Why a 400-Year Program of Modernist Thinking is Exploding

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Across the globe, a collective freak-out spanning the whole political system is picking up steam with every new “surprise” election, rush of tormented souls across borders, and tweet from the star of America’s great unreality show, Donald Trump.

But what exactly is the force that seems to be pushing us towards Armageddon? Is it capitalism gone wild? Globalization? Political corruption? Techno-nightmares?

Rajani Kanth, a political economist, social thinker, and poet, goes beyond any of these explanations for the answer. In his view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter — whether we think of ourselves as on the left or right, capitalist or socialist —was birthed 400 years ago during the period of the Enlightenment. It’s a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form.

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing, and unless we understand why and how it has distorted our reality, we might just end up burnt to a crisp as this misanthropic Death Star starts to bulge and blaze in its dying throes.

A Mass Incarceration of Humanity

Kanth’s latest book, Farewell to Modernism: On Human Devolution in the Twenty-First Century, tells the history of a set of bad ideas. He first caught the scent that something was off as an economics student in India, wondering why, despite his mastery of the mathematics and technology of the discipline, the logic always escaped him. Then one day he had an epiphany: the whole thing was “cockeyed from start to finish.” To his amazement, his best teachers agreed. “Then why are we studying economics?” demanded the pupil. “To protect ourselves from the lies of economists,” replied the great economist Joan Robinson.

Kanth realized that people are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.

Using his training in history and cultural theory, Kanth dedicated himself to investigating how this way of thinking took hold of us, and how it delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends. Eurocentric modernism, he argues, consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other. Have the costs become too high?

The Creed of Capture

The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks:  a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

To illustrate one of its signature follies, Kanth refers to that great Hollywood ode to the Western spirit, “The Sound of Music.” Early in the film, the Mother Superior bursts into song, calling on the nun Maria to “climb every mountain, ford every stream.”

Sounds exhilarating, but to what end? Why exactly do we need to ford every stream? From the Eurocentric modernist viewpoint, Kanth says, the answer is not so innocent: we secretly do it so that we can say to ourselves, “Look, I achieved something that’s beyond the reach of somebody else.” Hooray for me!

“That’s our big dream,” says Kanth. “Everyone and everything is a stepping stone to our personal glorification.” When others get in our way, we end up with a grim take on life described succinctly by Jean Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.”

Sounds bad, but didn’t Eurocentric modernism also give us our great democratic ideals of equality and liberty to elevate and protect us?

Maybe these notions are not really our salvation, suggests Kanth. He notes that when we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs.

What we lack, according to Kanth, is a realistic approach to anthropology, without which our forays into economics, psychology, sociology, and pretty much everything are hopelessly skewed. In his view, the Eurocentric modernist tradition, influenced by the Judeo-Christian idea that we are distinct from the world of nature, seeks to separate us from the animal world. We are supposed to be above it, immortal, transcending our bodies and the Earth.

But it doesn’t quite work.

We may be able to perform dazzling technical feats, like putting a colony on Mars, but we will pay for it by working even harder and longer hours so that a few may get the benefit.  A whole lot of lost time and suffering, and for what? Kanth points out that the Bushmen do not have a Mars rocket, but they do have a two-and-a-half-day workweek — something that most modern humans can only dream of. What’s more significant to the lives of most of us?

“We have become unhinged from our own human nature as heat-seeking mammals,” says Kanth. “What we really crave is warmth, security, and care — the kinds of things we get at home and in close social units.” Our greatest human need, he says, is something far more humble than launching rockets: we want to huddle.

Why We Don’t Need Utopias

Utopian dreamers have often longed for a more hospitable way of living. But Kanth believes that when they look to politics, economics or philosophy for answers, they are missing the best inspiration:  human anthropology. The key is not to project ourselves into the future, but to learn from the practical, beneficial ways humans have lived in the past and still do, in some cases, in the present — places where our worst instincts are contained through affective reciprocities, goodwill, and care.

Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the “noble savage,” tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other.

“Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living,” says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else.  There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

Kanth points out that you don’t have to just look to the Bushmen or to Aboriginals for examples: you can find them in America and elsewhere in networks of women and workers, as well as traditional and tribal societies that have carried on the tradition of a moral economy.

Women, he emphasizes, have retained the instinct to nurture because the human child is especially vulnerable compared to the young of many animal species. They have to create peaceful, nurturing conditions or the human race can’t survive.

“There is no other fount of social morality itself,” says Kanth. He faults Eurocentric modernists for centering on male aggression and taking it to represent everybody, which is unfair.

As Kanth sees it, most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress while ignoring the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other.

So What Do We Do?

Kanth, like many, senses that a global financial crisis, or some other equivalent catastrophe, like war or natural disaster, may soon produce painful and seismic economic and political disruptions. Perhaps only then will human nature reassert itself as we come to rediscover the crucial nexus of reciprocities that is our real heritage. That’s what will enable us to survive.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, but right now, we can learn to “step out and breathe again,” says Kanth. We can “reclaim our natural social heritage, which is our instincts for care, consideration, and conviviality.” Even in large cities, he observes, we naturally tend to function within small groups of reference even though we are forced into larger entities in the workplace and other arenas.  There, we can build and enrich our social ties, and seek to act according to our moral instincts. We can also resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in “evasion and disobedience and exile.”

We had better get to it, he warns. To put it bluntly, Eurocentric modernism is not compatible with human civilization. One of them has got to go.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. jerry

    Seems about right, I’d be interested to give the book a read, $100 though? That’s a bit much lol.

    “but to learn from the practical, beneficial ways humans have lived in the past and still do, in some cases, in the present”

    Examples of this being..?

    1. Lord Koos

      There have been many societies that were based more on cooperation than competition. Study some Anthropology, maybe.

      1. Matt

        Hmmmm… Societies that were based more on cooperation than competition… How about the start of the United States of America? An extremely small limited government that was built with so many restrictions that it’s sole purpose was to prevent Tyranny from ever happening to our country.

        In this limited government scenario, communities had to cooperate and help each other because when times were rough, they would have to get help from their neighbors because their were no government subsidies that they could rely on.

        That was the nature of our country though. Not having subsidies available to fall back on in hard times made it all the more necessary for people to contribute to their local communities and be productive for their communities. The government could not pick the winners and losers when it came to businesses. This allowed a tremendous amount of innovation and prosperity to take place because people could keep the profits of their business endeavors.

        The less government involvement in our finances and daily activities, the more cooperation will occur in our local communities.

        1. justanotherprogressive

          “The less government involvement in our finances and daily activities, the more cooperation will occur in our local communities.”

          A very good point. I’ve noticed in my own life, that the less the government and corporations are involved with a particular science (like in some basic science fields where there is no hope for immediate financial or political gain), the more international cooperation there is.

          1. tts

            “I’ve noticed in my own life, that the less the government and corporations are involved with a particular science (like in some basic science fields where there is no hope for immediate financial or political gain), the more international cooperation there is.”

            I’m not a actual scientist but my granddad was and I’ve met others in various fields and they would all disagree with you vehemently. Much of our current technical advances were only made possible by govt. funded science projects that had their end outcomes repurposed.

        2. Barry Fay

          This whole comment is just an series of basically unrelated libertarian canards. For starters, you might want to address the question of how all these great cooperating communities ended up creating the Federal Government if indeed everything was so hunky-dory!

        3. Tully

          “The start of the United States of America”? Colonization,capitalist expansion (competition and exploitation) at the expense of the native population.

          “Limited government”? No, not really. The only examples of limited government in the constitution are the prohibition against ex post facto laws and the guarantee of “habeas corpus”. And, of course, the late addition of the Bill of Rights.

