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In this column, a member of the NCR staff or a contributor offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

June 22, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 12




Margot Patterson What It Means to Be Modern

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (The New Press, 2003) arrived on my desk one day after I'd had a testy conversation with a colleague about postmodernism, a word I think so vague and infinitely flexible that I find it suspect and my suspicion, perhaps unfairly, extends to anyone who uses it.

In this case, the conversation reinforced something I'd already been thinking about, not about postmodernism -- a concept I've given up on as essentially meaningless (pace, Antonia) -- but about modernity. What does that word mean? What makes us modern in the West? What makes other people in other societies not so?

Enter John Gray's book, which tackles this and other large topics with admirable and indeed awesome conciseness. In 119 pages, not including footnotes, Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, undertakes to show the reader that common misconceptions notwithstanding, Al Qaeda is not a throwback to medievalism but a very modern movement, one that is a byproduct of globalization. If ideologically or spiritually, Al Qaeda is a throwback to 19th century European revolutionary anarchists, as Gray argues, practically Al-Qaeda depends for its existence on the free flow of global capital.

In the course of making this and a great many other points -- on economics, geopolitics, nation-building, the meaning of modernity, the dubious prospects of a Pax Americana and the role of repressed religion in secular political thought -- Gray provides a short course on Positivism to which he says the West owes its totally unmerited faith that history is the record of ongoing human progress.

Gray calls the Positivists "the original prophets of modernity. Through their influence on Marx, they stand behind the 20th century's communist regimes. At the same time, by their formative impact on economics, they inspired the utopian social engineers who constructed the global free market in the aftermath of the collapse of communist central planning."

Gray tells us that Positivism had three major tenets: that history is driven by the power of science, that science will triumph over natural scarcity and put an end to war and poverty and that progress in science goes hand in hand with ethical and political advances. The Positivists were in a sense the Pollyannas of their day, contending that through science every day in every way the human condition becomes better and better.

These beliefs continue to be widely credited in the West. However, far from seeing the "end of history," as Frances Fukuyama argued notably a decade ago, Western society today is subject to all the ancient woes that have affected mankind from time immemorial and its most cherished myths are, well, myths. Notable among the latter is Americans' belief that theirs is the only viable model of human development and that global capitalism will lead to one common, prosperous society. In fact, Gray, tells us, global capitalism is unstable, prone to producing more rather than less conflict in the world and the product of political circumstances that are already expiring. Even before 9/11, the United States was turning its back on global free trade, Gray says, adding, "It is probably only a matter of time before the U.S. thumbs its nose at the World Trade Organization."

Gray defines modern societies as those with the ability to generate new knowledge, not simply use knowledge developed by others. But as societies become modern, they do not necessarily become more alike nor do they necessarily become more liberal or benign. The concentration camp and the gulag are quintessentially modern institutions, he points out. This not because people in prior eras did not commit heinous deeds but because they did not subscribe to the idea that humanity could be perfected, if necessary by extermination.

"The death camps of Nazi Germany and the gulags of Soviet Russia and Maoist China killed many millions of people, far more than in any earlier century. Yet it is not the number of the dead that is peculiarly modern. It is the belief that as a result of these deaths a new world would be born. In former times, the Inquisition tortured and killed on a large scale; but it did not imagine it would remake the world through terror. It promised salvation in the world hereafter, not paradise in the world below. In contrast, in the 20th century, industrial-scale killing by states of their own citizens has been practiced in the belief that the survivors will live in a world better than any that has ever existed."

Modernization is not going to eliminate differences between societies and lead to a unified world nor does technology invariably lead to social progress or to ethical improvement.
Rather than indulge in utopian fictions about a future increasingly peaceful, progressive and unlikely, Gray argues we could more profitably learn from those empires in the past that were tolerant of dissimilar peoples, ideas and values. Today, an increasing number of failed states is resulting in a rebirth of empire under an internationalist umbrella -- for example, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan.

Instead of seeking to impose a Pax Americana that is already being resisted, Gray argues that the United States should give more attention to learning to coexist with differences. Modernization is not going to eliminate differences between societies and lead to a unified world nor does technology invariably lead to social progress or to ethical improvement. If anything, technological changes threaten to increase and aggravate conflict. "By intensifying competition for natural resources and hastening the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the dissemination of new technology throughout the world magnifies some of the most dangerous human conflicts," Gray writes.

This is bracing stuff, a dose of 100 proof liquor for those who like their reality undiluted. Along the way, Gray has plenty of other things to say, particularly about modern neoliberal economics. Here is where Gray most clearly traces the influence of the Positivists. It is to the Positivists, who saw mathematics as the highest form of science and who believed that only that which was quantifiable was relevant or important, that modern liberal economists owe their faith in productivity as the sole criterion of economic efficiency and value. Economics has become decoupled from history, says Gray, and the result is a thoroughly unhistorical field blind to its own bias and convinced of its own presuppositions.

In detailing the intellectual provenance of Western economists as well as Osama bin Laden and his followers, Gray delineates what he thinks is both false in current thinking and what he thinks is true. Sept. 11 and its consequences marked the beginning of a new kind of unlimited war, he says. While most terrorism is local or regional, rooted in specific conditions that apply to specific areas, Gray argues that Al Qaeda is the first global multinational terrorist organization, with a global reach and a global support system. Al Qaeda, too, has a regional goal -- the overthrow of the Saudi royal family -- but its pursuit of this has brought it into worldwide conflict with the United States. Its fundamentalist program disguises to many in the West how much a product it is of the West that it despises.

"It is the fact that radical Islam rejects reason that shows it is a modern movement," Gray writes. He notes that the medieval age was convinced of the power of reason; it was the Romantics who embraced the idea of remaking the world through an act of will.

"The intellectual roots of radical Islam are in the European Counter-Enlightenment," Gray writes. He adds: "The belief that terror can remake the world is not a result of any kind of scientific inquiry. It is faith pure and simple. No less incontrovertibly, the faith is uniquely Western."

Ironically, if Al Qaeda is representative of the very modernity it protests, Gray sees Westerners' faith in historical progress as a residue of the Christianity they largely dismiss. Western secular societies have joined Christianity's conception of history as linear to their faith in science as salvation.

"The prevailing idea of what it means to be modern is a post-Christian myth," Gray writes. "The Positivists inherited the Christian view of history, but -- suppressing Christianity's saving insight that human nature is ineradicably flawed -- they announced that by the use of technology humanity could make a new world."

Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modernis a sobering yet exhilarating book. There is something invigorating about seeing an intellectual at the top of his game taking on contemporary thought and deconstructing its favorite shibboleths so ably and incisively. Gray's command of history, economics and politics is formidable; his ability to succinctly convey contemporary realities vs. our common misunderstandings of them striking. The book is dense, provocative, larded with insights that explode off the page sentence after sentence.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at

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