Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Altermodern times


CommonwealthCommonwealth by Michael Hardt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stimulating because of the questions it raises, not because of the answers for which we shall have to continue to grope. Or perhaps there are no answers to what is becoming of this world, where nation, state, class have become so diffuse that they seem empty categories. The authors’ tearing apart of the category “modernity”is one of their major contributions, allowing us to recognize the complexity of global changes. As the 19th and most of the 20th century had it, the capitalist, industrialized, technologically innovative countries of western Europe and North America, plus (belatedly) Japan, were “modern,” which also implied (or required) that their cultures were freer of superstition and other nonrational hangups, that they were logical and pragmatic. The rest of the world was seen as “premodern”, which implied that once they had gotten a proper boost, or been forced out of their lethargy, they would become more like the “modern”. Not so at all, as we all know. Irrational behavior, religious passions, and stubborn clinging to ideological precepts already demonstrated to have failed are every bit as common (and especially dangerous) in the technologically and industrially most advanced countries, while the supposedly premoderns — India and China are dramatic examples — zoom past the old “moderns” and adopt and develop new technology more rapidly than anybody. H & N argue that “modernity” (meaning technological and scientific thinking, mostly) and antimodernity (which includes such irrational impulses as solidarity) is complex: it may mean reactionary resistance to beneficial change, but it may also be a healthy resistance to the abuses of rampant technological and social changes so frequent when a more powerful country or corporation imposes its will. Modern and antimodern commitments coexist and are intermingled in all societies, and what we should strive for is “altermodernity,” where both “modern” and supposedly “premodern” resources are devoted to the common good, or as they prefer, the commonweallth. Aside from that, the most useful thing I derived from the book was a reminder that I must read with greater attention Saskia Sassen — H & N’s quotes from her show the clearest thinking of anybody on what Zygmunt Bauman calls our “liquid” societies.

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