          All that other stuff is really a case of “limited democracy” (limited self-government, limited majority rule): only white men with property could vote; a “republic” with carefully designed institutions and structures of government that acted as barriers to power to prevent reform (think divided branches, checks and balances, staggered elections and staggered terms, different constituencies, etc); indirect elections where voters were at least one step removed from direct participation in government (the president chosen by electoral college electors who are themselves chosen by state legislatures; senators chosen by state legislatures; and the final arbiters, the supreme court, not elected at all but appointed by the president with senate approval); representatives as burkean “virtuous trustees” responsive to power and privilege and not the voter; the concept of judicial review (the power to quash the will of the people); and making the constitution difficult to amend. All of these and more act as effective barriers to power – hurdles that must be overcome by the impulse of self-government, majority rule, democracy.

          All enumerated powers given to the federal government are concerned with economic competiton. None have to do with “the general welfare” (“huddling”).

          1. PhilM

            Yeah, it’s pretty clear in retrospect why that arrangement didn’t work out better. With institutions like that, it’s no wonder the whole thing dissolved in poverty and chaos in just a few years.

            1. Tully

              Which is, by some measure or at least incrementally, what happened. The election of Jefferson in 1800 was “the revolution of 1800” because the federalist and their new constitution that served the interest of centralized power with taxation to fund Hamilton’s big government was rejected by the people.
              Other items in the new constitution like the federal ratio that sanctioned slavery (“a wolf held by its ears”) took longer to fester – about 70 years before war broke out (a war that is still being fought today).
              And of course the new constitution that above all else protected property is responsible for the too-powerful role of corporations in our political economy today.
              Remember about your constitution: in the beginning it considered some people to be property; today it considers some property to be people.
              Today we are the least democratic and suffer the most inequality of all western democracies. Many if not most Americans have dissolved into poverty. As for chaos … keep your fingers crossed.

        4. tts

          Are you referring to the Articles of Confederation as the start of the US?

          Those were a dismal failure and were deemed as such by its own authors and those who wrote the US Constitution.

          Very weak “barely there” govt. is only possible in very small and undeveloped societies. If you want a modern society with modern technical/economic benefits to go with it you need a strong central govt. to make it happen.

          1. PhilM

            Funny thing how those articles got them through a war against England. Let’s make a list of all the other English colonies that obtained independence before the empire was beaten to its knees in WWII.

            The articles were far from a “dismal failure”: what they needed was a re-balancing between power and liberty; much as our own situation does this very moment, as you rightly suggest in your last line.

            1. tts

              “Funny thing how those articles got them through a war against England.”
              Noooope. What got the US, and as a by product, the Articles through the war was help from France. If France hadn’t helped the US probably would’ve been still born.

              Once the war was over problems became apparent immediately and the country nearly fell apart into a bunch of petty warring states. It was awful. The Annapolis Convention was a last chance attempt to salvage things under a new social contract which was successful but that was hardly guaranteed. Things easily could’ve gone differently.

              “The articles were far from a “dismal failure””
              That is flat out factually incorrect. There were multiple spontaneous armed rebellions (the most well known being Shay’s) due to popular public discontent from the general economic and civil conditions that were a direct consequence of the Articles.

              On top of that many of the states would frequently attempt to sabotage each other for both economic and political gain with punitive inter-state taxes and even raids. We missed having a early Civil War by the skin of our teeth!

              “as you rightly suggest in your last line.”
              You’re seeing things that aren’t there. I wasn’t doing anything of the sort.

              To address what you’re saying though I think we mostly need better leadership both in Congress and the Presidency. Some rule changes would be very welcome (ie. fillibuster reform, anti-gerrymander reform, etc) but fixing the leadership problem is paramount at this point.

