet paper. The idea is to go forward towards a future, not to find another futureless image, in which nostalgia is all. There are legitimate debates about what of the good of modernism can be carried with us into the future without compromising our future, but as I point out in _Depletion and Abundance_ there are much less modernized cultures that have lifespans as long as ours, literacy rates that are similar and political power for women.

The progressive industrial worldview, combined with the habit of a false dualism (ie, that there is nothing between apocalyptic misery and the technological perfection of the future, what I often call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” fallacy), and between “techno future” and “regression” is very hard to shake off. Thus it is quite remarkable that as many people have done so as have. In fact, there are encouraging signs, I think, that the society as a whole is beginning to do so - consider the recent poll data that suggested that just about half of all Americans think socialism either might be better than capitalism or don’t know if it might be. While I suspect most Americans don’t really know what socialism (or capitalism) are, this is all the more astounding because Americans are taught to believe in capitalism, not as a fully comprehended thought, but as the “home team” that you root for win or lose. The idea that most Americans are ready to abandon their home team is pretty astonishing. The poll represents not a reconsideration of socialism, I suspect, but a longing for another choice outside the one that has failed them. As usual, the only choice presented are a false dualism - other economic possibilities aren’t even mentioned. But this is no accident - industrial modernity, capitalist or socialist (and both are fundamentally industrial and modernist) is a totalizing worldview, which doesn’t merely affirm one choice, but strives to eliminate alternatives.

And this, perhaps, is what makes me affirm my identity as an anti-modernist, and to think that this might be the right way to think about the common ground that I have with people who I would not ordinarily know or meet, and in many cases, with whom I would ordinarily be discouraged from working. That is, it is all very well for me to wax rhapsodic about the “diversity” of my readership, but our society, which uses enlightenment political categories as weapons, is very clear in its message that I shouldn’t actually try and work with people (and get them to work with each other) who commit the deep sin of standing on the other side of those political and national barriers from one another.

And there are real reasons to wonder whether people who, say, believe that population is the root problem of modernity and should be constrained at all costs and people who believe that reproduction is a blessing and a gift to be welcomed can work with one another on creating a sustainable future. There are real reasons to wonder why those who believe that abortion should be illegal and those who believe it should be a private matter for women and their doctors can ally even tenuously on other matters, and how strong those alliances might be. There are reasons to wonder whether climate change activists and dissenters can work well together on agrarian issues, or how the Global South and North views of ecology might come together. It is not my claim that anti-modernist ties are sufficient to obviate all other political categories. But I would claim that they are sufficient to build something upon.

Of course, this has been done before - the agrarian movement is an entertaining mix of aging Hippies and conservative Christians already, the anti-globalization movement has Pat Buchanan and George Monbiot, and any world climate conference will present fascinating alliances between nations that before had little in common. I’m hardly suggesting anything new.

But ultimately, what I would suggest is that, without overly eliding essential differences, it is possible to imagine that anti-modernism, that is, a commitment to and belief in the future both in the abstract and the real bodies of our real posterity, is sufficient to carry the weight of a movement. If that is not sufficient to bear political fruit, what else is, after all?

I would expect the many and varied debates that are already going on between disparate views of what society should look like to be both engaging and contentious. I think that if such an anti-modernist identity could collectively arise, and a political rubric be created for at least some alliance, we would have to decide what future vision we all collectively stand in favor of, rather than simply opposing the totalizing vision of modernity. I suspect hybrids and factions will arise in fascinating and troubling ways. I don’t know that I will always like what such alliances achieve.

And yet, I think it is necessary. Agrarianism alone, peak oil awareness alone, eco-village culture alone, traditionalism alone, anarcho-agrarianism alone, crunchy conservativism alone, anti-globalization alone, climate activism alone, survivalism alone, distributism alone, radical homemaking alone, or any of the complex personal identities we create for ourselves alone are insufficient to stand against to the totalizing message of modernity, the one that erases even the possibility of our existence. All of these identities alone ultimately leave us…alone, too few to make an impact, without sufficient density of culture to draw others together under our rubric. If we are not to be small outposts alone, dissenting from modernity as it devours our future, our only hope is a unified case to preserve it.

Sharon

Editorial Notes: For sizzling dissections of modernity, see the documentaries of BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis. These multi-hour presentations trace the rise of phenomena like advertising, pesticides, nuclear power and modern economics. Inevitably these ideas and technologies prove to have side-effects that negate the cheery optimism with which they were born. The documentaries are fun to watch, with many mind-boggling clips. The style is similar to "The End of Suburbia". Many are available online. The Century of the Self ("This series is about how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy." - Adam Curtis") online Pandora's Box (examines the dangers of technocratic and political rationality) online The Power of Nightmares (political manipulation, the spectre of terrorism, neo-conservativism) source The Trap - What Happened to our Dream of Freedom (the modern concept of freedom) source More links are at the YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js39hh9OkpQ (Click on "more info" in the upper right) -BA

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