Remembrance of Things Yet to Come: An Anti-Modernist Response to Ted Trainer

April 19, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

I’m going to make divert slightly from my previously anticipated track to respond to Ted Trainer’s valuable critique of Leigh Phillip’s much-maligned celebration of ecomodernism, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts (2015).   I agree with much of Trainer’s critique, and am particularly thankful for his delineation of the mathematical fantasy of continued economic growth, as well as his demystification of the dream of “decoupling,” so often used to animate ecomodernist fantasies.  The limits to growth do indeed render the ecomodernists plan silly at best, as well as those of mainstream liberals.  We have yet to see a case made for a continuation of modernity or the creation of a hyper-modernity not based on serious exclusions.

That being said, I find the alternative vision for the future that Trainer suggests improbable as well, though I should also add that it is only presented briefly in the article in question.  There, Trainer seems to imagine a future in which we might pick and choose from the bounty of modernism and the sustainable wisdom of pre-modern times so as to put together a rational society that is pleasingly moderate and modest, alike, yet adorned with high-tech festoons.  This view is common within “environmentalist” circles, where the well-situated liberal consumer entertains serious elements of sustainability, but with no real intention on cutting the umbilical cord to modernity and prosperity.  Here is how Trainer describes his version of this view, criticizing Phillip’s argument that nothing but continued modernization and across-the-board growth and innovation will do:

Most importantly, apparently Phillips cannot grasp that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path [of modernization]. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, furniture, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. Modernity is a whole package we move further towards or retreat from and you must take the bad with the good. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Why on earth can’t we design and build societies that embody the good ideas and ways humans have figured out over thousands of years, taking some from high tech arenas and some from hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., that we thrive best in small face-to-face communities)?

There are, in fact, a number of “good reasons” why we may not be able to mix and match various features of modern and pre-modern societies, and I will turn to these briefly.[i]   But I would first like to note the way recent critiques of ecomodernism might be subdivided into two competing visions about the way societies work or are held together.  These two visions might be distinguished by whether or not  modernity is understood as single “whole package,” or whether it is assumed that its component parts can be selectively removed and reinserted in a newly fashioned society.  I talked about these two competing visions in the first installment of the current series I’m writing on freedom and modernity (largely inspired by the appearance in my intellectual world of the ecomodernists and the several responses to them), and I’d like to return to the topic, now with some additional thoughts on the subject triggered by Trainer’s recent piece. 

This, at any rate, is how I would characterize the two views about society and its cohesion: on the one hand, we have the view of Trainer, and to a lesser, and highly nuanced, extent, Chris Smaje, which imagines a hybrid society that is neither modernist nor anti-modern.[ii]  By this view, it is possible to invent a society that is bricolage of multiple cultural and historical practices, drawing preferred elements from modern and various pre-modern eras—or at least it is worth talking about the future as if this is possible.  I might refer to this as the “naïve view” (and in some cases it is), but that might be to overstate the case, especially as thinking about society in this way may enable a utopian vision and may have considerable value as such.   But I still gravitate towards another view.  On the other hand, then, I have been arguing that societies are systems functioning within fairly tight constraints and thus with limited options for a la carte design or reformation.  This structural or “totalizing view” has its own drawbacks, which I have addressed in the past and may again at some point in the future.  It has its origins in Hegel and Marx, who I discuss below.

The constraints imposed by systems and the way all elements are interconnected within them has been one of the main themes of my ongoing series of posts about freedom and ecology.  In terms of the distinction between the two competing visions of society mentioned above, I have been proposing that an ecologically based society cannot at the same time be organized around individual freedom.[iii]  Freedom and ecology are two poles separated by a long continuum and therefore cannot live peacefully within a single system; rather, each requires a very different kinds of system.  Attempts to make them fit within a single system usually involve diesel-truck sized omissions representing the “coherence in contradiction” that Jacque Derrida once attributed to “the force of desire.”  The incompatibility of freedom and ecology is an important issue, I think, because if I am correct, we need are at a great cultural crossroads where we need to choose between the two or, at the least, find some sustainable point along the continuum stretching between them.

Despite my grave-sounding critique of freedom, I personally like my own quite a bit, and would hope to find some suitable middle-ground.   But I don’t think placing limits on individual liberty in the name of ecology will be an easy task.  I wouldn’t be writing (and wringing my hands) about it if it were.  But I don’t think the partial limitation of freedoms implied in Trainer’s description will be any easier.  In fact, I think it would be more difficult for reasons I allude to below and that I will discuss more explicitly at a later date.