        5. Joe

          In the context of the article, the referenced cooperative societies are essentially aboriginal. You’re conflating 1000’s of years of pre-modern cultural and social evolution with the factually wrong story that the early US was “small government”. Factually wrong because the primary goal for the constitutional convention of 1787 was precisely to strengthen the central government — literally — not to limit it. The delegates who crafted the Constitution were quite explicit about their goals, chief among them was to codify the philosophy of a strong state to be able to coerce recalcitrant actors to obey the law. Today’s spin on how the Founding Fathers favored small government, or didn’t pick winners and losers, or [fill in your favorite neoliberal trope], is nothing more than revisionist history promulgated to remove the only effective bulwark against the actual tyranny of concentrated wealth run amok (i.e. state regulation).

          As far as conflating the ideals and practices of the early US with pre-modern social arrangements, it’s essentially comparing apples and oranges, if you will. If anything the early US was a period of time that advanced and built upon Enlightenment ideals. The very same set of assumptions “that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form.” (quoted from said article).

          1. PhilM

            I call time-out. Before continuing to comment, let’s all go and read, again (for me at least), Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Then we can reconvene for a bit of informed conversation on this subject.

            The paragraph above concludes with a terrific bit of historicism that could be the kernel of an excellent debate. There’s just this wee problem that concentrated wealth was not considered “tyranny” at the time. Tyranny was understood to be a problem of power, and power was understood to be what it actually is: force, compulsion, the barrel of a gun, standing armies—what people in government have. Wealth is what people in government want to take, using power.

          2. Matt

            Small is a subjective term. I perceive a small government as one that does not impose any taxes on its citizens. Like when Thomas Jefferson was president in 1802 he eliminated all taxes and funded the government solely through tariffs.

            When you talk about the tyranny of a concentrated wealth, that is quite a loaded statement. The concentration of wealth only gets worse when you restrict the free market. Over the past decade, the countries of the world have been getting more and more socialist. It has resulted in the income gap becoming the largest in the history of the world. 8 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population now.

            I think that having a free market with low taxes and regulations ensures a path for anyone with a good idea and a strong work ethic the opportunity to attain wealth. Not that everyone will succeed, but everyone should have a fair opportunity. I believe the government should only be strong enough to break up monopolies so that there is always competition in every industry which results in better products and services at lower costs.

            There is no perfect government. In a limited government, like what I prefer, the majority of the corruption will take place in private businesses. The free market limited government nations provide a high risk high reward opportunity for it’s citizens.

            In a powerful centralized socialist government, the corruption will mainly take place in the government and the businesses they choose to give contracts to. This type of nation offers a low risk low reward opportunity to its citizens. It can turn out somewhat well like in Sweden and Norway or be a horrific failure like Venezuela, USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and soon to be China.

            Regardless, I love this website. I love all of you and the intelligent discourse you have on this website. I value it tremendously to hear beliefs and positions that I may disagree with, but at least they are coherent, intelligent positions.

            1. beth

              Like when Thomas Jefferson was president in 1802 he eliminated all taxes and funded the government solely through tariffs.

              One problem is that tariffs are taxes. The real question is when and whom you tax and for what purpose. What are you trying to accomplish with the tax?

              1. Matt

                Tariffs only equate to taxes if there is no competition locally. Then most common misperceptions about tariffs is that they increase prices for the consumers. The only time this is true is when there are no local providers of the said product or service.

                Businesses set prices for their products and services by ONE METHOD ONLY. It is the PRICE THE CONSUMER IS WILLING TO PAY. This is why free trade is so bad for United States Citizens. This is why Bernie sanders was against the TPP. The businesses trying to move production out of the US to lower cost labor countries were not going to sell the products back to the US for a lower price, they were going to bring there product back into the US for the same price, and pocket extra profits from the decreased labor costs.

                The majority of products and services we consume in the US can be provided from companies in the US. This means that tariffs would not result in price increase on the products or services, they would cut down on profits from the foreign businesses trying to compete with our local businesses.

        6. Steve Ruis

          Please stop with the “An extremely small limited government that was built with so many restrictions that it’s sole purpose was to prevent Tyranny from ever happening to our country.” The Constitution uses very broad language to describe the powers of Congress, limiting it very little and any powers it did not assign to the federal government it gave to the state governments. So the governments adopted are all-encompassing and huge, not “extremely small and limited.”

