Three Mistakes About Modernity – John Gray

Posted on November 19, 2010 by


Three Mistakes About Modernity

By John Gray

John GrayA common error with the idea of modernity is to think it encompasses all good things, when it does not and cannot. In this lecture John Gray (right), School Professor of European Thought at the LSE, discusses the limits and inaccuracies of conceptions of modernity.

would like to examine what’s problematic about the very idea of modernity, what modernity properly is and what it cannot be. My task is primarily critical and even somewhat sceptical, but I also want to make one or two more positive and constructive suggestions about how modernity should be thought about and how we can use the idea of modernity as an instrument of critical thinking and even of reform.
In order to do so we need to be aware of the limits of modernity and of the various errors that have surrounded it. The simplest way of summarising the three mistakes I want to discuss is to say that it’s easy to believe that modernity, the condition of modernity, encompasses all good things. That which belongs with modernity is good and that which does not is bad. But modernity does not encompass all good things and it cannot.

Mistake number one

Modernity is not a singular or univocal condition. There are many ways of being modern and many ways of failing to be modern, but there are no ways of being modern in which all vital human needs are met and all important human values are fully recognised.

Not all types of modernisation are good. The twentieth century has witnessed some terrible experiments, in what has been termed “reactionary modernisation.” Later, I’ll say something about what reactionary modernisation is. It’s also seen a number of humanly extremely disastrous and ruinous experiments in modernisation which have failed. In fact, the twentieth century was littered with failed modernisation. I’ll try to state an understanding of modernisation which is a fairly bare-bones understanding, one which I think is most useful in social and political thought and which is least prone to generate illusions about what modernisation is and can do. I’ll argue that modernisation is simply the process whereby society comes to be increasingly based on the growth of scientific knowledge and the economy to increasingly orient itself around continuous technical innovation. That’s all I think modernisation really is, and stated like that, you’ll see it carries with it no particular values, though it’s incompatible with some kinds of social orders and some kinds of cultural traditions. It doesn’t carry with it inescapably any particular ethical outlook, and in particular it doesn’t carry with it liberal values or the ethical outlook of the European Enlightenment.

The process of modernisation is then a social effect arising from the impact on human life of the growth and diffusion of knowledge; that’s all it is, and it’s open ended in its outcomes. Modernisation in and of itself does not ensure the survival or renewal of any important human value and it does not guarantee anything that could be reasonably thought of as human emancipation.

So modernity is not one thing. There are many modernities, both good and bad. It’s a fundamental error to think that all modern societies are variations on a single type, and therefore it’s an error to think that as societies become more modern they become more like each other. If you read modernisation theory, if you read the use of the term “modern” in great social and critical thinkers in the European tradition, you often find the implication or the suggestion that as societies or cultures throughout the world become more modern, so they come to resemble each other more. I think this is a mistake. I think that there are many modernities, because there are many different ways in which science and technology can be absorbed into different cultures. As societies become more modern and as they, therefore, become more similar in some respects, so at the very same time they are likely to and have become more different in other respects. The idea that modernity produces a sort of convergence of institutions and of values throughout the world is, I think, one of the errors of Enlightenment thought.

Mistake number two

Modernity does not mean embracing the Enlightenment project. If you read early nineteenth century, mid nineteenth century and late nineteenth century European thinkers, if you read the great philosophers in the French Enlightenment, even if you read thinkers in the Scottish Enlightenment, it’s often taken that in becoming modern a society thereby adopts or embraces an Enlightenment worldview or Enlightenment values. I think that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake to think that modernisation and the acceptance of Enlightenment values go inescapably together, that a society that’s not adopted some version of the Enlightenment project has, for that reason, failed to become modern. There are modernisations which have little to do with the Enlightenment project and there are unfortunately, even tragically in some cases, counter Enlightenment modernisations. So it’s a great mistake to identify or equate or conflate becoming more modern with becoming more of an Enlightenment society.


Mistake number three

Thirdly, modernity and repression are not opposites. Thinkers who identify becoming modern with human emancipation make modernity and repression opposites, but there are distinctively modern forms of repression, just as there were distinctively medieval and ancient forms of repression.

What I want to suggest to you is that successful modernisation is a precondition of progress for every contemporary society, but modernity and progress are not the same.
So what I want to do is to consider these three issues. Why there’s no one model of modernity; why being modern doesn’t mean accepting Enlightenment values and why modernisation and the expansion of human freedom do not necessarily go together.

