The Age of De-modernization

And it was all supposed to be so simple—back in the 1990s it seemed history had ended and humanity had found its final, most perfect possible, form of organization—a liberal one combining the free market and parliamentary representation; it would just gradually spread all over the Earth encompassing all humankind.

The end of the Cold War, with the complete and precipitated collapse of the Soviet Union, fitted very neatly with what was the dominant mindset among the mainstream of development studies, namely the modernization theory. After all, it had been arguing for many decades that the West as the most advanced part of the world provided a developmental blueprint for the rest of humanity that only needed to follow this ready-made manual of modernity to gradually arrive in the paradise of capitalist opulence. Sometimes, as was the case with Walt Rostow’s idea of stages of economic growth, it was even supposed to take place in precisely defined and determined steps: traditional society, preparations for a modern take-off, the take-off itself, the gradual progress towards maturity, and maturity itself represented by mass consumption.1

If a museum of intellectual delusions of the twentieth century is ever constructed, a copy of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History will surely occupy a prominent place in it. It should stand high at the very apex of the room called “Modernization Theory”, closing the perspective opened by another once seminal and currently mostly forgotten book: The Passing of Traditional Society by Daniel Lerner.2 That scholar of the Middle East believed he had found a con- crete incarnation of the abstract Hegelian idea of universal history in the case of the modernization of Turkey that plays the main role in his dissertation. The country of Mustafa Ataturk did seem to be an ideal candidate for that role as its liberal elites embarked on the mission of modernization-via-imitation already in the second half of the nineteenth century. They initially decided to model their country after France, hence their uncompromising, almost Jacobin, attitude towards religion at the time.

If a museum of intellectual delusions of the twentieth century is ever constructed, a copy of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History will surely occupy a prominent place in it.

After France, however, lost the war with Prussia in 1871, they turned their admiration to the new de facto hegemon of continental Europe—Bismarck’s Germany. Lerner’s book describes how Turkey changed its institutions, politics and society to imitate Europe in order to become something like the France or Germany of the Middle East, lagging in time behind its Western original by around half-a-century. Thinking along the same lines as Walter Rostow, Lerner believed that Turkey would repeat in stages the Euro-pean scenario of enlightenment and progress and would become after some time just like France: traditional society would pass away—as the very title of the book communicates—and would give place to rational, emancipated and standardized modernity.

The Peripheries Seem to Reveal the Future of the Center

Looking back at those visions from today’s perspective, it is difficult not to marvel at the incredible irony of history. One of the key elements of the modernization of Turkey, a true synecdoche and a key point of political debates, has been the questions of fanshon—the scarf that women wear to cover their heads in public space. The Kemalists have been consistently eradicating this tradition in an attempt to loosen the grip of religion on public life and make Turkey more like France.

Half a century has passed since Lerner formulated his brave prediction and if anything, rather the opposite has happened: France has become like Turkey. The question as to whether women should be allowed to cover their heads in public spaces, which was hardly an issue in the 1960s, has moved to the very center of French political debates and is now one of the most discussed issues of public policy. Not only has a traditional society not given way to the modern one in Turkey, but France, once the very avant-garde of secularization has been de-secularized.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, wrote about “the latinoamericanization” of labor relations in Europe and the US. He pointed out the fact that both the job market and the labor condition in what used to be welfare states increasingly resemble the ones known from Latin America.

There are other disturbing developments that directly reverse the assumptions of modernization theory: the peripheries seem to reveal the future of the center, not the other way around. One of the most important is the precarization of labor relations in the core of the capitalist world-system. It was already diagnosed in the late 1990s by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who wrote about “the latinoamericanization” of labor relations in Europe and the US. He rightly pointed out the fact that both the job market and the labor condition in what used to be welfare states increasingly resemble the ones known from Latin America.3

The term “precarization” was not widely used at the time, but it is precisely what we are dealing with. One can see it as a kind of de-modernization of labor relations that makes the center look more and more like the peripheries. It also is a demodernization in temporal terms of reversing the progress achieved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries thanks to the struggles undertaken by labor against extreme forms of exploitation.