    2. Gilbert James Reid

      I obviously have not read this book – yet. But a couple of remarks: 1) if you get rid of the Enlightenment – individual rights, the scientific method, the ‘rights of man’ etc – what do replace it with? Religion of some form, a return to patriarchal or dogmatic authority, Steve Bannon? 2) As someone has pointed out the Enlightenment should not be reduced to Neoliberal or Capitalist excess, 3) The Enlightenment Tradition – and the West have generated a great deal of criticism of the Enlightenment and the West – the whole Romantic Movement and the Hegelians, with Marx and Engels, to mention only them. Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, the Frankfurt School’s critique of Instrumental Reason, Tonnies’ distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft (Society versus Community), etc etc. 4) We should watch out that we don’t throw out the baby – all the great things that Science, the Enlightenment, the modern State (mass literacy for example, longer healthier lives for example), and, yes, Capitalism and Liberalism have brought, with the bath water (all the legitimate critiques that can be made of Capitalism, instrumental reason, hyper specialization, economic growth over everything, and our, yes, our absolute arrogance towards the natural world and its creatures (this last being collective suicidal hubris)

      1. tts

        Addressing your points according to their number:

        1)He doesn’t think we should get rid of individual rights, the scientific method, etc. He is arguing things should be done differently, that is focused on different goals that keep human happiness in mind instead of just economic benfefits/exploitation, not for everything to be thrown out.

        2)Neoliberalism and Capitalism were the 2 dominate economic forces of at least the last 200yr and both have their roots in what he calls Eurocentric Modernist thinking while also being at the root of a lot of the unrest and economic disparity we’re seeing today so that is why he is harping on them so much.

        3)He isn’t saying or suggesting that Eurocentric Mondernist thinkers and experts are incapable of introspection. He is saying the logical framework itself is excessively faulty as a means of providing happiness for people.

        4)Kind’ve think my reply to 1 addresses this so I can’t think of anything to really type here in response to this.

      2. amfortas

        If anything, the Enlightenment Project is incomplete.
        We left out all the stuff that’s hard or impossible to measure and dissect.
        Like well being, “Good”, etc.
        The Cartesian hegemony has killed metaphysics.
        (I know it’s more complicated than that,lol)

      3. sierra7

        “……absolute arrogance towards the natural world and its creatures (this last being collective suicidal hubris)”
        Thank you!!

  2. DJG


    “The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks: a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.”

    Kanth hasn’t dealt much with the wild skepticism of Enlightenment and modernist thinkers: That would put a strain on such simplistic thinking. He’s never heard of Kant or Rousseau? Pascal? He’s never even read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”? Dickens? A speech by Abraham Lincoln? The novels of Jane Austen? Maybe some articles by Antonio Gramsci? The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa? Anything about Einstein? Or even Freud for that matter? Looked at a painting or etching or work in ceramic by Picasso?

    Just because economics has devolved into looting and excuse-making for looting isn’t a critique of the cultural and scientific flowering that were part of the Enlightenment and Modernism. Are we really supposed to think that Milton Friedman and his delusions have destroyed all aspects of the enormous changes since 1600 or so? And I, for one, don’t want to backslide into the Baroque–when states used their power for religious wars so virulent that Silesia and Alsace were depopulated.

    1. kgw

      Alienation is not the name of a river in Egypt…BTW, Did any of your examples lead to anything other than…this?
      The sum of individuals adds up to the bizarre creature we call “culture.” A flower in the air, to be sure.

    2. craazyman

      They didn’t even have food delivery! This post isn’t the best evah in the history of NC — I mean it shouldn’t be censored or taken down or anything and everybody has a right to an opinion, but “Oy Vey what a shock to a reader’s delicate intellectual sensibilities.”