Trainer believes that skepticism about the possible intermixing of the modern and anti-modern (and probably of unlimited consumer freedom[iv] and its selective curtailment) is indicative of a fallacy about historical development.  This is the fallacy, according to Trainer,

that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future. All societies are somewhere on this single path. At the modern end there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. Phillips proceeds as if your choice is only about where you are on that dimension.

I’m going to risk the appearance of diving deeper into this fallacy by pointing out that freedom is the supreme and defining value of modernity, and has been on the rise throughout modernity, while the only good examples of the sort of closed-system societies that bear meaningful resemblance to ecology have appeared in pre-modern times.  Modernity, I am quite sure, does not offer many, if any, models for an ecological society, nor even ones in which freedoms have been successfully limited in the name of alternative values.  Modernity, I believe, does not have the intellectual and social resources to provide any such models.  This may, by default, make me an anti-modernist—I’m not sure.   But I do think, at least right now, that modern society cannot be transformed by way of reform, or by way of continued (and non-catastrophic) evolution, into an ecological society.

Have I fallen for Trainer’s “uni-dimensional fallacy?   I don’t believe so.  While I don’t think that history and possibility are uni-dimensional—as least not in the way Trainer describes it–history (and I, think, the future), is composed of a large number of continuums upon which there are only two directions.  These continuums often line up with each other and reinforce each other (high surplus and individual freedom, for instance), while others cut across each other, thus providing history with all its heterogeneity and any emancipatory possibility that there may be.  If there were not multiple continuums, history would not have developed differently in different places; if there were not any aligned continuums, history wouldn’t contain its strong patterns. Some continuums describe features that are so significant and central to the workings of a civilization that they might be mistaken for its “essence” or, better, be thought of as overriding conditions of possibility.[v]

While I think we can realistically hope for as wide a diversity of societies in the future as we’ve seen in the past, there are a number of principles like freedom and ecology, low surplus and high consumption, or reliance mainly on machine power and a close connection with nature that are never likely to maintain a shared and central role in a newly evolved society.  Even if someone more creative than I can find a way to imagine their coexistence in a single social system, I would still maintain that such combinations are so far away from our current order of things that their intermixing does not present itself as the most productive way of reimaging social possibility.  Rather, we[vi] need to get to work making tough choices between competing values that we may wish we could unite in a happy marriage but, alas, cannot.

Technological Suites

Let’s first take a closer look at Trainer’s examples.  Trainer’s vision features the combination of both high-tech elements, like advanced medical care and aerial transportation, with other areas of life based on simplicity, moderation, and limited by the principle of “good enough.”  Alongside the value of social stability and community at least one part of this imaginary society, it appears, would be devoted to the restless pursuit of technological advances so that we may continue to be astounded by flight or genetic mapping, if not actual genetic engineering.  Our poultry co-ops will, apparently, remain free from the interference of modern genetics.  This would be swell, but in the absence of a highly controlling authority it is difficult for me to imagine how we would prevent someone who, for instance, has “made it big” in the production of astounding aircraft won’t use some of his or her accumulated capital to “capitalize” on new research in genetics so as to provide a cheap way to mass-produce chickens, while at the same time undertaking an extensive marketing campaign about the desirability of inexpensive genetically modified poultry.  

But there may be more direct technical difficulties to this vision.  As one thoughtful commenter on Trainer’s piece mentioned, “The author fails to admit that each modern technology doesn’t stand alone. Each belongs to a ‘suite of technologies’, each is dependent on many others for its existence, each is dependent on current unsustainable levels of energy/resource use.”  High-tech medicine, for instance, requires specialized buildings full of specialized equipment and supplies.  It needs a constant and reliable source of energy, well-kept roads, and a whole other “suite” of supply chains and other infrastructure that would be difficult, at best, to maintain for just a few privileged “domains” of society.

There are, then, a number of necessary conditions of possibility for a society that has any substantial features of what we, today, refer to as “high-tech.” But the most important one is the presence of surplus.  Surplus, moreover, is one of the “paths” (as Trainer refers to them) which has two basic directions—more or less surplus.  Modernity marks the transition, in Europe at least, from a stable level of surplus to constantly growing ones.  As many anthropologists have explained, and most notably in this context, Joseph Tainter, the sort of complex society that is able to create astounding feats of science and technology is a complex one, with a distinct division of labor and lots of specialization.  Such societies only arise under conditions of substantial and prolonged surplus—when a small part of the population can supply the rest of it with its basic goods and services, leaving the rest of society free to pursue things not directly necessary to the society’s day to day survival.  As John Michael Greer and others have repeatedly pointed out, a readily available supply of fossilized sunlight is the mother of all surpluses.  Fossilized sunlight is also, of course, what has brought us all to the pages of Resilience, and in multiple ways.  