Why is there no one model of modernity?

Let’s begin just briefly by answering this first question by looking at the intellectual history of the idea of modernisation chiefly in Europe. I think it got its first canonical formulation in the French Positivists, particularly Henri Saint Simon and Auguste Compte. They had a profound influence on social and political theory through the impact both on John Stuart Mill, who I still think to be the greatest European liberal thinker, and on Marx, who I regard as the greatest European critic of liberalism. Through Marx and Mill, these French Positivists have really shaped our contemporary understanding of modernisation, and I think we need to distinguish, in what they thought about modernisation, what is living and what is dead.

What is living in the Positivist conception of modernisation is their claim that modernisation and the emergence of an economy based on continuing technological innovation are really what make societies modern. So societies that have settled into a kind of ecological niche with their environment by ceasing to be technologically innovative, or societies in which knowledge doesn’t grow but simply recycles, such societies won’t be modern. They’ll be traditional cultures, or they’ll be some other kind of culture, but they won’t be modern societies. That’s what I think is still living in the Positivist understanding of modernisation. In fact, it’s the notion of modernisation I use myself, as you will have noticed, which focuses on something which is, to some degree at least measurable, to some degree empirically describable. It’s not bound up necessarily with any particular values.
Side by side with this valid and useful idea of modernisation there is another, in which modernisation, according to the Positivists, involved a universal convergence in all modern societies on a particular worldview essentially embodying a universal civilisation grounded on secular rationalist values and norms. The Positivists believed that as societies came to be more dependent on society and technology they would become more alike in giving up their religious and traditional differences. The Positivists, in other words, believed that modernisation led to a narrowing of cultural differences in the world, or to a marginalisation of those cultural differences that remained. They believed that cultural differences, if they did remain, would become politically insignificant. They would no longer be the cause of war or civil war or revolution. They would no longer bring about great conflicts in human affairs. This assumption that as the whole world becomes more modern, as all the different societies in the world become more modern, it’s found in both Mill and Marx and it is one of the foundation stones for the idea of modernisation that I’m criticising and attacking.

So both Marx and Mill shared this view. They, both Marx and Mill, thought that the universal spread of science would result in a universal civilisation, and all the particular singular highly different cultures in which human beings have lived in the past would prove to be streams emptying into a universal ocean. In which what was valuable in them no doubt was preserved, but their differences would be attenuated and would cease to be politically significant.

One of the places where this understanding of modernisation survives today is in neo liberal thought. It’s been heavily criticised within Marxist thought and in more self critical liberal thought in writers such as Fukuyama, with his confident predictions at least ten years ago of universal convergence on a single political regime throughout the world. Modernisation for Fukuyama, and modernisation for people who think like Fukuyama, means that all societies in the world will converge on a single range of institutions. There will be some marginal variations at the edges, no doubt, but they’ll all converge on what he calls “democratic capitalism.” I think that’s the last statement, or the most recent statement, of this view. Yet, I take it that the history of the twentieth century doesn’t offer very much support for that view. The idea that as societies become more modern, they become more similar to the original exemplars of modernity in England, America and some European countries doesn’t have much support.
What is true is that technological innovation is a necessary precondition for accepting the growth of scientific knowledge. Using technologies intelligently is a necessary condition in raising productivity in living standards. Let’s turn it the other way round. No society that closes itself off from the growth of scientific knowledge and from technological innovation can make much of its fruits for long. No society that’s done so has survived. Technological innovation is imperative for economic success, but it’s also essential for survival in war.
There are one or two cases of societies closing themselves, and the most important is Japan, which gave up the use of the gun between 1543 and 1879. This is one of the largest, most significant and, I think, generally least studied examples of successful renunciation of some modern technologies by a whole culture. It is also important to notice that Japan accepted modern military technologies after Commander Perry’s fleet of black ships arrived in Japan in 1853 with their 10 inch naval guns. It built up a modern navy with which, at the Battle of Tushima 50 years later, it destroyed much of the Russian Imperial Navy. In other words, some kind of political and strategic judgement seems to have been made. It was perceived that if Japan remained outside of the global development of technology and science, if it didn’t acquire these new technologies from the Western powers which were then developing them most quickly, it would end up like China: a vassal of the European powers. So there are examples of societies closing themselves off, but in the most striking example of a society that chose to open itself when it saw the nature of power, closing oneself off from these new technologies meant subordination, colonisation or extinction.
It wasn’t unreasonable for Mill and Marx to adopt much of the Positivist idea of modernisation when they did. It wasn’t unreasonable for Mill and Marx to adopt the philosophy of history that went with it, a philosophy of history in which all cultures, all societies throughout the world, went through a series of phases culminating in a single type of society. This wasn’t only science based and technology based but also secular; one in which cultural differences retreated, and one which embodied European Enlightenment values. It wasn’t unreasonable for them to do it, because the evidences they had at their disposal were mostly about European societies, about the United States, and in Mill’s case a little about India. But they really didn’t know much about these other societies, and they were writing at a time when modernisation hadn’t really spread dramatically; when there were no endogenous experiments in modernisation of the types that were later attempted in Japan.
So Marx and Mill were not being foolish in taking over this Positivist idea of modernisation. It broadly corresponded with the evidences at their disposal, but because they only had the evidences they did, they confused particular exemplars of modernisation, those in England, the United States, Lowland Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany. They confused these different exemplars of modernity or of modernisation with a universal law according to which all societies had to go through these phases. So modernity came to be thought of in terms of catch-up. Modernity came to be thought of later, particularly in the Soviet Union and in China during the Maoist period, in terms of catch up with the West, and that produced many serious difficulties and many serious problems both of theory and practice.
In other words, what I’m saying is that Marx, Mill and most of the other great theorists of modernisation were Eurocentric. I mean by that simply that most of the examples came from Europe and from societies which consisted of European immigrants predominantly. Even though James Mill wrote a lot in India, what he wrote is not very instructive. If you read his long volumes on British India, he says that India, as he understood it, will have a chance of success and progress if it gives up its languages, abolishes its music, changes its dress and adopts British cuisine. If it does all those things, if it has the stomach, the heart and the head to do them, it may have a chance of progress. Well, I’m satirising that view, but it’s not really that different actually in James Mill. You find it also in John Stuart Mill, a truly great thinker, to my mind, when he refers disparagingly to non-European cultures, for example, when he refers to Chinese stationariness.

