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capitalism, scientific technology, the nation-state,

and the culture of individualism not only pushed

through the cake of custom during the historical

transition to modernity, but also proceeded to

foster change after change so that the social circumstances

of each generation differed from

those of its predecessors.

Intellectuals have been profoundly impressed

by the sharp contrast between the tradition-bound

cultures of the past and the ever-changing social

conditions of modernity. For example, Marshall

Berman entitled his influential commentary on

modern cultural ways of life All That Is Solid Melts

into Air (1982), echoing the powerful closing trope

of a passage from Marx and Friedrich Engels, The

Communist Manifesto (1848), that evokes the agitation

and disruption caused by capitalism and, by

extension, modernity at large. Agitation and disruption

were on the minds of other early modern

thinkers as well. In Democracy in America (1835

[trans. 1966], p. 298), de Tocqueville correctly foresaw

that the rise of democratic political institutions

would generate chronic instability in which

governmental regimes and even basic principles

of government would recurrently come and go

without relief. In his well-known essay, “The

Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903 [trans. 1971]),

Georg Simmel went so far as to propose that

human beings were incapable of taking in all of

the rapidly changing experiences they encountered

in a typical urban environment. To fend off

excessive stimulation, individuals were forced to

distance themselves psychologically from many of

the people they encountered and the events they


Until the last decades of the twentieth century,

social theorists were divided on a key question

about the history of modernity: does modernity

have a historical teleology with a foreseeable destination,

a terminus ad quem? The question itself is

thoroughly modern. No other epoch in any civilization

has ever been as unsettled by what the

future might hold. If social thinkers knew where

modernity was headed and if they knew the mechanisms

that were propelling it in this direction,

then they could recommend rational steps to

hasten the day when the best possible organization

of society would finally emerge. Smith, Georg

Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Comte, Marx, Herbert

Spencer, Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons all did

their best to discern systematic trajectories in

the history of modernity. However, even in the

nineteenth century, de Tocqueville and Weber

maintained that the history of modernity rarely

runs true to a teleological course for very long. By

the late twentieth century, most social theorists

had come around to the open-ended historical

view that modernity has no ultimate destination.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union marked

a theoretical watershed in this regard, since

very few social scientists foresaw these world-historical

events. But, in retrospect, no theorist of

modernity foresaw the onset or the profound consequences

of two world wars, multiple instances

of genocide, the rapid collapse of colonial rule in

the Third World, and the transformative power of

information processing and global communications


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No single force is responsible for the relentlessness

of modern social change. Capitalism is subject

to cycles of expansion and contraction in all

of its markets from investments and finance to job

markets and markets for consumer goods. Equally

important, capitalism endlessly seeks to increase

profitable operations and reduce costs, a trait that

leads to swift transitions between geographical

locales of operation, constant searches for cheaper

sources of labor, and a host of other propensities

to change as well.

Modern scientific technology is a vast engine of

unpredictable change. Members of modern societies

in the nineteenth century had to adjust to

the steam engine, the industrial factory, the railroad,

the telegraph, and electrical power. In the

first half of the twentieth century, people had to

adjust to the mechanized assembly line, automobiles,

movies, radio, and telephones. And today

we are adjusting to computerized information

processing, global communication via satellites

and the worldwide web, and new forms of

biotechnology that have the potential in the

not-too-distant future to change the definition

of human life itself.

Modern states are engines of change as well.

From global and regional wars fought with mechanical

weapons of previously unimagined power,

to more benign changes such as state-run schools

and social health and welfare institutions, the

modern state recurrently transforms the social

circumstances in which its citizens live. Even

modern culture, with its multivalent emphases

on the rights, prerogatives, and opportunities

that encourage individuals to pursue changes for

the better in their own lives, creates expectations

that the future will not be the same as the past.

Not only is it impossible to foresee where the

open-ended history of modernity will lead, it is

also impossible to say when modernity began. If

we again focus independently on each of modernity’s

dynamic forces, the exception to the rule is

the modern state, which many historians believe

emerged in its distinctively modern (albeit not

very democratic) form in Otto von Bismarck’s

(1815–98) Germany after 1870. Beyond this there

is little consensus on when any of the principal

forces of modernity began. Consider modern capitalism.