One of the reasons why modernity has limited models for sustainable or ecological ways of living is because modernity, I would suggest, is also the period in which humans suddenly found a way to exploit this fossilized energy surplus.  I would add to this description by suggesting that modernity is also the era in which people came to believe that this surplus would be permanent and thus organized every aspect of its culture and values around this belief in permanent surplus.  In order to maintain the sort of advanced medical care or modern genetic research Trainer mentions, we will therefore need to maintain enough surpluses in the areas of energy capture and storage (both mechanical and biological energy) to maintain a high degree of specialization.

Surplus Values

If this surplus disappears, however, everything changes, and the future will begin to look a lot more like pre-modern eras than we are generally pleased to admit.  This isn’t to say that we will simply turn back the clock or disappear into the history from whence we came.  A low surplus future may not resemble any specific period of the past.   But it also won’t resemble the future that Trainer briefly paints.

It is safe to assume, then, that Trainer is imagining a high-surplus future in which humanity for the most part has chosen to live simply and without excess, reserving the high-surplus for a few good socially-agreed upon domains, like medicine or transportation.  The technical hurdles to that society aside, I think there are good reasons to believe that the values created under conditions of surplus are largely unsuited to principles of moderation and “good enough,” at least in the quantity needed to reduce our collective ecological footprint to the sustainable level and to integrate our lives into the ecology of our common home. 

There are in fact countless ways in which the very pursuit and storage of surplus is inimical to the several of the values lauded by Trainer (and that I would also extol, but perhaps in a farther reaching manner).  As Marx noted over a century ago, specialization and division of labor, for its part, requires that the social entity be split up into separate and antagonistic spheres, each with distinct interests of its own.  Although specialization and fragmentation affects every aspect of our socialization, Marx singled out the alienation of labor, which both in its process and results, Marx suggested, confronts the workers as something alien and, often, contrary to their real interests: “labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical or mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”[vii]  Increased automation only exacerbates this alienation and creates a situation where very few people see, or even understand, the products they make or the services they perform from start to finish.  Strong incentives or counter-incentives are necessary to keep people’s noses to the grindstone, as “life itself appears only as a means to life.”

Others have noted the way this sort of fragmentation of work and interest also results in a fragmented vision.  Specialized workers, as well as consumers, need to focus only on a narrow aspect of their work and its products; very few people (usually another, often odd-ball, group of specialists) are tasked with looking at the whole system, which can eventually be modeled only with some sort of super-computer as complexities proliferate.  But the specialized interests of society’s members make it likely that no one has the means or the incentive to take seriously the results of any such big-picture modeling or theorization.  In times of growth and expansion, politics may be able to arbitrate between competing interests; but even in times of slight contraction, the historical record of democracies suggests, politics are overwhelmed by demagogues and tyrants.

There are, of course, some types of work which provide more “intrinsic” satisfaction, and thus require less extrinsic incentive.  Artisans, artists, intellectuals turned farmer or carpenter, bloggers, some academics, healers, and craftspeople (to name  few) are familiar with this, and their labor may give them an opportunity to engage in less competitive and manipulative relationships with their fellows.  But such people do not generate the surpluses necessary to create a sustained high-tech industry and the support infrastructure it requires.  If anything, many of these people (among whom I consider myself) are, today, the products of a complex society with enough surplus (derived from automated extraction, farming, and manufacturing) to allow us to contribute in relatively minor ways to the more basic operation of society.  Organize society around this sort of convivial artisanal craftwork, and we may have laid the groundwork for the proliferation of chicken co-ops and homemade mud brick homes, but not for astounding technical achievements.  Like Trainer, I can imagine a craft, small-farm, local and artisanal society based on moderation and genial satisfaction; but like Phillips, I can’t imagine how that society would also maintain the glimmering, climate-controlled multi-million dollar medical facilities or any sort of functioning mass system of aerial travel, and all the other benefits and necessities ascribed to modern life. 

