Social Implications of a Global Economy

Colorado College's 125th Anniversary Symposium
Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts and Convergences

Delivered at Colorado College on February 6, 1999 at 9:30 AM
in a discussion forum with the same title.


Kenneth Minogue


I want in this paper to say something about the process of modernization in its contemporary form. Modernization is a process, and it has, in European states, been going on since at least the sixteenth century, but now, at the end of the twentieth century, we can observe quite new dimensions of the process. For one thing, it has now "gone global," and few can escape it. It will evidently have different effects on those like ourselves in the West who have been living with it for centuries and those like the peoples in other civilizations who are experiencing its first highly concentrated impact without any earlier familiarity. Hence I shall make some remarks on the following topics:

First, the distinction between modernization and Westernization. Second, the distinction between identity and instrumentality, which I shall use to give an account of what I take to underlie the process of modernization. Thirdly, to consider the way in which life in consumer cultures is becoming increasingly abstract. Finally, I shall make some remarks on the different ways in which modernization affects traditional societies, by contrast with those which have already been long launched upon the road to modernity.

Modernity is first grasped through its effects: computers, cars, electricity, anaesthetic, longevity, prosperity, and other things which are universally recognized as desirable. Everybody wants them; they are as close to universally desirable as it is possible to get. Along with these unmistakable fruits of modernity come other things such as McDonalds, films, cigarettes and whiskey, counseling, liberation movements, and much else—which are unmistakably non-universal. They are not evidently desirable, and may very well be seen as merely part of the vulgarity and detritus of Western civilization. On the other hand, they will very soon pollute minds, especially of the impressionable young.

So far, the sensible oriental despot would opt for modernization but not Westernization. Bring in electricity, keep out the rock ‘n roll. The hellish thing is that it doesn’t quite work like that. For in between these extremes are much more arguable modifications of traditional life, such as freeing slaves, finding a different status for women, abandoning respect for elders, and other central practices of a culture and a religion. Where do these things fit in drawing the line between the necessity of modernization and the horrors of Westernization? Can a traditional society embrace the modern world without also enduring the horrible and corrupt vulgarities of the West?

The answer is, of course, that, bar a few hermit kingdoms such as Tibet, it can’t be done.

The reason it can’t be done is that modernization results from individuals freeing themselves from a customary form of life in order to better themselves. The typical move is from the village to the city. One aspect of this is the moral degeneration that happens when a face to face society is replaced by anonymity. The old order was reinforced by powerful feelings of shame, but, in the cities, order rests upon efficient policemen. Further degeneration sets in when the controlled collective aesthetics of tradition give way to whatever takes the fancy of rootless individuals. These travelers into a new world soon lose their traditional knowledge and begin to pick up, rather promiscuously, the "skills" which they need and the tastes which they like. All of this is a massive change in the much discussed thing called a "culture." Our next problem is to analyze the process.

I propose to do it in terms of the distinction between identity and instrumentality. These are familiar terms used in analyzing what it is we do when we act. The aim of an action—a request, for example—is to get something we want. Action is an instrument of our desires. Yet at the same time, the way in which we perform an act must also sustain a conception of ourselves such as we wish to present to the outside world. To beg is, for many people, something quite impossible; their pride would prevent it. Beggars are to be despised. It is true, no doubt, that, in a utilitarian society such as our own, we see the world almost entirely in instrumentalist terms. For us, a free identity is something so much built in to our manners that we take it for granted, but it is an element of identity all the same. Life with us is a continuous exchange. That is why Sir Henry Maine characterized the modern world in terms of "contract." It is why "reciprocity" is sometimes seen as the central postulate of democracy.

Identity, however, is never out of contention in such self-conscious creatures as human beings. It is locked into the way of thinking Maine referred to as "status." We find it most visible in the sphere of religion, which often lays down rules about conduct binding on members. Jews don’t eat pork or work on the Sabbath, a chaste woman would not sleep with a millionaire (even a Hollywood star) for a million dollars, a judge will not take bribes (without betraying his vocation), and in the last century it was said that an Englishman’s word was his bond.

