Selective Anti-Modernism and the Shape of Society

December 7, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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As far as the individual is concerned, each individual is in any case a child of his time; thus philosophy, too, is its own time comprehended in thoughts.  It is just as foolish to imagine that any philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as that an individual can overleap his own time or leap over Rhodes.  If his theory does indeed transcend his own time, if it builds itself a world as it ought to be, then it certainly has an existence, but only within his opinions—a pliant medium in which the imagination can construct anything it pleases.

–G.W.F. Hegel

I have been observing with great interest the debate surrounding the self-named Ecomodernists.  I first became aware of the Ecomodernists and their new Manifesto by way of excellent critiques by Chris Smaje and Kurt Cobb.  These thoughtful and even handed responses were, at least in the case of Smaje, met by a barrage of counter attacks.  More recently, this feud has spilled over into Leigh Phillips’ unfortunate Austerity Ecology, which was met with now exasperated responses from Smaje and Rob Hopkins.[i]

Part of my interest comes from my own identification with Hopkins, Cobb, Smaje, and many others who share similar views about the alleged triumph of modernism.  But the other part of my interest ranges away from my usual compatriots, as I ponder a significant and fundamental philosophical question that the conflict raises, but that remains unexamined by both sides. 

Two Visions for Society

The Ecomodernists and their recent interlocutors present at least two very different visions of what a good, just, and abundant ecological society might look like, though I will divide them into two broad outlooks.  The Ecomodernists advance the cause for increased and unrestrained modernization with a two pronged attack.  The first prong has to do with social and economic progress: as modernization has “liberated humans from nature,” they argue, it has permitted unmatched “personal, economic, and political liberties [that] have spread worldwide and today are largely accepted as universal values.”  Modernity, they believe, has not only created the exclusive conditions for a “good life,” free from injustice and poverty, it “liberates women from traditional gender roles, increasing their control of their fertility.  Historically, large numbers of humans—both in percentages and in absolute terms—are free from insecurity, penury, and servitude.”  With modernization, “human lives have been liberated from hard agricultural labor,” freeing up “enormous human resources for other endeavors” (13). 

These surplus resources and the other endeavors they permit constitute modern progress.  They allow us leisure, freedom for self-development, pay for institutions of art and culture, permit participatory government.  Or as the authors of the Ecomodern Manifesto put it, “what we refer to when we speak of modernization is the long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies towards vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom” (28).

But they also argue as part of a second prong that increased modernization is the only way to save our biosphere in a way that is at once counter-intuitive but also the main operating principle of so-called “advanced” industrial nations looking to secure a sustainable version of contemporary society.  The Ecomodernists in this way distill and organize today’s prevailing myth of progress. The more of goods and services we are able to synthesize, rather than take from the “natural world,” and the more technological efficiency we employ when we use the small part of nature we actually need, the less damage we will do to it—or so their logic goes.  They ultimately imagine a hyper-efficient, fully synthetic urban humanity living off a sliver of land, so that the rest of the Earth can, if we choose to let it, be left on its own.

I can add very little to the way Chris Smaje and Kurt Cobb have dismantled the confused logic, and cherry-picking grasp of the way technology and ecology interact, that animates the Ecomodernist fantasy of the near-complete separation of humans from the natural world.  In contrast, Smaje and Cobb are, each in his own unique way, part of a movement that articulates an alternative view of a just and sustainable society.  For reasons of convenience, I’m going to refer to this “other side” as a single entity (despite a variety of opinion and approach), and for reasons that will become increasingly clear, I’m going to refer to it as Selective Anti-Modernism, or  them as Selectively Ambivalent Modernists, both by way of a single acronym, SAMs.  I would apply this label to myself, though with some additional reservations and ambivalence. 

SAMs do not accept the pretention that modernization has, in a simple way, made life for most of the Earth’s people better, advanced the cause of public health, or provided far reaching economic integration, nor would SAMs accept the suggestion that hard agricultural labor is inherently less dignified than a life of paper-pushing, keyboard-pounding, or telephone-answering in the global lumpen middle-class.  SAMs generally argue that humans are a part of nature, and that in addition to endangering nature itself the modern separation of us from our place in a broader ecology has done great damage to our psyches, our bodies, and our souls.  In any event, the only way to save our biosphere, SAMs are correct, is to live more simply with far less reliance on the high-energy and resource-intensive systems required to separate ourselves from nature—the systems envisioned by Ecomodernists though with a strange lack of awareness of the amount of natural resources needed to pull off such a separation.  Modernism, SAMs might argue, is a kind of anti-ecology that cannot be changed by trying to complete some imaginary removal of ourselves from the rest of our biosphere.