What I think needs to be understood is that modeling our idea of modernity on a few European exemplars is not only intellectually flawed; it can also be politically and practically dangerous. Countries that attempted to adopt a European model of modernisation have often failed disastrously. Stalinist Russia, for example, applied Marx’s ideas about the mechanisation of agriculture on the model of the nineteenth-century Western institution of the capitalist factory in a way which has irrevocably probably destroyed their capacity for agricultural production and agricultural life. Later on, a similar though less comprehensive and consistent experiment was attempted in China and soon abandoned. And there are countries in the world which, because they’ve adopted simple Western morals based on one or two Western exemplars, have failed to achieve modernisation at all. It may be that Russia has, for example.

So the Positivist Eurocentric model which has been so influential in European thought was not just mistaken, it’s also been dangerous. It’s produced failed modernisations. Yet, despite that, it has a sort of ghostly half-life, a kind of spectral Cheshire cat-like existence in transnational institutions. Take for instance the International Monetary Fund, which continued to insist, despite the upsets of the last few years, that one particular type of Western capitalism must be the model for economic development everywhere in the world. Well, if you adopt the view that I’m taking you will be naturally sceptical about this view. You will think that the model of modernisation, of economic modernisation, may well be rightly and desirably different in different countries, depending partly on their traditions and their histories and partly on their current needs and circumstances. The idea that a single type of economic modernisation is needed everywhere is one of the ideas which we should be very sceptical about.
So that’s my first critical comment. Modernisation shouldn’t be thought of in a singular way, it shouldn’t be thought of univocally; we shouldn’t think of modernisation as one thing which has a few variations at the edges. There are radically different types of modernisation, of successful modernisation and of failed modernisation, and there will be more. There’s no reason to think that the twenty first century will in that respect be fundamentally different from the one that’s just ended.

Not accepting Enlightenment values?

Secondly, why does becoming modern not mean accepting Enlightenment values? Well, one very simple reason is in the fact that modernisation, the adoption of science and technology as the basis of social and economic life, can be and in the twentieth century was used to oppose Enlightenment values. Twentieth century totalitarian regimes were none of them traditional tyrannies. They all used science and technology in the service of far reaching ideological objectives, aiming not to preserve but to transform the societies over which they had power. Twentieth century European regimes of the far right, Fascist and Nazi, were all in varying degrees radical modernising regimes.