All this has to do with identity and helps to make the point that the most evident signs of identity are negative. They were much mocked by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class as preposterous affectations merely designed to make some people feel superior to others. In some cultures they are entrenched in language. I gather that in Japanese, the first person pronoun often indicates the status of the speaker in relation to the spoken to, and that there are about 120 different forms of "I"; one of them only used by the Emperor and another only by the prostitutes of Kyoto. According to Ernest Gellner, there could be no Hindu Robinson Crusoe, because some necessary human actions are so polluting they would have to be done by a person of another caste.

The basic principle of modernization, then, is that identity gives place to instrumentality. Instrumentality leads to an identity deficit. An emperor is a creature of ritual and decorum, but the average Westerner, whatever his position, is prepared where necessary to roll up his sleeves and fix the car—or turn to soldiering, or play sport, or whatever comes his way—unlike the famous Maharaja under the Raj who, seeing a lot of Englishmen sweating in the sun playing cricket, demanded to know why they did not let their servants do this work.

The disorder inherent in the release of individual preferences, which is central to modernization process, was mitigated, in the case of Europe, as the Middle Ages gave way to the modern world, by the emergence of a new form of identity, based on responsible choice. This term I use to refer to the moral aspects of the growth of individualism from the sixteenth century onwards. An individual here is understood as a unique bundle of sentiments and desires who must manage his own life in such a way as to conform to a set of rules—legal, moral, aesthetic, conventional, familial, and in some cases idiosyncratic. The emergence of this individual is one of the great inventions of human association, only comparable with the classical Greek invention of the citizen two thousand years before. The theoretical understanding of this new figure can be found in Bodin, Montaigne, Hobbes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Hume, and many others. But this individual was not, of course, the "isolated, fragmented, alienated" figment of later critical imagination. These individuals, far from being isolated, showed an astounding capacity to cooperate with each other. Instead of the ordered ranks of earlier society, there emerged classes, associations, interests, and all the institutional creativity of the modern world. The result has been that what rather looked, in the sixteenth century, like the imminent collapse of a civilization, as it seemed to fall apart into anarchy, turned into the creation of a new and rather tougher kind of civilization, which we call modernity. And what immensely allowed this process to work was the fact that it took place over many generations, in which most people most of the time remained largely within a traditional framework.

Responsible choice was responsible because the choices made by this individual were internally coherent. Many [individuals], no doubt, failed to be coherent, but they were likely to lead miserable lives: this was a world in which plenty of informal discipline kept people on the rails. And a further ordering system, to which too little attention has been paid, might be described as a destiny.

A religious identity clearly supplies a destiny in the form of a set of regular duties, but it may also for some provide a lifelong vocation as priest or nun. Most women in the past, however, found a destiny in domestic life—the very continuance of society depended on it. This did not prevent some becoming nurses or businesswomen (usually as widows) or courtesans. The average man looked forward (in Anglo-Saxon though not generally in Continental states) to leaving home, marrying, setting up his own establishment, and supporting his children, who in turn would support him. But destiny might also appear in the form of conscription in war, in being press ganged, in becoming involved in an endless and destructive court case, or in falling into a life dominated by plans of revenge.

Destinies both give meaning to life and are extremely oppressive. We love them and hate them. Some achieve destinies, most probably have destinies thrust upon them—but the whole thrust of modernization in its modern form is destiny-avoidance, or "hanging loose" as one idiom puts it.

And this leads us to recognize in the latest phase of modernization the emergence of what we might call a process of abstraction. Abstraction refers to the refining of satisfactions by dropping off extraneous considerations. The full individual is stripped down, as it were, to a simple unit of desire, and the economizing aim is the pursuit of efficiency in the satisfaction of desires.

The most obvious case of this is where a person in pursuit of sexual satisfaction seeks a prostitute because it dispenses with the otherwise extraneous and burdensome features of less focussed encounters, such as the conversational and affectionate, that would have been involved. An example in which the actual development of abstraction is clear goes like this: Shopping generally in the past involved not only acquiring the goods but also meeting and conversing with the shopkeeper. Then department stores allowed much shopping to be done under the same roof rather more anonymously—the shopgirl was born. Next came the supermarket, in which human contact is restricted to the person on the checkout. Now we have arrived at e-mail shopping, in which the human element, the last concreteness, disappears altogether. Abstraction has pared down a central element in the consumer society in which the acquisition of material needs can be achieved untouched by human hands. This is what I mean by abstraction.

This analysis of consumption should be familiar because it echoes the way in which nineteenth century socialists analyzed the forms of production in the capitalism of their time. Man had been reduced to be a cog in a wheel, and the results, as dramatized by Charlie Chaplin, were a hilarious parody of what a human life ought to be. But in the case of consumption, by contrast with production, man has not been "reduced" to this condition; he has enthusiastically embraced it.

The principle which underlies abstraction is convenience, and this tells us why it is that instrumentality leads to an identity deficit. The person who wants to better himself becomes impatient of identity restrictions. Orthodox Jewishness, for example, is an inconvenience in the pursuit of wider social and economic objectives. In the dialectic of duty and desire, the duties attaching to one’s identity often conflict with one’s desires. The long march of secularization has in part been based upon the inconvenience of regular attention to worship at specified times. The reason of abortions not infrequently lies in the inconvenience of having a baby, or this baby, at this time. The lever of these movements has been that of instrumental rationality in which all practices are brought to the critical test of utility. Released from their communal and authoritative context, the commands of priests and rabbis melt away in the light of reason. What, in rational terms, does a prohibition against pork amount to? Given efficient birth control, why should individuals put up with the pains of sexual frustration? A common world of recognized conveniences beckons. And convenience is the drive that leads to the process of abstraction. Let us analyze what it involves.

Subjectively, abstraction is a focus on a pure want more or less isolated from considerations of wider coherence. It is triggered by sensation, and it leads to impulse. There is a certain hot intensity in the subject-object relations, and where the object is a piece of information, for example, it has the focused character of a "soundbite." What is grasped is something one-dimensional, an image or an abstract thought, leading rapidly to a payoff in feeling.

These significant but slow moving changes in our moral condition could hardly occur without being noticed, named, and affirmed as valuable in some sort of doctrine. The coming of impulsiveness as a distinct and respectable moral form (rather than a deficiency in the moral life) took place under the auspices of the belief in liberation from oppressions. Where, for example, rules and conventions in serried ranks barred satisfaction in areas where impulse was notoriously destructive—in the area of sex among the young, for example—liberation came by affirming the value of being natural and spontaneous, which meant following impulse. This was particularly persuasive where the costs of restraint seemed to be much more severe on one party than the other—in the sexual case, for example, falling on women rather than men, particularly.

Liberation was sometimes invoked in the paradigm case of the emergence of the impulsive personality—namely, the taking of drugs, the shortest distance between desire and its satisfaction known to man. But even in trivial cases, the same impulse operated—in the rejection of formal clothes at work, for example. Impulsives thought it oppressive to wear uniforms or have to dress formally unless such dress should correspond to their own impulse.

The case of sexual liberation is the key to the wider aspects of the birth of impulsiveness in the emerging process of modernization, because all the barriers to impulse of all kinds collapsed rather swiftly in the 1960s. Almost immediately, however, the disadvantages of this condition began to surface, and, in place of the barriers, a whole new set of minefields was rapidly established. One form was sexual harassment litigation; another the propaganda in favor of "safe sex"; a further trend was the sudden appearance of a curious form of Puritannic media driven prurience about sex, especially in public life; and, perhaps another and more disastrous form, was a tendency towards sexual incompetence mitigated by a growth of pornography in American life.