Some elements of capitalism, such as

long-distance trade and short-term profit-seeking

investments, were already on the scene before

1500. According to Weber in The Protestant Ethic

and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905 [trans. 2002]),

the cultural ethos of the profit-oriented entrepreneur

first evolved during the seventeenth and

eighteenth centuries. However, capitalism as the

primary system for the provision of material

goods in everyday life did not fully supplant local

agrarian production until sometime after 1750,

and then only in the most advanced cosmopolitan

centers of Europe and North America.

Next, consider technology. According to Lewis

Mumford (1895–1985) in Technics and Civilization

(1934), the development of the modern machine

predates the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth

century by at least 700 years. But modern

machinery entered the factories of western

Europe only during the nineteenth century, and

only during the period from 1880 to 1920 did

modern technology reach into the households

and everyday lives of modern populations at large.

The origin of the culture of modern individualism

is difficult to date as well. According to Jacob

Burckhardt (1818–97) in The Civilization of the Renaissance

in Italy (1860 [trans. 1954]), the humanistic

appreciation of the power and the beauty of

the individual began in the time of Michelangelo

(1475–1556). But the belief in the equality and

liberal rights of human beings as citizens moved

from the pages of political philosophy to the constitutions

of governments only following the

American Revolution of 1776, and even today

these values are still partially ideals rather than

realities. The idea that every individual should be

entitled to realize her or his own potentials and

choose her or his own lifestyle is more recent still.

Even in the 1950s cultural critics such as David

Riesman worried about the degree to which

modern, middle-class individuals conformed too

closely to homogenizing cultural norms. It is

only in the current generation that theorists

such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck highlighted

new trends towards alternative lifestyles

and self-identity that carry the culture of individualism

into how citizens of modernity pursue their

personal lives.

One final point on the history of modernity.

While it is true that modernity is driven by multiple

engines of social change, what makes the

history so difficult to predict is that all of these

forces interact with one another in complex ways.

For example, it is easy to see that capitalists were

already investing in potentially profitable developments

in industrial technology as far back as

the late eighteenth century. But technology has

produced surprises to which capitalists have had

to adjust as well. This is no more evident than

in the transformative effects of modern information

and communications technology which have

dramatically accelerated everything from the

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intensity of economic competition, to the rapid

intensification of global markets and networks of

production, to new means of data gathering and

analysis that enable sophisticated firms to market

their wares in different forms to targeted consumer

groups in every corner of the world. Equally

complicated interactions are found between capitalist

industries and nation-states. On the one

hand, nation-states depend upon a prosperous

capitalist economy for their economic well-being.

Therefore they must adapt and adjust to changing

commercial and industrial conditions. However,

when states are engaged in warfare, capitalist

firms are compelled to support the war effort

even if this reduces their profitability. Nationstates

also adjust their operations to new technologies

as well. However, states also sponsor a

great deal of technological innovation. This is especially

true with regard to the military. Indeed,

things as various as computers and global satellites

were promoted and perfected to suit military


Modernity as an epoch may have no determinate

starting point nor a historical destiny, nor

even a predictable historical trajectory, but if the

epoch at large lacks a teleological pattern, modernity

has generated a number of less enveloping

developmental trends. Some of these trends

emerge in many institutional contexts; others

are confined to a specific institutional order. But

the most important trends almost inevitably encounter

paradoxical opposition. Paradoxical opposition

refers here to trends and countertrends

that are each evident in the fabric of modernity,

yet radically inconsistent with one another.

Democratic ideals such as equality, liberty, and

impartiality in the public sphere, and the right to

privacy in personal life, are modern values.

Though never fully realized, they are proclaimed

in the constitutions of most modern states and

judicial levers that social movements use for

social change. If modernity has a creed, it is

grounded in what Durkheim terms the cult of

the dignity of the individual, where human dignity

is the lowest common denominator for all of

the values. But the paradox is that, though these

values apply universally as ideals, state policies

determine to whom they apply. All modern states

leave some populations unprotected. Some exclusions

do minimal harm. But many render certain

groups (for example, racial and ethnic minorities,

immigrants, gays and lesbians) vulnerable to damaging

discrimination and harsh stigmatization.