The Neo-liberal Turn has Provoked a Constant Erosion of the Public Sector

Similar phenomena have been observed by urban anthropologists. The anthropologists John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff in their book Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa point to growing inequalities, a crumbling public infrastructure, declining social services and other phenomena that make the cities in the so-called developed world look increasingly like the ones in post-colonial countries.4 The economists Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson go even so far as to call London “Lagos on Thames” and claiming that the UK is heading towards a “third world economy”.5

A kind of recent addition to the list, explored so far, is the ongoing privatization of the police force:6 as cuts in public spending provoke a decline in the law-enforcing capacity of “official” police, the gap in the security supply is filled by private companies offering their police-like services. This is the kind of development that took place in the post-Soviet bloc already in the 1990s— private police-like security operators have become a widespread element of Eastern European countries. There are around one hundred thousand police officers in Poland today and an estimate of two or even three hundred thousand police-like private security workers.

The latter example is utterly interesting as it allows us to grasp the mechanism of de-modernization: it is not a cultural phenomenon, but rather a by-product of recent developments within the capitalist economy, namely— of the neo-liberal turn that has provoked a constant and systematic erosion of the public sector and destruction of various welfare mechanisms that used to offer some kind of relief to the most exploited social classes (just think of what has happened to the NHS in the UK).

This neoliberal assault on the welfare state has directly affected the relationship between the center and the (semi) periphery of the capitalist system when it comes to what was described in the twentieth century as modernization, i.e. a gradual move towards social, political and cultural arrangements that regulated western societies within the framework of modernity and consisted of, basically social equality—or to put it in different terms, empowerment of the oppressed—liberal political values and individual emancipation.

The mechanism of de-modernization: is not a cultural phenomenon, but rather a by-product of recent developments within the capitalist economy, namely—of the neo-liberal turn.

Modern Welfare was Generated by Struggles Against Capitalism

To grasp the nature and sense of that shift, we need to realize what brought this very particular kind of social organization to life in the first place. The error made by scholars such as Rostow, Lerner or Fukuyama and other adepts of modernization theory stems from their conviction that the liberal, opulent, middle-class based societies of the West—the ones organized according to the model of mass consumption in Rostow’s model—are products of capitalist development as such.

A more detailed historical account presents a picture that is more troubling for modernization theory: modern welfare was not so much generated by capitalism, but rather by struggles against it that forced the propertied classes to share wealth through the mechanisms of a redistributive welfare state in a very peculiar conjuncture of the mid-twentieth century. It would not have happened without the October revolution that demonstrated a clear possibility of the radical overturning of the existing order and of bringing the forces of capital under the check of the state apparatus.

Redistribution in the center was structurally possible because its wealth had been amassed in a long history of global colonial accumulation.

My goal here is not to praise the Bolsheviks—they were a very problematic formation and a stream of left intellectuals from Tony Cliff to Guy Debord systematically criticized Soviet Russia from the progressive standpoint.7 It is, however, a well-established fact that none other than John Maynard Keynes closely followed both the events of the October revolution and the writings of Lenin, rightly believing that capitalism had to reform itself in order to avoid the same course of events reproducing itself in the West.8

Redistribution and welfare were supposed to mitigate the excesses of free markets and thus serve as capitalism’s security valve letting the steam of workers’ frustration off to put it in colloquial terms. It was that redistribution—rather forced by labor’s struggles than naturally and voluntarily created by the capitalist class—which created twentieth-century middle class-based societies.

