Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew argue in their new book Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture that modernistic solutions only exasperate the problems created by the modernistic value system of our day. Unless our solutions can transcend modern techniques – we will not be able to properly move forward.
These authors understand modernism to come in primarily four shapes: The classical shape, the structural critique of it, the cultural critique of it, and postmodernism as the latest critique of it. In this way they say modernity is the mother of not one but at least four different worldviews. They show how all of these versions are variations of the same source – and while each worldview has some value, we need something more to move us past the problems modernism has created – such as deregulated capitalism, consumerism, progressivism, economic inequality, militarization, overworked laborers, environmental destruction, and many others.
This was THE crucial insight of this book for me: Modernism perpetuates the problems it abhors. On the one hand modernization presents the face of massive and ongoing technological, economic, and scientific development in our increasingly global world-society. But on the other hand modernization is also the face of the deep embarrassment felt by many people about the real-life consequences of these massive developments. To show this, the authors introduce the concept of “paralogy.” Paralogy refers to the logic behind apparently illogical paradoxes present in our modern world. For example:
- The poverty paradox: Despite an unprecedented expansion of wealth, recent years have seen unexpected increases in poverty in the wealthiest societies.
- The time paradox: For two centuries economists have predicted that increased wealth in modern societies could bring with it more leisure time for everyone. Instead, people in these societies find themselves working longer and harder
- The care paradox: The capacity to provide care – including quality health care, is gradually declining in the wealthier societies while “diseases of affluence” such as obesity and diabetes are rising.
- The employment paradox: Modern governments try to cope with the problem of unemployment by promoting higher economic growth. But they are seldom effective through these methods.
- The environmental paradox: Why is it that advanced technologies, more economic resources available than ever, and a series of international agreements have not been able to lessen, much less reverse, the rate of environmental destruction?
The authors show how the presence of an ideology of material progress (again, a mostly modern phenomena) sheds light on these paradoxes and explains them. As progress becomes for modern people an iron law, so tensions emerge – and simply offering solutions of more the same thing (more technology, more progress, more consumption, more work) only makes things worse. In Hannah Arendt’s words, the perpetual warfare by modern men and women rages against their own self-created human condition! More could be said here, as much more is said in the book. But to conclude, I’d like to share a critique of modern culture from a Jewish philosopher named Walter Benjamin (pages 52-54 of the book). This one took my breath away:
Benjamin’s primary critique of modern Western society was that it appeared incapable of acknowledging or giving due weight to all of the sufferings it had imposed upon humankind. His views are forever linked to his remarkable interpretation of a work of art called “Angelus Novus,” painted by German artist Paul Klee in 1920.
Benjamin called this angel the “Angel of History.” On initial inspection we see an angel flying over a world that is obviously ruined. The angel gazes with large, pain-filled eyes on the suffering he observes in the world below. In response, he opens his wings to give a healing blessing. But it is clear that he is UNABLE to give that blessing, because a powerful wind coming from below pushes him backward. In Benjamin’s interpretation, the angel is tied to the past. As the Angel of History, he cannot see into the future.
Because of this, he is not aware of the great promises made to humankind about the arrival of a better future. He observes only the crushing burdens that have been laid on people in the name of a better future. He sees only the ruins and wants to bless the people who are suffering, but the wind prevents that blessing from happening.
And then Benjamin makes a biting comment: that wind, “das ist was wir Fortschritt nennen,” or “that is what we call progress.” Indeed, in modern society progress must always go on, in spite of the suffering, even great suffering it inflicts.
Following the requirements of progress has become our highest commandment. And our highest commandment leads to our worst sins. Modernism creates more of the problems it seeks to solve.