The notion of selective ambivalence or anti-modernism is important.  Just as SAMs question the myth of unlimited growth or technological progress, they (we) retain many modern conceptions of human good and in many ways operate according to Enlightenment notions of reason, freedom, and justice.  SAMs often maintain that only a local, ecologically-minded, low-consumption way of life will fulfill the Enlightenment promise of a just, free, and sustainable future.  By being selective, SAMs avoid the risks of primitivism or the notion that the engine of history can be somehow thrown into reverse.  Smaje is especially elegant on this point.  Against the Ecomodernists commitment to a modernism not only without limits but also without exception, Smaje suggests that once this temporal ethnocentrism’s defenses are breached, “then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own terms. . . .  I think the answer is ‘yes’.  I think we can learn much from the uncivilized about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’.”[ii]

Two Versions of Society

Beneath these competing visions for the future lies a serious question not about what types of technologies or relationship to nature society should maintain, but about how societies in general work, how they hold themselves together, and how they change.  Although neither side is talking about it explicitly, here or (for the most part) elsewhere, all activists, visionaries, or social prognosticators betray assumptions concerning the issues raised by these questions in their activities, as well as in their hopes and aspirations for the future.  We SAMs, I’m afraid, may be susceptible to more naïve assumptions, though that may be an inevitable career hazard for any collaboration between hope and imagination.

Addressing these questions will require a brief detour into the history of political and cultural philosophy and the sometimes arcane subject, “theories of society.”  But it is a subject that those trying to change society should familiarize themselves with.  In the Anglo-Saxon world, the dominant understanding of culture and history is what I would refer to as a Liberal one.  Here, society is viewed as a conglomeration of individuals, held together by their mutual adoption of some sort of implicit social contract, or by way of a shared culture and history that maintains only the loosest and voluntary hold over the future.  To the extent that a given society has a specific nature or character, according to this first version of culture, it can be derived largely by finding patterns or qualities that individuals have created by making choices similar to those of others. 

According to this version, American culture might be described according to the hard-working and freedom-loving traditions that have been shared, intermixed, and passed down by successive waves of immigrants seeking a better life and pursuing whatever opportunity they could create for themselves in an unrestrictive land of opportunity.  Or, alternatively, it might be described as a collection of entitled whiners who have lost sight of the principles of independence and self-reliance that once made us great.  But in either case, any one individual is able to break free from any such trends and create whatever life he or she wants; if enough individuals do so, a new trend might emerge.  Society, at any rate, can be made and remade in any way that we might collectively imagine.  The rules of its operation are the rules we create and agree to adopt. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, society itself is more likely to be seen as the primary force, with individuals playing a more minor, and far less autonomous, role within society.  Society has its own nature or laws which can only be breached with limited, and mainly superficial, success unless the whole of society is transformed from the bottom up.  Traditionally, these conceptions of society as a hegemonic totality have been divided into two different schools, organicist and mechanistic.

 It is a somewhat misleading simplification to suggest that in the mechanistic view society is conceived of as a machine, though this may move us in the right direction.  Rather, society and the interrelation of humans are, by this view, governed by some basic laws, not unlike the mechanistic laws of nature that Newton used to describe the universe.  The most well-known mechanistic view of society is the one detailed by Marx, according to which (in its most simple form) any cultural phenomena—whether artistic, educational, legal, or moral—is a reflection of the means of production. Important to the mechanistic view of ideology, cultural phenomena also work to reinforce the beliefs that keep those means of production in place, as well as the division of power and wealth required by society’s structure and operation.  A bourgeois novel, as one slightly crude example, might be interpreted as helping to make the division of peoples into social classes seem natural and inevitable.  Property laws may be presented as natural or inevitable, but they are part of society’s function or mechanism, and are tacitly designed to keep the worker from owning their own factories and sharing equally in its productive capacity.

An organicist view of society, as the name suggests is more likely to view it as a living creature than a machine.  Each individual or cultural phenomena, accordingly, plays an integral role in the life of the larger being, just as each part of a human body is a part of our overall functioning.  This, too, is a somewhat misleading simplification, and a simplification that has been notably exploited by Fascism in order to convince individuals to sacrifice themselves to the good of a mythical state that was endowed with an alleged life of its own.  In other, more complex, forms of the organicist view each aspect of a culture or society is a reflection of an underlying or overall spirit.  In this way, an organicist view of history explains all the varieties and seemingly contradictory parts of past civilizations as, in reality, expressions of their level of development and thus their overall way of organizing themselves.

There is another view that looks at cultures and societies as a whole and interconnected system—namely an ecological view.  While this view, in which human societies are governed by the rules or energy, nutrients, temperature, precipitation, and others that also apply to ecosystems is part of a standard anthropological and archaeological repertoire, it has yet to achieve widespread purchase when it comes to analyzing modern or contemporary societies.  This is mainly because of the false view, one central to the Ecomodernists, that we have escaped the conditions of the natural world and thus have transcended ecological limitations.  While many SAMs have begun to adopt significant aspects of an ecological view of society, most have yet to appreciate its implications.

