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The Modernity Project Can Create Confusion

“For some, the possibilities for self-creation and emancipation promised by modernity were exhilarating. For others, it has proven to be a serious social problem.”


At the beginning of the 21st century, we find a number of scholars arguing that the global restructuring of political, social, and economic relations entailed in contemporary modernity involved a normalization of uncertainty—an increase in mobility, greater individualization and self-reflexivity. People are expected to make their own life plans, to be mobile, and to provide for themselves in various ways. This liberation is encapsulated by the very idea of cosmopolitanism: a promise of freedom for the individual from the imprisonment of culture and community—in country and church, in class and category. This emancipatory project has allowed the human subject to move between classificatory elements without stopping, without finally arriving, without definitive association; it’s perhaps a form of infinite disjuncture and liminality.

Commentators on the modern-day rise of “strong-man politics” in the West, however, have highlighted that this liberation and autonomy has come at a high price: the disenfranchisement of those who do not view culture, community, country or church as signs of imprisonment, but rather staples of security and certainty. The reaction towards this disjuncture and rapid cultural change perhaps ought to be traced back to what has been forcefully dismantled, which includes life routines, networks of human bonds, and mutual commitments. The reactionary pushback we are witnessing from post-modern conservatives in many countries is, in no small part, driven by anxieties produced by these tendencies. It is literally post-modern to desire a return back from the discontent produced by modernity. For some, the possibilities for self-creation and emancipation promised by modernity were exhilarating. For others, it has proven to be a serious social problem, which only an ironically post-modern turn back from modernity can resolve.

Individualism and Self-Creation

In many ways, modernity is as Jürgen Habermas described: a project of emancipation from human limitations and constraints. In many respects, its roots, therefore, go so deeply into the collective consciousness of freedom-loving Western individuals that it can be difficult to grasp the historical and psychological contingency of this modernist project properly. In the space below, we will provide a few examples to help clarify the incentives towards modernization, before analyzing what prompted the reactionary pushback by post-modern conservatives.

One aspect of modernity is what Max Weber described as the desacralization of the world—the declining belief that the world has sacred qualities which should make it immune to human manipulation and use. For some, this desacralization has proven a liberating moment. For instance, Slavoj Zizek consistently points out that believing that nature is simply a meaningless catastrophe enables us to have a great deal of freedom relative to nature. We can feel free to manipulate it at-will. To others (for instance, Jordan Peterson), desacralization is the actual problem. It is the catastrophe of meaninglessness, which encroaches on our lives.

This dichotomy between those who seek structure and those who wish to be liberated from atavism is illustrated in Ernest Gellner’s Reason and Culture when the author dexterously aligns this division to an ability (or inability) to shift between paradigms. Gellner describes Kuhn’s argument on how there is no direct, paradigm-free access to reality. There is only the order imposed by a paradigm, which allows an observer to compare a proposition with the world and decide whether or not the two add up. So, our ideas never confront reality directly. They would only confront it through the mediation of a paradigm. According to this analysis, cosmopolitanism encourages—and even requires—a shift between paradigms without arriving or setting one in stone. There is a constant mediating between one paradigm and another.

Gellner further distinguishes members of this dichotomy by separating the modernist “liberal” from the reactionary “romantic.” While the liberal is cosmopolitan, economically successful, ethnically “uprooted” and status-ambiguous, the adherents of ethnic-nationalism are drawn to the romantic alternative, which is a return to a closed community. Most of all, a return of this closed community would enforce protection not only of products, but above all of (ethnic) cultures and the enforcement of a “single view paradigm.” For the liberal, knowledge was the free establishment of theories constrained by nothing other than the obligation to respect facts. But, for the romantic, real knowledge was a many-stranded activity, which played its part in the perpetuation of a living culture and its values and hierarchy. It was not abstract and universal, but rather it was concrete and socially incarnate. As Gellner asserts, the argument for the absolute authority of political sovereigns is parallel to the argument for the authority of cognitive sovereigns (or in other words, Kuhn’s paradigms): “Authoritarianism is in the end accepted, as in Hobbes, not because it is divinely ordained, but because our mundane predicament requires it. This-worldly pragmatic considerations, rather reverence for Revelation, leads us to absolutism.” 

The Anti-Modernism of Post-Modern Conservatism

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The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it….Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever. Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction.”Peter Augustine Lawler, “Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism” Intercollegiate Review, 2008.

The kind of romantic sensibility discussed by Gellner has long had an appeal to anti-modernists, who see in adherence to authority figures and social identities a kind of secular resacralization of the world. Following Peter Lawler, they see modernity as excessively individualistic and prone to making human beings “less at home than ever” in a world stripped of transcendent meaning. A return to traditionalism and hierarchies affiliated with traditional mores is one of the solutions to this problem. It is a literal post-modern reaction to the excesses of modernity. Figures like Victor Orban and Donald Trump demonstrate the pastiche-like romanticism of these appeals, calling on a return to reverence for the nation, Christendom, and the ever-ambiguous “people” led by strong-man leaders responsible for implementing their will.

Of course, we do not think the proper counter-action from the Left is simply to return to the conceits of liberal modernism and all of its limitations. The modernist “cosmopolitan, economically successful, ethnically ‘uprooted’ and status-ambiguous” individual was rightly criticized by generations of critical theorists—from Marx through Foucault—for his lack of depth and nihilistic inclinations. Indeed, post-modern conservatism is, in many respects, a rejoinder to the limitations of this modernist project. What is required today is greater imagination to conceive of progressive forms of social organization that avoid the perils of modernity without giving into the reactionary impulse.

Amir Massoumian is a PhD Student in Anthropology and Sociology at the SOAS University of London.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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