Modernity and Its Discontents

Despite its record of stunning technological accomplishments, modernization has created a pattern of problems that have been hard to ignore—problems of social alienation, loss of identity, disruption of traditional ways of living, intergenerational friction, and, more recently, perilous environmental destruction.  Responses have generally followed one of two basic patterns.  First are those who we might think of Modernists.[viii]  They try to accelerate modernization, as if the problems of industrial production, extractive treatment of the Earth, and manipulative relationships with each other are some sort of passing developmental problem—part of the growing pains of modernity as it approaches automated completion and more comprehensive human dominion over natural systems. Others modernists are less utopian, calculating that the consumer goods and material affluence modernity provides are an acceptable price for its collateral damage. 

Another, second, anti-modern approach looks to the past, finding hope and solace in tradition, simple values and ways of life, and images of peaceful social integration.  The problem with the modernist view is that more automation, more freedom, and more consumption, for instance, cannot solve any problems that may in fact be caused by automation, freedom, and consumption.  This is becoming clearer as the problems of modernity are life-threatening to the entire species, leaving committed modernists with the embarrassing duty of telling us that the cure for the fallout from our consumption is yet more consumption.  The problem with the anti-modern view is the way it has been highly selective in its choice of anti-modern icons.  Nature, the simple life, and the “handmade” have become highly valued commodities made possible by a surplus derived in entirely opposite ways.  Too often the appeal to the past has been a way of “naturalizing” historically specific and socially created hierarchies and prejudices.  Finally, the plenitude of the past may have either never existed, or existed only when embedded in a broader social or economic system.  That anti-modernists have been selective anti-modernist may explain why conservatives have resisted whole system thinking, while becoming ever-more anti-intellectual: for only in an isolated and undisturbed medium might visions of plentitude-past cast their comforting glow.

Marx and Hegel remain interesting and relevant today, and are a subtext in the debate over ecomodernism.  But their greatest significance has not, I think, been highlighted. They standout in my mind for the way they wrestled with the problem of the modern and the anti-modern.  For both, modernity was marked by dis-integration and division—the individual against community, legality against morality, freedom against necessity, feeling against understanding, lived experience against systematic truths, the workers against the product of their labor.  Both longed, instead, for an integrated and harmonious whole, where politics might be the expression of morality, economics of human creativity and potential, the individual as a connected part of the whole, both free yet embedded in a social unity.  This unity was, for both, a value drawn from a pre-modern past.  Hegel, for his part, was entranced with the integrated ethics and politics of the Greek Polis.  Marx’s vision of unalienated labor has an artisanal flavor to it: it belongs to the worker’s essential being, he affirms himself in it, feels content, develops his mental and physical energy, and is an end in itself and not merely a means to a life purchased elsewhere.  This is not the stuff of factory work or work in the management sector of a global economy.

Marx and Hegel were, however, determined not to draw normative political criteria from an utterly alien moment in history.  This notion of transplanting values of the past into the present by an act of will, faith, or enthusiasm was, in fact, a chief raison d’etre of Hegel’s extensive philosophical project.[ix]  Instead the dialectic historical method and the immanent critique “must travel a long way and work its passage,” with “seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative,”[x] so that its extensive labor might lead humanity to a place of reconciliation, as implicit social relations became objectified in human praxis, visible, and thus a part of consciousness.  For Marx, similarly, the lived experience and demands of a revolutionary class might solve humanity’s system-wide troubles.  Despite the determination to achieve reconciliation only by working through modernity, or by working-out its problems, visions of a past unity and social integration provided a normative shadow, if not ideal, for both.

I think it is generally misguided and all too easy to blame the failings of Communism on the shortcomings of Marx’s diagnosis of modernity and capitalism.  But we might nevertheless note that the Soviet Union and its satellites attempted to build a society based on the values of solidarity and communal unity but by the opposing means of modern, industrial, high-surplus and highly-productive society.  Perhaps the lesson of its failure is that you cannot have both, for as it has been instituted Communism could only be maintained, such as it was, by brutally repressing unruly feelings and desires.[xi]

