Modernity is one of the hardest and most important and ultimately most exciting concepts that you deal with, I think, as a historian, especially as a historian of the modern age because right away– ok so what? What modern age? When does that start and how do we define it? This stresses students out a great deal and one has to try to explain it to them, because the core periodisations that we deal with as historians use those concepts. So for example, the course on the modern period or what’s often called the early modern, the early modern European history, would start with, say, the Renaissance. 15th century or something. 16th century.
And you’ll hear people talking about Machiavelli as a new modern thinker transitioning from the mediaeval to the modern. Fine. If there’s ancient, mediaeval, and modern, then it starts then. For me as a historian, when I say modernity however, I’m almost always talking about the period roughly from 1800 on. And then the natural question is, why is that? What happens then, right? And I guess right away we get to a point here, which is that I’m not using modernity as a word to, I don’t know, assign praise or blame to say what I think is good or bad or anything.
I use it as a, more or less hopefully, objective descriptor of key transformations in society, everything– economics, politics, you name it– that take us into a fundamentally new world beginning again around 1800. And what are we talking about? I mean, primarily the British Industrial Revolution on the one hand and the French political revolution on the other. Now French Revolution of course you can date to 1789, although broadly speaking it’s the age of revolutions. And industrial revolution is, of course, a concept developed after the fact. It doesn’t describe a thing that happened or a switch that was flipped or something.
But nonetheless between the two of those things, you enter into a new sphere of human life, which then affects everything in European history and ultimately everything in world history, because the transformations that are unleashed, if you like, in Europe in this period spillover. Spillover– it’s not just a natural process. Europeans take them to the rest of the world and no one is ever the same again. Nazism– About Nazi Germany. So that would appear to be this contradiction. Obviously this is an anti modern movement, said many people at the time and for a long time after that. Important scholarly work has then suggested, however, that of course it’s entirely modern.
And even the way that Nazism deploys visions of the past was modern– distinctively, you might say, modern. So the famous book that broke through this is a book called Reactionary Modernism, which is a very influential study of these political leaders already in the Weimar period, many of whom help build the Nazi state after 1933 who are absolutely convinced that they are going to make a Germany which is modern by crushing democracy– that democracy, you don’t need that to have a modern state. The notion that liberal democracy goes with industrial development and modernisation– they said actually, we’re going to keep the industrial development of the modernisation, but we’re going to cut out the democracy. And you know what?
The depressing thing about the experience of fascism and Nazism is that seems to work for a lot of people– a lot of the elite structures in Germany embraced this. It worked very well for them. A lot of people, a lot of German people, accepted this and found it a relieving thing because what Nazism claimed to be doing is resolving one of these key problems with modernity– the notion that by having all this industrial development and more things that we the people want, with modern features in your cities and paid work and the various comforts of modernity, consumer goods or whatever, but you’d be able to have those and have an intact, stable sense of identity and the sort of meaning-giving structures, which fascism and Nazism offer to you in a sort of top down form through propaganda and also through all the social structures, the daily life features of Nazism, which are very important and need not to be forgotten.
The ways in which Nazism– it’s awful to put it this way– but Nazism, for people who weren’t persecuted by it, was fun as far as the historical record suggests. There were a lot of activities and group outings– and also coercive and terrifying. But those things went together. But anyway, the thing I’m saying about modernity here is that the fascism and Nazi experience shows the ways that modernity could be stripped of certain elements and it isn’t any less modern.
So what interests me as a cultural historian you could say, at the broadest level, is the way that these concerns with permanence and authenticity and identity– which are real and powerful and I’m not looking down on them, that anybody has these things. I have them. We all have them. Those desires are constantly at odds with the economic reality of our lives. Now from a left perspective, you could say, well, the problem is capitalism. That’s what’s doing this to us. But very often that is not how people see it and how political leaders encourage them to see it. Instead they say the problem is the Jews or the Muslims.
Or from the point of view of organisation like IS who have their own war with modernity, they have a vision of who the bad guys are too, which also includes the Jews and the west crusader states. And then they do their horrible violence. But that tension between these things, we see everywhere. On my way here, I had a coffee this morning in a cafe where I was suddenly struck by the fact that it’s newly built– Uppsala, 2016– and near the couches they have these leather sort of like trunks like you would take on a boat trip in 1925 if you were travelling across the Atlantic. Who has a trunk? Where did they even get it?
