Jonny Beacham on Reclaiming Modernity

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the launch of Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert’s relatively new policy document for Compass last Saturday, hosted by the Bauman Institute in The Tetley, Leeds. Two initial, if not superfluous, points: since I left Leeds, the old Tetley building has become something of an artistic and cultural ‘space’, so I was happy to be able to pay it a long overdue visit. Secondly, I remember reading Mark Fisher’s excellent Capitalist Realism when it was first published way back in 2009. Six years on, capitalism continues unabated in the lived experience of everyday life, though I don’t think this is a reason for a sense of hopelessness or nihilism. Fisher’s work is a telling book that has stuck with me.

The title of Fisher and Gilbert’s new collaboration is indicative: Reclaiming Modernity: Beyond Markets, Beyond Machines. I’ve only been able to read this in the days after their discussion of the work, so it was intriguing to hear the author’s perspectives without any prior knowledge of it. But – unsurprisingly – it ties in nicely with Fisher’s earlier work in presenting the following main themes (my own summary, admittedly):

  • There is more to human life than activity within the marketplace
  • Neoliberalism has not delivered on its promises of increased freedom and redemption from invasive, stultifying bureaucracy and paternalistic managerialism – rather, increased choice is often a myth (and not something we necessarily want anyway, as Erich Fromm knew only too well) and the state, despite the proclamations of Thatcher and Reagan, is more powerful than ever, though in a more insidious and subtle way
  • We need to consider the ‘latent democratic potential’ of new communication technologies in a serious fashion
  • The need to rethink both public and private life away from contemporary values – creating more democratic institutions founded on principles of co-ownership and co-production

The implications and analysis offered by Fisher and Gilbert is too extensive to fully consider here in such a mediocre format, because we are tasked with rethinking society itself. This is not a small question, though I have never agreed with the rather cynical perspective that suggests that the question is too big or too complex therefore we should not even try to answer it or at least offer a tentative perspective. Of course, there is something worth fighting for, and to paraphrase what Gilles Deleuze once said, we need to find new weapons to fight the developments that we have been encumbered with since arguably the late 1970s – though it must be consider in much more longitudinal, historical fashion. Broadly, I agree with the ethic of their work, and think they offer a thought provoking piece. Some piecemeal reflections (as well as questions that, for me, remain) follow.

The question raised by my friend and colleague Jack Palmer has, over the past couple of days, intensified in my mind: what do we actually mean by modernity itself? Within sociological literature it remains a highly contested term, and terminological slippage is rife. When we talk of modernity, are we talking of a historical epoch, ethic, way of seeing the world, condition, orientation or what? If I had to argue either way, I think Zygmunt Bauman is broadly correct in suggesting that, as he does in Modernity and Ambivalence as well as Modernity and the Holocaust, amongst many others, that modernity is an attitude towards life itself. Modernity is about ordering that which presents itself as chaotic, irrational, a perplexing experiential flow, and making it such that it is calculable, rational, ordered, predictable. This is not a process without disastrous, or at least unexpected, outcomes. In this sense, I wonder what we mean by the notion of reclaiming modernity: is it putting it back on track from where it once went askew or is it about more about recoding or resignifying modernity such that it might mean something else? I have my own inclinations here (and Fisher and Gilbert certainly have their own perspective) but I do not have the answer. If we opt for the former notion, then for me this is strongly reminiscent of Jürgen Habermas’ argument that the project of modernity, the project of Enlightenment, must be completed

“[S]hould we continue to hold fast to the intentions of the Enlightenment, however fractured they may be, or should we rather relinquish the entire project of modernity? If the cognitive potentials in question do not merely result in technical progress, economic growth and rational administration, should we wish to see them checked in order to protect a life praxis still dependent on blind traditions from any unsettling disturbance?”

At the same time, we ought not to forget about the general conditions of our age, which is astutely summarised by the Italian theorist Franco Berardi as one of technologically-mediated hypercomplexity:

“Under the present conditions of hypercomplexity—the excessive intensity and speed of the info-stimuli affecting the brain—social action is less and less the result of consciously organized choices, and more and more the result of automated chains of cognitive elaboration and social interaction”

I think ‘reclaiming’ modernity here, as I have said, takes on a dual sense, both of which are important. It is not just about reinvigorating (and in the process, rethinking) what the attitude of modernity fundamentally is, but it is about clawing it back from the spectre of complexity, which problematises our ability to act in a social context by creating far-reaching consequences that we can neither predict nor control nor understand. I don’t think this is a radically different notion to the idea of externalities. But the contested nature of modernity makes this problem somewhat difficult to comprehend.

A dimension of Fisher and Gilbert’s work that I have fewer thoughts on at this point is the role that money might play in the creation of a more democratic, less unequal, less marketised modernity. If we are thinking beyond markets and beyond machines we have to consider the absurd age in which we live whereby money is not only understood in the vernacular as the fiat capital we carry around with us in everyday life but, through various social, political, economic and technological developments is an abstracted, dephysicalised, flow that moves at a rapid pace across spatial and temporal dimensions in the form of financial capital. As an aside, I appreciate the politico-economic distinction between money and capital in Marxist theory, though I’m not particularly concerned about the specificities here. A wider point, instead: financial capital bears little relation to everyday reality for us as social actors to the point that markets and the networked microprocessors that mediate them have taken on their own autonomy. As an open question, I wonder how we might alter money such that it can contribute to the more positive future envisaged by Gilbert and Fisher, though this is a question that people are paying more attention to contemporarily. I’m thinking here of people like Nigel Dodd at LSE and ongoing work by Mark Davis et al. at the Bauman Institute who are seriously considering the social life (lives?) of money in its various guises.

I have other reflections to follow in a later post: communication technologies, morality, what we mean by the process of democratisation. But I’m thankful for Jeremy and Mark’s contribution to these broad but inherently important questions.