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Book Announcement: “The Emergence of Post-Modernity”

(Justin Wolfe)

This is one of the reasons for the remarkable loneliness and alienation from others many have detected in the post-modern landscape.”


Few topics have proven as surprisingly controversial as post-modernism. It has provoked fierce controversy, with proponents seeing post-modernism as a liberating force, while critics condemn it as nihilistic, relativistic, proto-totalitarian, and much else. Indeed, for some, it would not be going too far to say that some ambiguous thing called “post-modern neo-Marxism” is considered an existential threat to an equally ambiguous entity called Western civilization. Despite all of this, it remains unclear what we mean by post-modernism; it has been associated with everything from an eclectic array of French philosophers who wrote in the late 20th century, to new styles in art and literature, to an aesthetics of popular culture influencing everything from The Simpsons to comic books. 

My forthcoming book The Emergence of Post-Modernity, a sequel of sorts to my earlier The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, splits the difference on these interpretations by defining it as a historical epoch characterized by how individuals understand and approach time. This might seem eccentric, but it is actually significant since how human beings relate to time frames a great deal of their lives. If we believe that the world of time is simply a precursor to our entry into eternity (as many Platonized iterations of Christianity held), we understand our lives and purpose in the world very differently than if we think the time allotted to us is all we have. What defines post-modern approaches to time is how they are phenomenological, rather than historical; we see time as the horizon for our individual pursuits, rather than regarding our individual pursuits as contributing to a greater historical arc. This is, in part, because in a post-modern era, we have grown deeply suspicious of meta-narratives about history and historical change. Consequently, we approached our temporal existence as an opportunity to develop and transform our personalized identity within the present social parameters.  

The Emergence of Post-Modernity 

My book traces the origins of post-modernity to three factors: liberalism, capitalism, and secularism. Operating together, these remade the modern world and transformed the way human beings relate to time (and their sense of identity), preparing the way for the emergence of post-modernity.

Instead, a sense of meaning was to come from reinventing oneself as an entrepreneur in a competitive society, outdoing everyone else to acquire money and position.

Liberalism began to emerge as a distinct political and social ideology in the 17th century, before becoming dominant by the 20th. It emancipated individuals from the often tremendous restrictions imposed upon them by social hierarchies and irrational traditionalism. However, liberalism also struggled to provide individuals with a sense of meaning and higher ends to life beyond personal gratification and consumption. Many of the greatest liberal theorists—John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Martha Nussbaum—recognized this and insisted that a meaningful liberalism had to provide a robust civic life, where individuals build a shared world together as an ongoing project. Unfortunately, they were ignored, and one-dimensional neoliberalism became ascendent instead. What characterized neoliberalism was precisely an injunction to ignore civic life and the possibility of constructing a shared world together. Instead, a sense of meaning was to come from reinventing oneself as an entrepreneur in a competitive society, outdoing everyone else to acquire money and position. Under such circumstances, the robust and liberating individualism desired by sincere liberals became hollowed out and alienating.

Another contributor to the emergence of post-modernity was the spread of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization beginning in the 18th century. The definitive feature of capitalism was its remarkable capacity to change the world very rapidly, upending traditional communities and ways of life to replace them with more economically efficient and technologically driven approaches to production. What Joseph Schumpeter called the process of “creative destruction” explained the distinctive efficiency of capitalism relative to its competitors; old ways of doing things were outcompeted and erased very rapidly, to be replaced by the ever new. This helped to generate greater wealth and prosperity than ever before, but capitalism also contributed to the tremendous sense of anxiety and ressentiment that are characteristic of the post-modern epoch. Individuals saw their communities and traditions melt into the air, to be replaced by a highly unequal and competitive form of life, where even friendship was commodified as social capital.

Finally, secularism played a tremendous role in generating the post-modern condition. Here, it is important to be careful. Many critics of secularism see it as a significant break from a shared Christian tradition, with most religious commentators lamenting it as a fall from grace. Instead, I think we need to follow Hegel and Nietzsche in recognizing that Christianity was uniquely amenable to secularization among the great faith traditions. Starting with Saint Augustine in the Confessions, much of Christian doctrine was distinctively individualistic and inward-looking, rejecting the world of time for the more real and meaningful world of eternity, which could be glimpsed within. As it developed, this sense that meaning could only be found within contributed to the desacralization of the external world, giving rise to the secular forms of individualism characteristic of modernity and now post-modernity. 


Post-modernism opened remarkably new opportunities for self-creation, but it also came to inhibit our ability to think creatively about new and better shared futures. As Fredric Jameson would put it in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future, we lost our historical aspiration for a better society and came to feel that there was “no alternative” to the increasingly unequal and chaotic neoliberal status quo. Told that it was the “end of history,” the post-modern emphasis on self-creation became an injunction to retreat inwards and substitute fixating on our identity over civic engagement and bettering the world. This is one of the reasons for the remarkable loneliness and alienation from others many have detected in the post-modern landscape. 

In the conclusion to my book, I argue that there is no going back to a pre-modern epoch, as many conservatives nostalgically wish to do. And nor should we wish to. The error in conservative nostalgia is in failing to recognize that what they regard as vulgar modernity emerged as a response to the limitations and irrationality of earlier traditions. Modernity and post-modernity are not breaks from the past but are its consequences, and wishing otherwise accomplishes little. Instead, I claim we need to progress to a democratic liberal socialism, which will make good the project of modernity to ensure everyone has the opportunity to lead a dignified and meaningful life through participating in the shared goal of constructing a better world together. This would enable us to overcome the alienation generated by neoliberalism and construct a new sense of community through democratic engagement with one another.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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