The first rule of life in modernity does seem to be ‘everyone for themselves’. When a choice has to be made between these values, modernity most commonly sacrifices the old ties of kinship and social cohesion (family, ethnic group, village, social group, even nation) to the advancement of the individual’s private life.
Christian Comeliau*, 2000 (The Impasse of Modernity; Zed Books)
It is one thing to discuss development and progress, and another thing to wonder why we need it. Development and modernisation is so embedded into our psyche that we run headlong in its currents, like a car-race computer game, dodging obstacles and collecting coins and level-ups while going full speed forward, without looking at the whole picture as itself, playing it over and over again to master it to the end. It’s just the way things are, so learn up the rules and play the game – the one with most spoils wins at the Hall of Fame.
Such are games and such is life in the modern world.
Many contemporary economic prophets (we call them analysts in our day) such as the more mainstream Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Piketty have given warnings on the insatiable demands for wealth and the social and environmental upheavals it has and will continue to bring. There are a multitude of resources available for us to listen and consider (among them one of my favourites, the feature documentary film Four Horsemen that shares views from mainstream economists including Stiglitz).
The Impasse of Modernity is one of the myriad of literature written to describe the times, written by Christian Comeliau* at the turn of the millennium, even before the 2008 global financial crisis.
… in most countries today economics is essentially market economics based upon competition and individual appropriation. As we shall see, at some length, its hold is so great that it tends to supplant all other forms of social ‘regulation’, particularly the traditional forms of solidarity represented by family, social group, occupation, age group or ethnicity. ‘Lack of regulation’ and ‘destruction of the social fabric’: these slightly abstract established formulas mean, in plainer language, that individuals are now alone. They are alone in the face of competition, profit motives, uncertainty, insecurity, and even brute force… Ultimately they are alone in the face of themselves, in so far as the erosion of family or neighbourhood, and the conversion of workmates into rivals, mean that they are no longer rooted in any natural networks of support. And they are left alone to search for an identity, in a fragmented and unfathomable world where the only refuge for community values is certain sporting occasions or pathetic televised games.
The issue is when economics become the overarching and final concern when it comes to decision-making, at the expense of social cohesion and environmental sustainability. This brings us to the 3P’s (people, planet, profit) or triple bottom line that my local commerce undergrad courses would shove to the end of the semester as a side-good-to-know-section-that-isn’t-important.
Granted, things are a little bit more cohesive here in Malaysia than in more Western countries (tea-time roti pisang, cafe culture, family days, public holidays, company retreats). And things do feel a lot warmer here, depending on where you are and your office culture. But the crux of the matter is still to play by the rules of modernity — get ahead of everyone to get more. Nice guys rarely win. Sabotage is justified because money is more important, even if it makes you hated and unpopular.
Comeliau’s problem with modernity (p.26) (and me piping in with examples)
- Individual and private values take centre stage above collective values when it comes to how people relate to each other. Would this decision make you happy?
- Economic concerns dominate all other concerns when it comes to social progress. GDP is everything, although now we have the Gini and the Happiness Index.
- The logic of competition or rivalry dominates the logic of citizenship or solidarity. His car is bigger, their wedding is more expensive, you are smarter than me, her pay is more, we need to win.
- The dominance of the capitalist economy, where the accumulation of profits on capital is needed.
- Reason gives way to the financial sense. What ethics? What ideals? Can you feed yourself or buy a house with that pay?
My problem with modernity
- My problem with modernity is that it mars our self-image. We begin to think of and expect ourselves (and each other) to run like productivity-churning machines. We even use our religious lingo to enable our dehumanisation. We lose touch with our humanity. Instead of being embedded to our Maker, we are embedded into the fanciful things we can perform and make.
- Once we practice the weekly habit of running ourselves to the ground, we then find ways to satiate our despair – not with running to our maker, but running to things we make. We have spa therapy, shopping therapy, epic travels, intense experiences – that makes us consumers of what is produced again by productivity-churning machines. And then we go back to the grind.
- It makes us estranged from the people around us because modernity pits us against each other, in competition, or in power-play (remember the tussle between whether the consumer is king or not?)
- And it disconnects us from the earth and environment. More on this next time.
What is the solution?
The answer that rushes out of me is this: building a) supportive or b) subversive communities. A supportive community is one that creates a bubble or capsule of belonging or comfort — an oasis if you like — from the estrangement and dividedness that modernity brings. This community may be led by a few who know the problems connected to modern living and provide outlets and means of rest and reflection: spaces for authentic, long-term relationships, silent retreats, contemplation. We see this today in support groups, small church groups and college reunion groups. Whilst, a subversive community is one where all its members are united and committed in coming against systemic estrangement in the world, wisely choosing to love, to share, to serve, the world – even their enemies — creating safe (even public) spaces in the world without rivalry, and where the profit-motive is not dominant. We see this today in social enterprises and even churches and other institutions committed to this cause.
The reaction against modernity is more than mere political or people-power rhetoric. I’ve come to realise that people are suffering as modernity is happening, or because modernity is happening. The church must go deeper to meet people where they are by building strong, cohesive and resilient communities.
Christian Comeliau, 2000. The Impasse of Modernity: Debating the future of the global market economy.
*Christian Comeliau is a French economist and Honorary Professor of Development Studies at the The Graduate Institute Geneva.