      You wonder if it’s Beer Goggles that are being looked through or if this is a case of transference and projection. The fact that the post author is a poet raises suspicion, since they aren’t the most reliable sources when it come so sober factual analysis.

      1. Lord Koos

        Yes and we’ve ended up where we are now because of sober, factual analysis. It’s possible that listening to poets might have worked out a little better.

        1. Jamie

          We are not where we are now because of sober, factual analysis. We are where we are now because of lies and deceit, media conglomeration and other imbalances of class power. There is so much wrong with Kanth’s views it would take a mighty wall of text to correct it all. But he’s not wrong that cooperation and moral economics are good things.

      2. sierra7

        I can’t think of a better time in our history to have this debate. It has been the lack of gross societal discussion/debate to address the brutal inequities that have resulted from our “history” (and current events).
        “If not now, when?”
        We are historically sliding down the path of tyranny because we refuse to seek alternatives to the God like proclamations that the “free” markets will solve all our problems. Not so!
        Humans tend to flock to community if they are “allowed” to or they take a mind to “opt out” of the mainstream popular objectives (goals).
        Will we continue to seek the playing field of, “Kill them all and let God sort them out?”
        Does a more benevolent attitude allow the majority to seek a “….better way of life” away from abject materialism?
        Today we seem collectively to believe that science and technology will solve all our present and future problems. Naive at best!
        The Enlightenment lit a light that we carry forward today…..in the respect of objectivity.
        But, there are parts of human nature that almost preclude our achieving a “better” society:
        They are the seven sins: Greed, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth.
        And, these are probably the main driving force behind ” Modern Capitalism” and the “Free Markets”.
        We are descending into the abyss of “….the dustbin of history” because we have failed to establish rules to the game of capitalism which now is crushing progressive societal aims, and if we do establish good rules we find ways to corrupt the system just because of the existence of human frailties like the 7 sins.
        Unless we give more force, credence and belief that we CAN build a better society that alas, it will not be done.
        All periods of history give us knowledge and guidance. We ignore those lessons at our global peril.

    3. hemeantwell

      Jeebus, the Expired By date of the freshness of the ideas in this article is, oh, 100 years or so ago. Weber? Marx? Lukacs? The Frankfurt School? Polanyi? to name a few.

      1. PhilM

        Why stop there? Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Machiavelli, Locke… who needs those outmoded thinkers anymore?

        Funny comment, though.

  3. Vatch

    Mr. Kanth makes some valid points, but his criticism of the European Enlightenment is mistaken. Many of the horrors of modernity had their origins in the Counter-Enlightenment and in the Church Inquisitions, not the Enlightenment. The modern police state is a refinement of and a descendant of the struggles against heresy.

    If one is going to criticize societies for lacking “moral economies”, it’s not just the European (and American) based societies that need to be targeted. Other societies have deep failures that extend back for millennia, such as the caste system of India.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Agreed. Parramore’s phrase ‘history of a set of bad ideas’ does seem a bit harsh for a description of the Enlightenment.

      Been a while since I read Candide, but the end where he meets the world famous sage and asks for the secret of happiness in a terrible world only to be told ‘Tend your own garden’ and then having the gate slammed in his face has always stuck with me.

      You could interpret that to mean isolate yourself from your fellow human beings and just look out for yourself, but I don’t think that’s what Voltaire was getting at.

      Like most big ideas, the problem isn’t with the original idea so much as the corruption of it over the years as it’s put into practice. Massive reform is necessary for sure but I’ll take the Enlightenment over nasty, brutish, and short any day.

      1. Harold

        Yes, cultivate your garden — or the garden — French is ambiguous– is an enlightenment recommendation. Virtually all criticism of the enlightenment judges it wanting by the enlightenment’s own criteria.