Even worse, states sometimes pursue barbaric policies

to punish and slaughter peoples they leave

unprotected. Modern states have been responsible

for the worst genocides in history. Michael Mann,

in a controversial argument in his Dark Side of

Democracy (2005), argues that strong modern

states, mainly in the northern hemisphere, may

now be less inclined to genocide than weak states

south of the equator. Even if this speculation

proves true, modern states are still capable of

ruthless war, systematic torture, and callous oppression

of minority groups. Paradoxically, the

only institution that can pursue democratic ideals

can sometimes cynically forsake or ignore them

with cruel, inhumane results.

Weber coined the phrase “disenchantment of

the world,” by which he meant the replacement

of belief in other-worldly forces such as the will of

God that once were held to govern the world by

impersonal scientific laws and formal rationality

that leave no room, at least in public life, for

unfathomable forces of any kind. Disenchantment

need not imply an end to religious faith in private

life, but it does signify the end of religious faith as

a basis for modern forms of jurisprudence, legitimate

government, economic enterprise, and

knowledge of the natural world. The accent placed

on spirituality in public life in many premodern

societies disappears.

As demonstrated by recurrent waves of religious

fundamentalism in western societies, even a trend

as broad and seemingly ineluctable as disenchantment

cannot sweep through modernity without

encountering paradoxical opposition. Such waves

are nothing new. Papalist political and cultural

movements have been a recurrent feature in reaction

to the rise of modernity in Spain and France,

and waves of Protestant fundamentalism have opposed

the disenchantment of public life in the

United States periodically since its origin. Fascist

ideologies (including Hitler’s Nazi ideology) stem

from passionate sacralization of secular symbols

(for example, the motherland, ethnic purity) in

opposition to the disenchantments of modernity

as well. Less inflammatory civil religions and nationalism

may serve as vehicles for reactions to

disenchantment as well.

Material inequalities are not unique to modernity;

however, as Karl Marx observed, material inequality

takes a unique form in capitalism. The

bourgeoisie and the managerial classes are not

just rich, as were aristocracies in the past: these

classes systematically prosper, their wealth

expands. Classes in poverty lack structural possibilities

to prosper. Though some individuals may

increase their wealth, the entire class cannot

escape in this way. Like all elements of capitalism,

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today poverty must be understood globally. Large

populations of the desperately poor reside in every

Third World conurbation. Meanwhile, local and

global capitalist enterprises generate prosperity

for the upper classes.

In The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi

identifies a historical cycle in the relations between

capitalism and the state that can be generalized

as one of the great paradoxes of modernity.

Capitalism as an economic system prefers unregulated

markets for wage-labor, which generally

allow capitalists to pay the lowest possible wages

and thereby increase their profitability. However,

when wages sink too far (and/or the cost of living

rises), workers mount political movements (often

in alliance with other groups) to enlist the state in

protecting them from impoverishment. States

often respond with extensive welfare services for

the economically disadvantaged. This constitutes

the first phase of Polanyi’s double movement. The

second phase develops on two fronts: on the one

hand, workers ultimately become excessively reliant

on state aid and withdraw from the labor

markets. On the other hand, states reach certain

practical limits to the amount of funds they can

spend on social services to the poor. In a very

simplified sense, over time the double movement

operates like a pendulum pushing towards free

labor markets until a reaction sets in and the

pendulum moves back towards the protective policies

of the state, and then a counterreaction sets

in and the pendulum begins to swing back the

other way. Though Keynesian policies of state

regulation seemed to moderate the double movement

for a period after World War II, reactions set

in against the welfare state in the mid-1980s, and

the “double movement” once more asserted itself.

Consider a paradox of modern development that

was already evident 100 years ago. On the one hand,

the increasing division of labor in capitalist production

and in bureaucratized organizations of all

kinds was dividing labor into a vast array of highly

specialized tasks and establishing deep divisions

between public and private life. But counterposed

to these trends towards differentiation, there were

also trends towards centralization, the most obvious

being the centripetal forces that drew (and still

draw) people from the countryside into densely

populated cities and conurbations.

The same paradox is evident on a global scale.

On the one hand, capitalism, both historically and

in recent times, has established regional sectors of

global inequality based upon what Immanuel Wallerstein

terms the principle of unequal exchange.

There are shifting global divisions based upon

military and diplomatic alliances as well. Moreover,

as peoples come into closer contact with

one another around the globe, certain cultural

differences (for example between China and the

West) loom larger than they did in premodern

times. Yet there is no denying that modern modes

of communication and transportation, from the

telephone and the steamship to data transmission

by global satellites and transportation by jet aircraft

and high-speed pipelines and ships, increase

both the velocity and intensity of global interaction

that enable durable economic and political

networks to concentrate the control of many resources

on a global scale.

In the early days of the modern era, technology

was often welcomed as an unalloyed good. No one

regards technology as thoroughly evil today. Very

few critics would completely eliminate industrial

production or modern medicine. But technology

now seems a two-edged sword. Pollution, the most

obvious byproduct of technology, threatens our

health. Global warming is changing our climate

with as yet unforeseeable consequences. And it is

already evident that biotechnology will change

the very meaning of life during the twenty-first

century. But there is more. Technology facilitates

unprecedented forms of total war in which the

object is to destroy civilian populations. Moreover,

though genocide is possible without technology,

the Nazis demonstrated the horror of genocide by

industrial means. Technology is simply a means to

make tools, and, as with all tools, the virtues and

vices of technology depend upon how it is used.

From Marx’s notion of the alienation of the

proletariat to Ju¨rgen Habermas’s writings on the

excessive colonization of cultural life-worlds by

impersonal and lifeless social systems, social theorists

have been sharp, sometimes hostile, critics

of the inequalities, injustices, and oppressive conditions

and consequences of modernity. Modernity

is certainly open to criticism on many counts,

from capitalism’s exploitation of labor to the

practice of total war, where the object is not to

defeat a rival military force but to destroy the

homeland of the enemy by lethal technological

means. Yet even the most comprehensive and

justified criticism of modernity contains a certain

degree of ambivalence. Modernity, as previously

said, is easily the most comfortable set of

material circumstances human beings have ever

established for themselves. Where is the Luddite

who would forfeit central heating in the winter

or air conditioning when the temperature is

high? Modernity has also spawned a portfolio of

political and cultural values such as the equality

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and rights of individuals, and the notion of social

justice to which even the most acerbic critics of

modernity subscribe, even as they use these

values to highlight modernity’s shortcomings

and its hypocrisies.

As Durkheim observed, the moral ideals of modernity

treat the rights and prerogatives of individuals

as sacred. Each of us should possess these

rights to an equal extent. But these ideals are

contradicted by some very deep-seated modern

realities. Capitalism intrinsically generates vast

inequalities between the rich and the poor,

whether it is in the British slums Dickens described

in nineteenth-century England or the slums found

in every Third World conurbation today. Merely

noting the vast difference between average age of

death among modernity’s rich and poor alerts us to

how dramatic these inequalities are. But, as Pierre

Bourdieu observes, modernity also includes many

forms of cultural inequality that are insidious

insofar as people unselfconsciously reproduce

their habitus, even though in doing so they may

put themselves at a cultural disadvantage vis-a`-vis

dominant groups. Some prominent inequalities

between women and men, racial and ethnic minority

groups, and minority groups based upon

sexual differences can be understood in this way.

But critics of these inequalities have had a measure

of success. From socialist movements a century

ago to women’s movements today, periodic

rebellions against inequality are as modern as the

forms of inequality to which they object.

Social estrangement has been a recurrent

theme in social theory. Marx’s notion of alienation

refers both to the loss of control over labor

by workers and to the estrangement of workers

from their material relations with fellow workers

and members of their community. In Suicide (1897

[trans. 1951]), Durkheim conceived estrangement

in two forms: anomie, which is the sense of profound

confusion brought about by the social disruptions

to which modernity is prone, and egoism,

an excessively selfish, utilitarian form of individualism

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