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Modernity: Understanding the Present

Peter Wagner, Modernity: Understanding the Present, Polity Press, 2012, 160 pp., $15.62 (pbk), ISBN 9780745652917
James B. Cuffe, University College Cork and IES Abroad Beijing

As the title of this new book by Peter Wagner implies, it presents a synopsis of social theory’s engagement with modernity up to the present, but in a manner that highlights both historical and contemporary problems in this dynamic relationship. Wagner, an ICREA Research Professor at the University of Barcelona, is clearly enthusiastic in his attempt to disentangle the problems of a sociology for modernity, one that is historical, relevant and applicable to the local particularity of problems that human societies need to address. This passion lends itself to a lucid, flowing writing style, which engages the reader on the quest through what can often be a theoretical minefield. And in the wake of the Middle Eastern ‘Arab Spring’ and at the time of writing the recent Chinese leadership transition, his publication brings a timely examination to the relationship between capitalism and democracy and its traditional politico-philosophical underpinning of modernity.

The decoupling of capitalism from the institutional regulation that supports democratic norms has, Wagner argues, seen a transformation from consensual and representative democracy to participative and deliberative democracy, as evident in south American nations. This does not mean that capitalism is in some way not linked to democracy, but that the link is not a determinant or a causal one. This line of thinking is interesting considering the style of ‘centralised democracy’ in practice in China and the increasing institutionalisation of political practices that can be seen there. China is not tackled specifically in this book but would lend itself for further reflection on the arguments Wagner is making.

Wagner does offer a case study in the context of South Africa, arguing that the adoption of apartheid as a tool for socio-political organisation marks a transformation in our sense of modernity. Providing background context for the socio-political processes in South Africa, Wagner attempts to provide an alternative perspective with which to look at a European modernity. He does so carefully to avoid reducing multiple modernities to an essentialist format but his formulation results in his argument not being forceful enough to draw any strong conclusions. He surmises that differences in interpretation of how to solve given problems are not a result of ‘backwardness’, but more often due to actual differences in the given problems. Thus, we see a move away from a linear model of development upon which nations can be tracked to a more sympathetic understanding of regional and cultural differences.

A core theme in his thesis concerns societies’ attempts to deal with certain basic economic, political and epistemic problématiques that face any given human collectivity A modern society is one that consciously attempts to address these questions and this is the common feature across modern societies or modernities. Such basic problématiques would then provide markers by which useful comparable analysis could be made that would respect the particularity of local needs and resources under the rubric of a recognisable type of social experience. That different answers or solutions to these problématiques are possible – and can each be ‘legitimate’ as a response, even if some are not as effective or beneficial as others – sets up a framework by which there can be multiple or successive modernities and a constant striving for superior or better solutions. By way of example, the Communist Party of China’s grasp of power and its role as historical originator of contemporary Chinese sovereignty coincide with a constant striving for superior or better solutions. Should the C.C.P. fail to instigate such social change, they fail as legitimate rulers of their subjects (as opposed to citizens) and their reign shall end or transform into some new entity. 

Wagner claims that this mobilisation to provide a superior ‘answer’ entails a ‘collective creativity’ that is not reducible to

cultural or civilizational determination (even thought there may be path-dependency). … there is no guarantee of the lasting superiority of the new answer, as any new response may generate new fault lines; thus any view of societal ‘evolution’ as necessarily entailing learning processes that lead to higher levels of human social organization is equally flawed. (p. 77)

The theoretical terrain covered is expansive yet focused and extremely well signposted in terms of both theorists and their texts. This book also benefits substantially from the specificity of its case study on South Africa and its comparative study of the basis of social processes of communication rather than basing a concept of modernity on ‘stable collectivities held together by common meaning and/or coercive institutions, such as societies or civilisations’ (p. 151). Yet at times the care with which the subject matter is treated appears to dilute the potential force or clarity of Wagner’s arguments. Nevertheless he succinctly regroups his arguments in the final chapter for his call to re-theorize modernity for sociology as a predicated on a particular experience in time and space. This experience is related to the treatment of the aforementioned problématiques that he suggests would have arisen from the supposed axial age transformation in social relations. Wagner suggests that contemporary problématiques are the result of parallel developments from this basis that assume a worldly interconnectedness rather than simultaneous yet separate developments. These are not universal and perennial problems but rather an acknowledgement of diverse problématiques relating to time and space and disparate cultural programs yet focused ‘on the long-term interconnections in world history that not only permit historico-sociological comparison but also suggest that there may be some proximity or family resemblance, between basic problématiques that human beings have tried to address collectively at various places and points in time’ (p. 154). Modernity as such is not, then, the diffusion of European functional superiority, but the ‘onset of parallel processes of world-making, inspired by the modern imaginary but pursued under conditions of considerable power differentials’ (p. 163). 

Wagner’s book is an excellent reader for scholars of social theory that does not limit itself to recounting disparate perspectives on modernity, but consistently strives for deeper understanding and wider application. The book can be recommended for students and scholars alike – it lends itself equally to the different needs and abilities of both audiences.

January 28, 2013