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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsHow can we understand modernity as something political and social in particular with regard to the European framework? As stated by Konstantin Mierau in our introduction to this week, the advent of political modernity in Europe is marked by the French Revolution of 1789. That revolution spurred a series of reforms and changes that ultimately shaped what we would now call modern political systems. Key elements of such a modern polity are one, the separation of powers. two, the rule of law. three, the sovereignty of the people. four, representative government. five, the separation of church and state. Obviously, this is a rather progressive reading of political modernity. These five elements allude to values such as equality, self-determination, and the rejection of arbitrariness.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 secondSuch and related values are indeed most generally associated with modern political thought. They are at the heart of our modern political philosophies and theories. Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have stressed the ameliorating effects of what is considered to be part of any understanding of modernity. They believe in the general will, the common good, equality, and rationality. Texts of well-known political and social thinkers, such as John Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Marx Weber, just a name but a few, contrast the positive essence of modernity with traditional values, such as mysticism, religion, and enchantment, or alleged god-given social relations. This might seem like a good thing.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 secondsNow, who would be against values such as equality before the law, political rights for all citizens, or legal protection by an independent judiciary? Yet, there is another dimension, a dark side to political modernity too. From the late 19th century onwards, the political and social attitudes of modernity were increasingly questioned. Why were former slaves, workers, women, strangers and other groups still systematically excluded from politics in society in the age of modernity, despite its enlightened claims of equality? As much as inclusion, modernity was about exclusion, it turned out. Surrounding both world wars, orchestrated genocides and ethnic, sexual, and political minorities point at the ultimate consequences of this.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 secondsPolitical and social modernity, thus, is not only about creating inclusive, equal societies modernity has to produce the dark side, past and present. Justified by modern scientific, social, and political thought, the European empires have ostracised, stigmatised, and exterminated Jews, homosexuals, non-European peoples, perceived social misfits, and political oppositions. Similarly, social and economic modernisation has brought Europe affluence and technological advancement. But it too, produced economic inequality and climate change, one of the most haunting crises of today. This Janus face of political and social modernity has prompted intellectuals to assess our understanding of modernity from a different angle. They stress the dark side of modernity, particularly with regards to European empires that had a lasting impact in many societies in the world.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 secondsTwo examples of this dark side of modernity will be spelled out later in this module by Steve Milder on environmentalism and Clemens Six on post-colonialism.

Europe's socio-political modernity

In addition to a literary form of modernity, there’s also a socio-political form. In this video, Dr Stefan Couperus discusses how modern European political systems have come into being after the French Revolution.

Dr Couperus stresses that, while our political systems are grounded in the Enlightenment and thus carry a progressive, positive connotation, there are also darker sides to political modernity. Eugenics, which aims at improving humans’ genes, enjoyed popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, until it became associated with Nazi Germany and its efforts to cast away members of disfavoured minorities.

It is good to remember that modernity is responsible not only for those developments we might appreciate, but also for what we are less comfortable with. Modernity is, as Dr Couperus puts it, ‘Janus-faced’.

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This video is from the free online course:

European Culture and Politics

University of Groningen

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