It has been typical to attribute these feelings and desires to “human nature,” so that it is said that Communism didn’t work because it violated human nature, unlike capitalism, which is said to have capitalized on it.   But I wonder if some might instead be attributed to conditions of modernity and industrial society, or the alienation of humans from nature.  Perhaps Communism violated “modern nature.”  As Marx himself noted, “What applies to man’s relation to his work, to the products of his labour, and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labour and object of labour.”[xii]   As long as our work (or, more generally Marx  rightly assumes, our relationship to nature and our “species being”)  is “estranged” from our creativity or individuality, or sense of concrete satisfaction, or desire to be useful and significant to others, so too will our general social, political, and moral lives be similarly alienated.[xiii]  Put more generally, Marx was acutely aware of the way our “sensuous finitude” (to borrow a term from Seyla Benhabib) was organized and determined by our mode of production and our dependence on the medium of money.  Marx includes in the senses whose nature is determined by our orientation to work and ownership, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, being aware, sensing, wanting, acting, loving.”[xiv]  Regardless of its ownership, factory work or the cultural industry, alike, require these senses to be trained in a specific way.

This question isn’t posed as an attempt to revive Communism, but to point out the way Communism, following Marx, tried to intermix the modern and the pre-modern, and in so doing, ignored another feature of Marx’s writing which focused on the way high surpluses, machine production, and mass consumption were likely to be incompatible with the convivial social order he also imagined.  In the end, perhaps he put too much emphasis on private property and not enough on the sensuous finitude endemic to all the other aspects of modernity.  So even as we may reject some of the specifics of Marx’s analysis of the social construction of our sensuous apprehension of the world, most clearly articulated in his 1844 Manuscripts,[xv] but only a little introspection, cross cultural reflection, or the raising of children will reveal just how finely calibrated human perception and conceptualization are.  We are delicately sensitive to shades of meaning, incentives, approval and disapproval.  The glimmer of opportunity can open up a world of expectation and even entitlement. Patterns of reward and discipline set unconsciously by the rhythm of one’s location in time or space as a child will reverberate throughout adulthood, animating dreams, firing ambitions, and darkening relationships.  With enough social accumulation they can converge to create or topple an entire social order.  While we tend to notice social and political inconsistencies, especially in others—how a society devoted to freedom might permit this form of tyranny or a people concerned with safety might fail to notice that strangely sanctioned risk—cultures maintain a remarkable consistency, and even ones that may have little patience with abstract philosophy require a high degree of conceptual uniformity and adherence to basic principles.  Our beliefs and expectations are like tremulous vines, reaching towards and entwining any disruptions to its delicate network of meaning and function.  An alien transplant, such as the sudden appearance of a new technology, will either be appropriated by that society’s mode of being, or the mode of being will be reworked to maintain equilibrium, just as the introduction of an invasive species will upset and alter an ecology.  Society, in other words, requires a high level of consistency or integration, even in heterogeneous societies such as ours, and Marxist thought may remain valuable in explaining how and why.

Back to the Past?

I wonder, then, to what extent we can realistically expect to intermix things like instant access to the internet with an economy rooted in place and custom, or admission to a gleaming hospital followed by recuperation in a simple home built of local materials complete with a composting toilet.  Can a world of high-speed semi-conductors survive alongside a return to draft animals?  In a world of constant entertainment, diversion, alluring images, and high-speed transportation, how many of our young will be content with the slow-paced conviviality of our self-styled slow food, slow money, world of hard work and communal rituals?  Can work in marketing, advertising, or industrial distribution be harmonized with a life free from excess material wants and desires?–does one’s daily message of bigger, faster, sooner not stick to oneself?  Will the deprived menial laborer, yoked to a world of having, not yearn for the bounty she sees but cannot possess?

Because this intermixing is at best difficult, any anti-modern values we may need require the support, at the very least, of anti-modern institutions or an anti-modern organization of the senses, perceptions, or concepts.   It is in this vein that I have been intrigued by Chris Smaje’s suggestion that peasants may be a new sort of revolutionary class, though he uses those terms with commendable self-consciousness. Peasants, or as Smaje will say, “peasantization,” may provide the praxis to animate our theory.  As Smaje puts it

I’m a mostly self-employed farmer working a small piece of land, growing a fair slice of my own food, with few opportunities to ‘get away’, but absorbed in the daily wildness of creating sustenance from the earth. I still believe in equality, and I still believe in science, progress and rationality, although in a more conflicted way than before. And when I now think about the kind of society I’d like to see – which I do more often than I used to – I imagine one in which a lot of people live a similar kind of life to my present one. I have, in short, become an advocate for peasantisation, localisation, agrarian populism, anti-globalisation and degrowth – a cluster of ideas that I think of as an economics of the home.[xvi]

Here, Smaje is also responding to Leigh Phillips, and along with him, I suspect, a set of beliefs and expectations about modernity and the future that is widely held in “advanced” modern democracies.  Part of his own interest with peasant potential has to do with the old Enlightenment values of justice and equality – ones which Marx, too, could never escape (and who among us can?), even with his resolute opposition to the transcendental normative subject of (earlier) Enlightenment thinking.  But Smaje doesn’t explicitly work-through modern values as does Marx, but supplants them: 

the remedy [for oppression, injustice, inequality, as well as planetary ecological ruin] lies not in cargo cults, not in a bourgeois fever dream of shopping malls for all, but in a different way of grounding production within the capacities of our selves and our locales – in other words, to a politics of relocalisation, degrowth, peasant sensibility, sufficiency, or what I’ve here termed home economics. It’s true that some variants of these latter traditions can be tight-lipped and joyless, blind to the simple pleasure of material things. People are endlessly creative when it comes to reinventing ways of feeling superior to others. But I don’t see that the PlayStation-wielders of contemporary Britain are happier, more richly connected people than scythe-wielding peasants or neo-peasants of the past or present.[xvii]

Yes, there is a risk here of nostalgia or romanticism.  However, as I see it at least, peasant socialism turns Marx and Hegel on their nostalgic head.  It is not that peasant socialism, nor is it that relocalization and degrowth, nor that the non-alienated labor of small scale organic food production will cure our modern disintegration.  They do not achieve their current heft by providing some sort of integral unity that might allow us to escape alienation or the spiritual destruction of capitalism and consumerism and all its coercive and manipulative instrumental reason.  Rather, because our ecological survival requires relocalization and degrowth—because, in short, modernism cannot be sustained—we would be well-advised to look for alternative forms of a life-well lived and satisfactions duly pursued, both in theory and in praxis, in image and in manifestation.

[i] Never mind what appears to be a third-hand misunderstanding of Adorno and Horkheimer.

[ii] I see Smaje as more anti-modern, though he does suggest that a peasantization may be a kind of alternative modernism:

[iii] I mean “freedom” in the sense meant by Liberals like John Stuart Mill: “of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow.”  Marx or the Pope might, instead speak of “freedom” as the realization of some sort of essential humanness.  I am not including this understanding of freedom in my  description of Liberal freedom for the simple reason that it is not Liberal.  I would only add that these other kinds of “freedom” might be better described using an alternative term, but have been described as a kind of freedom to gain cache in  a world dominated by the Liberal sense of freedom.

[iv] By this I mean the freedom to consume whatever you want and whatever you can afford, with no real, widespread social limitations on want, and only the unequal distribution of wealth limiting what one can afford—never mind the ecological limits to growth and wealth.

[v] The belief that history and the future are so heterogeneous and unsystematic that we can create or reform it in any shape we want, I’ll add as an aside, is a belief that is only plausible within a certain kind of society sitting at the extreme (and temporary) end of several intersecting and overdetermining continuums giving the illusion that humans have no limits.

[vi] Who is this “we”?  Those of us who can.  Leave the repetition of “common sense” to those who are currently unable to imagine anything else.

[vii] Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Englels Reader (New York: Norton and Norton, 1978, Robert Tucker ed.), p. 74

[viii] I would differentiate this use of the term “modernist” from that of a modernist artist or philosopher.  These latter modernists are not simply pro-modernization, but more generally proceed with awareness that modernity manifests a set of problematics distinct from previous eras.

[ix] “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 a theory does indeed transcend its 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 it can construct anything it pleases.”  Elements of the Philosophy of Right, tr. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 21-2).

[x] G.F.W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1977) p. 15, 10.

[xi] North Korea, I would also note, is the most complete example of a society that has combined both astounding high-tech elements alongside simple homemade mud brick houses.

[xii] 1844 Manuscripts, 77

[xiii] This alienation and fragmentation may have worked decently enough during modern civilization’s “metabolic phase,” but we may need other values to survive our catabolic one, but we have been socialized only for growth and expansion. 

[xiv] Ibid, 87

[xv] As I read Marx, he neglected some his ideas about sensuous finitude not only because it invoked a trans-historical human nature incompatible with his historical materialism, but because it smacked too much of the anti-modern nostalgia that was, itself, incompatible with his progressive vision.


[xvii] Ibid

Hegel portrait by Schlesinger. Source: Wikipedia.

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: ecology, Ecomodernist, freedom, liberalism, Modernism