But they bought this thing and put it as a prop in the store. All wood furniture, no plastic. They have this kind of– now are they just trying to be classy? You could say that. But what in particular they’re doing is suggesting history. They’re suggesting permanence. They’re suggesting, right? Now those things we associate value with and they’re appealing to us. But I think especially now we see that in cafes. It’s a trend. Before doing all plastic and neon lights and aiming for the future was the cool thing to do. But now that’s seen as, a, it passed. That vision of the future has passed. We’re not living in that future. So it looks old fashioned.
We don’t want to go that cafe anymore. So they’ve been gutted and renovated. And instead we have these things. And it has been pointed out by cultural historians that one of the features of the European bourgeoisie already in the 19th century is to surround themselves with objects of permanence, what Thomas Mann in the novel Buddenbrooks specifically comments on the heavy silver knives and forks that they use in his house growing up, so the bourgeois family in Lubeck, Germany.
And that the weight of things– and so from a certain kind of interpretive angle you could say that what’s going on here is the bourgeoisie, who are the social force who are unleashing this cataclysm, this whirlwind of change on everybody, surround themselves with objects of permanence and weight and tradition and try to basically hold things down from the whirlwind of capitalist modernity. Are there futures that are not characterised by the same features that have characterised modernity? Well, there have to be. There must be. Empires have come and gone and ways of life have come and gone. And if the ancient Romans couldn’t imagine any different way of living– but of course it happened, right?
Our way of life is– the distinguishing feature of it is really capitalism. Capitalist modernity is what we’ve been talking about today, I would say. Now could capitalism stop? Well, it didn’t always exist. It’s not a natural thing. So of course it could stop. Now what would that look like? Would it be a good thing? Would it be a bad thing? What could replace it? All those things. That’s very interesting to talk about and something that looking at the past might help us understand. But, you know– so there’s that.
What interests me right now, I find myself thinking about a lot with regard to the issue of modernity, is that– well, is the relationship to the environment and to a new set of questions, or at least very new for me, which have been opened up by the problem of climate change. Because what climate change suggests is we have a model of modernity, a growth of an industrial society, and it’s had its ups and downs. We had to find ways of coordinating sort of the priorities of growth with the needs of working people and the welfare state seemed to have kind of fixed a lot of that.
In Sweden, where we’re sitting today, has taken great pride in having found the so-called third way. This was the big thing between the wars. Especially people were very excited about Sweden– not communist dictatorship, not wild laissez-faire Anglo-American capitalism– but something in the middle where you get the best of capitalist growth, flexibility– you know, corrupt and bankrupt enterprises don’t survive forever like in communism– but workers are not just thrown out on the street and treated like garbage as in some forms of capitalism. So fix that problem. Now, A, that model has been hard to sustain since the basic end of real growth the 1970s. But B, even if you say, so we can fix the problems of capitalist modernity.
We can have this part without that part. Even if you say that, what we’ve now discovered, what climate change shows us is, none of that really matters because we have to stop burning all these fossil fuels or we will undermine the conditions for human life on Earth. Now then suddenly it opens up a whole new historical perspective which is, what is the relationship of fossil fuel usage to modernity? Can we have the freedoms, the individual expression, the ways of life, the safety, comfort, medical improvements, all the things, the good things that we associate with modernity, have been driven by what?
By a economy based on constant growth which is ultimately rooted in extraction of resources from the earth which we burn, which turns out to cause climate change. So now here’s the question– can we have a modernity without fossil fuels? What would that look like? Can we have a modernity without growth? That’s what some people have been suggesting is that we have to have a vision of economic life which is not predicated on constant growth. Now we haven’t had that for a long time. So that is, I think, really important and interesting to think about, but it raises real questions.
When we haven’t had economic growth and there isn’t sort of gains to be offered to every element in society, maybe there is more social conflict or it’s capitalism that caused more social conflict. You can find historians on both sides of that issue. So these debates are very fresh and extraordinarily important, I think. And so there’s a future for sure, at least with regard to the question– is it the issue of climate and the environment is now, will just have to be, fundamental to our discussion of what modernity is and what it means to be modern as we go forward.