We seem to have forgotten the fact that the European far right was a radical modernising force in many countries during the interwar period. Early Italian Fascism was supported by much of the artistic avant garde, such as Danuncio, Marinetti and, of course most notoriously, Ezra Pound. Oswald Mosley enjoyed giving press conferences behind a black steel futurist desk. Arthur Koestler’s brilliant wartime novel Arrival and Departures gives a vivid picture of the Nazi as modernist, based on Koestler’s own conversations with Nazis at that time. “The clutter of small European peoples,” he says, “the Nazi character, must be swept away as an obstacle to progress for the whole Continent, some must be enslaved, others eliminated altogether.” This is what some historians have called “reactionary modernisation,” what I call “counter Enlightenment modernisation.”
So these were not traditional tyrannies with limited goals. They were not tyrannies which stood aside from technological progress or science. They were often associated with pseudo science, as in the Nazi case with pseudo scientific racism. They embraced technology, even if they sometimes had an anti technological rhetoric and an anti technological discourse. Furthermore, the great European twentieth century crimes against humanity could have been committed only by thoroughly modern states equipped with advanced new technologies. Pogroms are as old as Christendom, but the Holocaust required the telegraph, railways, lethal gases and the surveillance institutions of a modern state. What’s unique about twentieth century crimes against humanity is, in fact, distinctively modern.
It may be that the European far right at the start of the twentieth century has in some countries once again become an agent of reactionary modernisation. Classical Fascism and Nazism were corporatist, syndicalist or even socialist. Perhaps we’re now seeing in Central Europe a new turn in far right politics, in which ethnic nationalism is fused not with corporatist economics but with neoliberal economics. It may be that in Central Europe now, in opine populism in a number of Central European countries, the modern free market is being fused in the service of an ethnic nationalist political project.
No one can predict what will happen. There is one thing, however, I am sure of. We’ve not seen the last of reactionary modernisation in Europe.

As a related point, in many countries modernisation and fundamentalism go together. Fundamentalism is not as it understands itself to be, a return to traditional values. That’s partly because a return to traditional values is an impossibility in societies based upon continuous technical innovation and rapid, swift, sometimes revolutionary changes in scientific knowledge. Fundamentalism is not a return to traditional values; it’s an exacerbation of modernity. Remember what Karl Kraus, a great Viennese wit, said of psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis,” he observed acidulously, “is the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.” Well, that’s what I think fundamentalism is, or should be understood to be.

Fundamentalism is not an alternative to modernity; it’s a pathology of modernity. Fundamentalism is one of the many projects of reactionary modernisation, but societies can become modern without either embracing Enlightenment values or adopting the regressive values of the European counter Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment saw itself as a universal intellectual movement, but I think that was largely a Eurocentric illusion. The counter Enlightenment is equally produced by a struggle between tradition and traditional societies, traditional cultures and European Enlightenment projects. I think we may see many societies in the world modernising without either adopting Enlightenment values or organising themselves against them. India and some Islamic societies may follow Japan in developing successful endogenous modernisations.

Modernity and repression are not opposites

So, looking at my third mistake, why are modernity and repression not opposites? Well, Enlightenment thinkers identify modernisation with human emancipation. We’ve already seen some reasons for thinking that that’s a mistake. Most modernising regimes in the twentieth century were not in any obvious ways emancipatory. Some have rejected Enlightenment values outright, as the Nazis did. Even modernising regimes that took their bearings from the Enlightenment have very mixed records as far as individual freedom or the promotion of human well being are concerned.