I am concerned here, of course, with an ideal type, and the point of the type lies in seeking to explain mysteries of the human psyche. One cannot be dogmatic in this area, but my suggestion is that the removal of the barriers to impulse by the liberation movements led to making human sexual relations much shallower because they removed the dimension of deliberation and thoughtfulness which the barriers had demanded.

Even more important was the virtual destruction of the moral repertoire human beings brought to sexual encounters. That repertoire included passion, self-sacrifice, flirting, pretending, sulking, friendship, sense of duty, tolerance and patience, amusement, and much else. What was perhaps above all under attack was any sense of the complementarity (rather than competitiveness) of men and women. Instead, two human beings impelled by a parallel desire had to encounter each other in such a way as to harmonize impulses that would inevitably soon begin to diverge. But creatures of impulse, adroit managers of desire, had relatively few resources for responding to such a divergence. At the terrible point where "the other" is not satisfying one’s impulses, the complexities of the entire Western moral tradition would disappear in the face of the jejune managerialism of the marriage counselor: "But what is it that you want?"

Impulsives live in a world in which they think of themselves as the bearers of things called "rights." They reject any restriction on their conduct which they have not themselves deliberately and consciously embraced. Anything else is oppressive. They have rejected habit, but they can live with addiction, because it fits into a manageable therapeutic vocabulary. Since impulse and money are closely connected, their loyalty is not to be counted on, and they will divulge any intimacy for a price. Indeed, one of their reigning passions (like that of children) is for attention.

This picture may seem overdrawn, and it is certainly only one part of a complex truth—there are millions to whom it does not apply at all. But I suggest that it corresponds to the life of millions of people in what is currently called the "underclass." All over the Western world there are rather lifeless couch potatoes who just manage to get through their lives dependent on others. Some psychology of this kind lies behind the decline in civic involvement studied by Robert Putnam. The millions who have divorced and now live alone, or who have never founded a family, belong to this world. Above all, perhaps, this latest phase of modernization has destroyed for many that automatic sense of a formal destiny which they could spend their lives exploring. Like all liberations, this one has turned out to be fine for those with enough inner drive to supply a plan of life for themselves. But it is misery for the thousands without a guiding passion, who cling desperately to aging parents or a job they fear to lose.

My main concern, however, is not with the psychology of impulsiveness but with its objective character. How has it come about? How has impulsiveness emerged from the serious world of responsible choice?

The answer is that the complex package of freedom has dropped off the "responsible" but (for the moment) kept the bit about choice. Responsible choice is a form of prudence; it is a sensitivity to two kinds of consequence—firstly, the consequence an act may have for one’s identity and, secondly, the consequences in the real world. Single pregnancy is a paradigm of both types of consequence. And both these consequences have been eroded in our century. Let us take each in turn.

At the beginning of the century, respectability was a vital element in the self-understanding of most people, and they would go to immense lengths to avoid the disgrace of the workhouse or the pauper’s funeral. In 1998, the British government embarked on an inquiry to discover why a range of welfare rights accruing to elderly people from the Second World War had not been taken up, and it discovered that this was a generation in which many people still scorned to accept such money. But in the course of the century, a kind of moral egalitarianism has largely extinguished the positive or honorific character of patriots, virgins, the respectable, the self-reliant, the stiff upper lipped, the prudish, and other such claims to superiority. These moral divisions within society had been replaced by a supposedly single world in which everyone communicated on the basis of a knowing practicality.

Corresponding to this change in morality, and closely linked to it, has been the rise of state provision for the consequences of folly. To find oneself old and penniless might well be the result of misfortune or of folly—the striking thing about working class life at the end of the last century was, in fact, that determined prudence, even of very poor people. On the other hand, there is no doubt that state provision of pensions erodes the rationality of saving for a rainy day. The same is true of unemployment and other such benefits. That is a significant part of the explanation for the rise of single parenthood. Whereas previously families had been a vital element in the network of resources for life, the welfare state began to replace them, and, in parallel, divorces rose and increasing numbers of people began living alone.