In the meantime, elements of both the mechanistic and organicist view of society can be seen in contemporary Liberal common-sense about society and play a substantial role in our self-image.  When, for instance, sociologists discuss the way poverty or racism is “structural,” they are employing mechanistic principles, as do critics who claim that we can’t simply reform our way out of this or that problem, but need to change the underlying system.  Although we may not apply it to society as a whole, it is common enough to see one part of society in terms of immutable laws, whether of social development or some or another invisible hand.  Likewise, whenever we talk about the “evolution of liberal society,” we are using an organicist model to project that, for instance, gay marriage will be one day taken for granted without controversy as we collectively mature and remove remaining contradictions from our overall principles as they concern human freedom, equality, and dignity.

The Liberal adoption of mechanistic and organicist terms serve as a reminder that we are not dealing with all or nothing propositions, but with models that may guide us as we ask practical questions. Like many questions that dive deep to the heart of matters, these should be open ones:  to what extent does society have underlying laws of operation that limit the power of individual action?  To what extent is our imagination about what might be possible restricted by the spirit of the age?  How do we know if we are actually breaking-free from a cultural hegemony, or merely providing a moderating outlet for some sort of societal “shadow self”?  Can we create a just or sustainable society merely by reforming our current cultural practices?  Or do we need to make fundamental changes to the way we organize our labor, our money, the way in which we collect and distribute energy?  How much flexibility, in other words, exists in our primary systems, including belief and valuation systems?  Can the owl of Minerva take flight before the onset of dusk?

As an example, consider the way Milton Friedman—a neo-liberal who can hardly be thought of as a staunch whole-system thinker—believed that capitalism and freedom were inseparable and that without a free market we cannot expect any sort of political freedom.  In this context, we might look at the Chinese attempt to create that same free market, but maintain strict limits on political freedom.  Can it be sustained over the long term, or will a restive Chinese middle class demand that their economic power be turned into political power?  Will Chinese culture evolve to a point where they will overthrow a ruling Party elite?  If you answer yes, you have employed both mechanistic and organicist principles.  These principles suggest that society is a system, in which market freedoms are incompatible with political oppression.  The attempt to maintain the two create what Marxists have long been referring to as “cultural contradictions.”

As one more example closer to home, consider the way Jefferson, Madison, and other framers of the United States constitution, believe fervently that democracy could only survive as long as there was an involved and educated citizenry.  Contemporary politics in America is experimenting with this view by seeing what happens if we treat voters like consumers, and politicians like marketers who will use images and focus-group-approved soundbites to find enough buyers for a candidate’s product.  Is there a “structural necessity” built into American democracy that the voting public must be highly educated with a critical awareness of the affairs of the state?

The most important upshot from theories of society that view it as a large and interconnected whole is that not every feature of a given society can simply be plucked out without changing its overall operation.  Nor can a new feature of broadly adopted social practice be added without altering everything else.  To the activist, it asks, can you change this feature of your society without changing the rest?  What happens to our beliefs, values, even our stability, if you change the way we organize the work place or where we get our energy?  What happens to our broader attitudes of tolerance if we begin to identify primarily with local communities?  How do we imagine a culture of both freedom and restraint?

Because the Transition Movement, as one example, is composed largely of prosperous people living with a sufficient safety net, who make a conscious and free choice to do without the consumer goods they could, if they want, nevertheless have, it is too soon to tell whether and to what extent its values and visions for society is compatible with the free choice and self-actualization that leads most of its participants to make changes to their beliefs and attitudes.  But remove Transition Towns from the oil-based growth economy in which they float around, and with significant social and civil safety, and what happens to the self-actualization that helps the movement to thrive?  Certainly as individuals, we can learn from other cultures. Smaje is correct that the “uncivilized” offer important lessons “about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness.”  But can these lessons escape from our protected enclaves and become broader operating principles?  What happens if we try to make this happen?  Does society need to evolve on its own to a point where it is ready?  Can this evolution be speeded up by activism?  Does awareness of broader contradictions aid in the project of social change?

While I will argue in a forthcoming installment that these are, and must remain, open questions—especially the question, how much freedom to mix and match various cultural values actually exists?—I do believe that Selective Anti-Modernists may have too much faith in their (our) ability to pick and choose, and may, ultimately, need to adopt a more thoroughgoing anti-modernist perspective (even if as part of a dialectical odyssey towards a successor culture to modernism). Unlike the Ecomodernists, however, I do not think anti-Modernism will be the end of all human well-being.  It is, at any rate, certainly not a fate worse than death.  My primary reason for optimism, in the face of these more difficult choices comes from a view of things that SAMs are well on the way to fuller adoption—namely an ecological view of the world, in which freedoms may be limited or sacrificed in the name of living interconnection.

Image from the website of the Ecomodernist Manifesto:

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: Ecomodernist