The Wellbeing of Some had to be Bought at the Expense of Others

But—and here is the final catch—as it is always the case within capitalism, the wellbeing of some had to be bought at the expense of others: redistribution in the center was structurally possible because its wealth had been amassed in a long history of global colonial accumulation. That planetary division of labor has neatly continued in the twentieth century in the division between the center and peripheries of the capitalist world system.9

It has served many purposes, allowing for the export of the most toxic results of capitalist accumulation from the center to the peripheries: let them work for a dollar a day, die from pollution—like in Bhopal in India—or perish under the rubble of poorly maintained factories—as was the case at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh—and suffer the consequences of climate change devastating the tropics while we can safely relax on a fat pension in our countryside houses. We will at the same time lecture them on how to modernize and develop their economies so after many years of hard labor they can also be like us. And let us call all that “modernization theory”, so it sounds nice.

Neoliberalism, by destroying the welfare state in the center, demolished that liberal fantasy making the center look more and more like peripheries: precarious working conditions, vast social inequalities, widespread violence, lack of reliable public services and infrastructure, rampant obscurantism, laughable and at the same time dangerous populists—all that diseases that are gradually consuming our modern and liberal societies have been very well known in the postcolonial, peripheral zone of illiberal and—supposedly—modernizing states.

Now, if anything, it is rather the West that is de-modernizing, leaving behind what seemed to Fukuyama and many other modernization theorists to be the final and irreversible achievement of humanity. There surely is an alternative to the liberal-democratic order: the one of primordial tribalism consuming us continuously from the very inside of our own societies.

Now, if anything, it is rather the West that is de-modernizing, leaving behind what seemed to Fukuyama and many other modernization theorists to be the final and irreversible achievement of humanity.

Modernity can be saved from the Reactionary De-modernization

So, is it the end of the idea of modernity and progress? That is not the conclusion I would like to draw from this essay. I am, personally, deeply attached to the ideals of the Enlightenment, modernity and progress and I have no doubts humanity is capable of putting them into action. I therefore believe modernity can be saved from the reactionary de-modernization we are currently going through. It can only be saved, however, as a yet-still-empty signifier, a kind of regulatory idea for humanity as such not belonging to any particular tradition or continent.

What has inevitably ended is the identification of modernity with a given part of the world-like the West-belonging to its one and only cultural tradition. It is, of course, very traumatic for the West. As Slavoj Žižek rightly argued, the admiration that everyone, especially Eastern Europe, expressed towards the West served as a source of enjoyment to its citizens.

The gaze of the mesmerized non-Western Other provided Westerners with a reason to believe that they were not just engaging in a mindless consumerist orgy, but rather leading the world in the very important endeavour of modernization. Now with populists everywhere showing the liberal, westernized elites the middle finger—and still winning the elections as was the case with Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in May 2019—it is increasingly difficult for these elites to continue to live in that elitist and paternalistic illusion. Hence their fundamental confusion.

The good news is they do not own modernity and they were not, as I tried to show, the creators of its benefits. In order to save modernity, we have to look for its other, minor, non-Western, subaltern, hitherto repressed streams and draw from them while the liberal mainstream is turning into a thoughtless dessert of resentment and nostalgia. And we have to keep on struggling as all that has been good in modernity originated from social struggles. It is that or barbarism. Again.


  1. W. W. Rotstow, The Stages of Economic Growth, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
  2. D. Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society. Modernizing the Middle East, The Free Press, 1958.
  3. U. Beck (2000), Brave New World of Work, Hoboken 2000, p. 21.
  4. J. Comaroff, J. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, Paradigm, 2012.
  5. L. Elliott, D. Atkinson, Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  6. J. Harris, The Growth of Private Policing Is Eroding Justice For All, “The Guardian”, 10 Sep 2018.
  7. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Pluto Press, 1974 and G. Debord, The Society of Spectacle, Rebel Press 1994.
  8. A. Negri, Keynes and the Capitalist Theory of the State, in M. Hardt & A. Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-form, The University of Minnesota Press 1996.
  9. I am using these concepts following the sociology of Immanuel Wallerstein. See I. Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein, The New Press 2000.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF