Saturday, June 7, 2008

Modernity's Manichean Pugilists


So now I'm a bit obsessed with Stephen Holmes (see previous post). I went back and read one of his earliest contributions to political theory, "Aristippus in and out of Athens" (first published in APSR in 1979, but just included in Aristotle's Politics: Critical Essays). He clearly comes out of the school of modernization theory that also shaped Habermas, and insists that the structural and institutional differentiation that marks modernity (a la Durkheim and Simmel) makes any appeal to the Greeks not only romantic and anachronistic, but inherently irrational and "totalitarian" (his scare-quotes).

I'm interested in one polemical move that he shares with Habermas. On the one hand, the sociological theory that supports the above claim leads him to dismiss the students of Heidegger (Strauss and Arendt) for their idealistic belief that modernity's origination can be traced to "a shift in attitudes" rather than to structural and institutional transformations. Thus, he seems to cast himself as a materialist and empiricist.

But, on the flip-side, he floats the "hypothesis" that "modern 'totalitarian' regimes rely for ideological legitimation on a diffuse rancor against modernity and on an anachronistic nostalgia for the integrated and heavily politicized life of the Greek city-state." In other words, "totalitarianism" is in part explained by the irrational attitudes of the pious and romantic anti- and post-modernists. A completely idealist explanation is offered.

Modernity had to be; it is objectively grounded in structural transformations. Anti-modern totalitarianism, on the other hand, is contingent, and can be blamed, in part at least, on this rancor and nostalgia. That "modernity" might itself call forth this very rancor and nostalgia is never contemplated. That the very structural differentiation that makes Greek city life impossible under current conditions might also make us long for it and for a transformation of our conditions is ignored as a possibility.

There is thus a fundamental Manicheanism at work in Holmes' discourse (and that of Habermas). Modernity is fundamentally good, and all the good that characterizes our modern life is explained by modernity itself. But all of the evil (or, at least, the greatest evil) that besets our condition is explained by something outside, by something non-modern or anti-modern. The assumption is that modernity is at home with itself, unified and non-contradictory. To have a happy modernity, we just need more modernization and more liberalism, and to eliminate fully the vestiges of this rancorous longing for undifferentiated unity (be it political or religious or whatever).

Such modernization discourse is fundamentally at odds with and (to my mind) inferior to the Marxist "modernization" theory. Marxism insists that modernity is a fundamentally contradictory phenomenon, and that the problems of modernity can thus never be solved merely by adding more modernity. That is also why, it seems to me, Marxism doesn't lend itself to the sort of extreme moralism that drips out of an essay by Holmes or Habermas.

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