        1. Harold

          Enlightenment has its beginning during the axial age — coincident with spread of writing. There was a second one that the Hellenistic Stoic philosopher Panaetius brought to Rome that was adopted by Publius Scipio Aemilianus and later the Circle of Circle of Cicero, which made its way into Christianity, Renaissance Humanism and finally Baconian science, adopted by the French philosophes. What has really failed has been the Idea of Progress, or at least of inevitable Progress, which was tied up with divine Providence, even Marxism is guilty of this. Darwinian evolution properly understood put an end to that, but this has not been fully absorbed. There is progress, and there is regress, as Rousseau so presciently saw.

          These ideas are well known to those who study them, but perhaps not so well known by the masses of people. So in this sense Kanth’s book might be enlightening to many, even if the ideas therein might have been repeated many times before. I don’t know, because I haven’t read it.

          1. PhilM

            “Even” Marxism, dude? Marx was a great diagnostician, but a poor prognosticator, because he was a Messianist. To use your word-salad logisms.

      1. Lord Koos

        Would those be the same enlightened folks that owned slaves, and regarded anyone who wasn’t Christian as a heathen to be subjugated?

        1. fred

          When did the King of Saudi Arabia, defender of the holy places of Islam, outlaw slavery? Do the black Muslim slavers of Boko Haram still hold “our girls” in bondage?

        2. Vatch

          I think most slave owners tended to be conservative Counter Enlightenment types. There were exceptions, of course, and the most prominent one was Thomas Jefferson.

        3. No One

          The point is that ‘eurocentric modernism’ isn’t the cause of all evil in the world. Europeans have done plenty of terrible things but to blame it all on the enlightenment is ridiculous. Plenty of other societies (as well as Europe pre-enlightenment) have had major cultural issues.

      2. georgieboy2

        And toilets! Those horrible modern Eurocentric toilets must go!

        Gardens of War might be a good read for the author. Even has a foreword by a somewhat chastened Margaret Mead, anthropologist of her imagination extraordinaire.

        No disagreement on the charlatans we call Economists nowadays, but I for one like my electric blanket.

        1. HotFlash

          Ah yes, that marvelous invention, the water closet! That ingenious method of conveying nitrogen-rich organic material, dubbed “waste”, from our homes to our water supplies without having to (much) see or smell it, and simultaneously using disposable wipes and purified water to do the flushing. Wonderful advances!

      3. oh

        You’re quick to criticize Kanth because you want to defend the current system. His message is one perspective and needs to be considered. Maybe you should look inward.

    2. KC Lim

      Agreed. In fact, I question whether Mr Kanth did really read thru and understands Adam Smith’s work.

      Quote: “Kanth realized that people are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.”

      I am not even sure where to start – did Adam Smith ever said these things? On the contrary, his works suggest the opposite.

      1. Seamus Padraig

        True. Many people still don’t know that Adam Smith also wrote books on morality and esthetics. He recognized that we had more than one dimension. But like Aristotle, he wanted to deal with each dimension individually and study its own internal logic.

        1. KC Lim

          So it puzzles me why so many economists say things that are not true. Do they really know what they’re talking about when they quote Adam Smith?

  4. steelhead23

    Perhaps, beyond anthropology, there are lessons in evolutionary biology. Individual humans are fairly weak animals. Our ancestors were obligated to “huddle” to survive, or as Richard Dawkins might suggest, huddling, banding together in families and groups, was an evolutionarily successful strategy. Those well adapted to communal living were more likely to survive, so that tendency was selected for. However, “cheaters” can also survive. That is, it is not uncommon in the natural world to find individuals and groups of individuals who cheat the group – expend less energy to reproduce, such as male sunfish that display the secondary sexual characteristics of females, so are not driven off by nest building males, make a mad dash in to fertilize eggs when a real female shows up, but provides no protection for the young – the adult male does that. In human culture, there are also cheaters, those who provide little to the larger society, yet reap a disproportionate level of resources.

    So, learning more of our cultural roots and adopting positive measures for social cohesion is a good idea, but much like Jesus’ view that the poor will always be with us, cheaters, from banksters to dictators, will too.