There’s a lesson in these examples. Modernisation does not mean the enhancement of human freedom. Even in liberal societies, modernisation is and will always be a double edged achievement.
In his first and perhaps most interesting book, Madness and Civilisation, Michel Foucault showed that the development of institutions for the sequestration of people judged to be mentally disordered went hand in hand with the growing influence of the Enlightenment. As he put it, with characteristic acerbity, the Enlightenment and the madhouse are found together. His critique may have been hyperbolic, and it was certainly not wholly original. Many of his criticisms can be found in writers of the Frankfurt School of Critical Marxism, but Foucault was nevertheless onto something new and important about late modernity.
The disappearance or weakening of the repressive practices of traditional societies has been followed by the emergence of new kinds of repression and social control. Ancient, medieval and early modern societies contained serfdom and/or slavery, but they lacked the vast apparatuses of surveillance and incarceration that are found in most late-modern states. The distinctive personal freedoms of late modern societies have been in many countries accompanied by the growth of equally distinctive institutions for the regulation or oppression of freedom, and many modern societies have very high levels of incarceration. A commonly mentioned fact is that the American prison population is around 2 million; some people estimate it as comprising a quarter of all prisoners in the world. Whether or not that’s accurate, it’s plausible to see developments such as this as being in part at least a response to hypermodernisation of the economy.
When informal social monitoring in communities ceases to be economically functional, penal institutions sometimes take up the slack. Now, I think this argument should not be overdone. There are distinctive features of the American experience which partly explain the size of the prison population. About 40 percent of that 2 million are in prison because of drugs offences. So the population wouldn’t be as high as it is if drugs were not illegalised, and there are very important causes of this pattern of incarceration in America’s racial cleavages. Even so, a connection between economic modernisation, particularly on that neoliberal model, increased crime and increased reliance on penal institutions is nevertheless a plausible one to make in a number of contexts. It’s been noted by social theorists from Émile Durkheim onwards. Post traditional societies are often high crime societies, but of course there’s no way back to tradition.
I mentioned one form in which this has grown up. The replacement of informal social monitoring by new types of social control is evident in the surveillance society, where the growth of the surveillance society is a surrogate for these practices of informal social monitoring. Privacy and anonymity are hard to achieve nowadays. The existence of video cameras patrolling streets, the widespread use of new technologies to track criminals and also ordinary citizens, all of these technologies can be defended. They can even be justified. They have important uses and they’re often popular, as their liberal critics sometimes forget. But they carry with them very high risks of abuse in the erosion of privacy, the abuse of human rights and the limitation of personal freedom.
One point which is worth mentioning here is that the common idea that modern technologies make repression impossible has been with us since the development of railways. It recurred with radio, then with television, then with the video cameras and now with the Internet. There seems to be a sort of incurable romantic liberal conviction in Western societies that technologies, which throughout the twentieth century were used for terribly repressive purposes, somehow carry with them social results that make repression impossible.
I think this idea should be taken with a grain of salt. In some contexts it has some merit. It’s hard to control some aspects of the Internet, but we can be sure that the same human ingenuity which produced these technologies will also be at work in enabling them to be used for repressive purposes. Why can we be sure of that? It’s been true throughout human history so far and notably in the twentieth century.

New information technologies can be used as effectively for repressive purposes as for any other. It’s probably only a matter of time before new genetic technologies are turned to military purposes. This is a general truth about technology and about modernisation. New technologies are not and never will be purely tools, neutral instruments of a benign human will. They can serve a wide variety of values and objectives, both emancipatory and repressive. So it’s a mistake to think that the expansion of human powers brought about by new technologies in itself signifies any kind of social or ethical advance. On the contrary, if the history of the twentieth century is anything to be guided by, the expansion of human powers through new technologies often makes social and ethical regression more feasible.

Recall another of Karl Kraus’s remarks. He said that with the development of modern technology, only one problem remains to be solved: the infirmity of human nature.


Modernity is not and cannot be the sum of all good things. It is in itself many different things, some of them very bad, none of them wholly good. That doesn’t mean we should become antimodernist or Luddite. On the contrary, what I think we should be doing is devising both in theory and practice more benign, less flawed, less imperfect and less dangerous modernities.

In particular, there is an urgent need to develop ideas and policies which produce ecological modernisation. Care for the environment is in no way antimodern. We find it as early in European liberal thought as John Stuart Mill. It’s in the 1848 edition of hisPrinciples of Political Economy. He envisages there a society which is inherently highly technologically innovative, based on the growth of scientific knowledge, but in which there is a culture of respect for the natural environment. He has an approach to the natural environment which sees it as containing important, indeed indispensable, ingredients for human well being and perhaps even having some intrinsic value in itself.
One of the things is to think of environmental concern as in some way necessarily antimodern, as in some way inherently opposed to modernisation. On the contrary, I would say, concern for the environment is highly characteristic of late modern societies in which new kinds of risk are pervasive. Far from societies caring less about environmental integrity as they get more modern, some of them or many of them may, to some degree, come to value the environment more. Though I don’t take that to be a universal trend either.
So we should see modernisation as a positive task. Modernisation is not an inexorable and automatically benign historical process. It’s not something we can rely upon. On the contrary, useful modernisation, beneficial modernisation in all its varieties, is the product of sustained ethical engagement and intelligent political will.

Modernisation is not then the end of history. It’s simply another twist in it, in which ancient and new conflicts are fought out on yet one more historical terrain.

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