Benefits, in the ordinary moral world, beget gratitude. The state here provides a vast range of benefits for a very sizeable proportion of the population, and one might expect these people to be grateful. But this has not happened. The extent of patriotic dedication at the end of the last century—as found in the outpouring of emotion over Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 and in volunteering for the wars of that time—vastly exceeds anything found today. There are two reasons for this. The first is that what the welfare state provides is construed not as a "benefit" (though the word is used) but as a right, and no one need be grateful to have received that to which one has a right.

The other reason is that individualists feel gratitude because the complex moral coherence of deliberation has the space in which gratitude to others may be inscribed. Impulsives, on the other hand, have merely a short-term understanding of their moral situation, and the succession of impulses—and the dodges by which they are to be satisfied—focus the mind upon things more immediate than gratitude.

Our argument is that impulsiveness is the emerging subjective character of contemporary modernization. What is no less interesting is the objective correlate of such modernization—the dissolution of the responsible individual into a set of categories and signs. Polling and social surveying are now so continuous that we continuously learn about the attitudes and conduct of people fitting into a set of familiar categories—pensioners, students, women, ethnic minorities, business leaders, homosexuals, etc. Each of us thus learns to construe his or her attitudes in terms of this statistical background. Creditworthiness is currently judged less by an individual’s own record than by a set of abstract indicators of the propensity to get into debt—a propensity by no means unwelcome to creditors. The cost of car insurance depends not on individual character but on location, type of car, and lifestyle statistics. The police assess driving competence not in terms of conduct but in terms of the level of alcohol in the blood.

The process of political representation has become increasingly abstract. Can a woman be represented by a man? A black by a white? A homosexual by a "straight"? In Britain, the hereditary element in the House of Lords is being removed not because the Lords are inadequate, nor because there is a great demand for reform in the country, but because hereditariness in the upper house is inconsistent with the abstract principle of democracy. The collapse of ability as a criterion for office has gone so far that most Western countries have established well-funded agencies with coercive authority to manage employment so as to equalize the abstract categories of color and sex.

It is when we put together the subjective and the objective aspects of the modernization process understood in this way that we begin to recognize the long-term significance of what is happening.

We may recognize a cyclical process in which liberation is succeeded, a generation or two later, by an advance in state control of individual life. The provision of a pension, for example, seems to be an unambiguous benefit to the average citizen. But, in time, the pension liabilities of the state accumulate, and governments find cause to begin imposing systems of compulsory pensions saving upon their subjects. The virtue of prudence exercised by citizens themselves gives way to a new stage of compulsion exercised by the government. Again, the provision of healthcare— "free," as the British version has it, "at the point of need"—seems like a net improvement in human happiness. But, in time, the rising costs of this provision lead to the creation of officers (such as the Surgeon General) and agencies whose brief it is to enforce a national lifestyle strategy allowing the government to engage in "public education" about health and to determine what its subjects will be allowed on national health—so called "gender reassignment," yes; Viagra, currently no. The sexual liberation of the 1960s leads in time to an activist concern with child abuse, sexual harassment, and similar controls over privacy. Again, a world of impulsives exhibits a notable decline in general competence, leading governments to begin taking over more and more the syllabus in schools, so that courses in parenting, "preparation for life," various kinds of "awareness," etc., begin to crowd out education. The decline in manners consequent on the growth of impulsiveness generates a new kind of supposedly "non-judgmental" morality, called political correctness, with the growth in universities particularly of a whole new bureaucracy whose task is to enforce these standards.

Perhaps the central consequence of growing impulsiveness is the decline of trust, which must be countered by a government sponsored growth in codes and mission statements defining the duties of public servants and members of the professions. Trusting to professions no longer being enough, professionals came under many forms of surveillance. The performance of doctors, for example, is in Britain to be subject to random secret scrutiny, and teachers, policemen, and many others come to be judged in terms of performance indicators.

The legend that corresponds to the way Western civilization has developed in this century is, of course, that of Faust, who sold his soul, that is to say his identity, to the devil in order that he should acquire power.


1999 by Kenneth Minogue

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