    1. Carl

      Tough to be a cheater in a small hunter-gatherer group. I would imagine the tolerance for such individuals is a bit thin.

      1. steelhead23

        Good point. From the little cultural anthropology I know, you are right, cheaters are ostracized, or worse. But I do note that in neo-lithic cultures it seems that women do most of the work. Hmm.

  5. MtnLife

    As Kanth sees it, most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress while ignoring the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other.

    I think this paragraph speaks volumes for transitioning to a society with a BGI with libertarian socialist leanings. Let people be free to create what they are passionate about while allowing humans to express their innate desire to care for one another without it signifying weakness or at their time own personal expense. I don’t think this approach necessarily precludes rockets to Mars either. The engineers who are passionate will still get together and build one. It may take a little longer if they can’t convince others to help but hopefully this will foster more cooperative approaches and less viewing of other humans as consumables.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

      1. MtnLife

        Libertarianism and libertarian socialism are two different things. Libertarianism is a less authoritative conservatism while libertarian socialism is a less authoritative social democracy. Think Chomsky, not Ron Paul. Or think of it as a more relaxed Bernie who thinks things should be done on a smaller, more local scale.

        1. skippy


          Libertarian socialism (sometimes dubbed socialist libertarianism, or left-libertarianism) is a group of anti-authoritarian political philosophies inside the socialist movement that rejects socialism as centralized state ownership and control of the economy, as well as the state itself.

          MtnLife my personal fav is Libertarian Marxism….. wheeeeeeee…

          Libertarian Marxism refers to a broad scope of economic and political philosophies that emphasize the “anti-authoritarian” aspects of Marxism. Early currents of libertarian Marxism, known as left communism, emerged in opposition to Marxism–Leninism[1] and its derivatives, such as Stalinism, Ceaușism and Maoism. Libertarian Marxism is also often critical of reformist positions, such as those held by social democrats. Libertarian Marxist currents often draw from Marx and Engels’ later works, specifically the Grundrisse and The Civil War in France;[2] emphasizing the Marxist belief in the ability of the working class to forge its own destiny without the need for a revolutionary party or state to mediate or aid its liberation.[3] Along with anarchism, libertarian Marxism is one of the main currents of libertarian socialism.[4]

          See how it works – ??????

          Disheveled…. Sigh…. libertarians… like the alcoholic relative at any family get together… spicing it up….

  6. Watt4Bob

    Kanth, like many, senses that a global financial crisis, or some other equivalent catastrophe, like war or natural disaster, may soon produce painful and seismic economic and political disruptions. Perhaps only then will human nature reassert itself as we come to rediscover the crucial nexus of reciprocities that is our real heritage. That’s what will enable us to survive.

    I read somewhere that some Native Americans looking down on the ruins of San Fransisco after the great quake of 1906, thought that at last the crazy white people would realize the folly of their ways, and become normal humans.

    So they were amazed that before the ruins even stopped smoking, the crazy white people, ignoring the obvious displeasure of the Great Spirit, were busy rebuilding the same mess that had just been destroyed.

    I have a strong suspicion that evil empires do not come to their senses, rather, one way or another, they get flattened.

  7. justanotherprogressive

    Yes, yes, yes! THIS!
    I can remember arguing over this in my philosophy classes way back in the 80’s – that Objectivism and the Enlightenment were two sides of the same coin, and that those Enlightenment writers were writing tomes to justify their own greed and prejudices, while cloaking their greed and prejudices in “morality”. At the time (I was young) it seemed to me that the Enlightenment was an attempt to destroy the basis of Jesus’s and Buddha’s philosophy – that the most moral position of humanity was to care for its members, just as clans, tribes, families, and other human societies did. The most frequent response from professors and classmates to my thesis? But those clans, tribes, families, etc., didn’t accomplish much, did they? As if the only reason for humanity’s existence was to compete against itself……
    Needless to say, I didn’t stick with Philosophy…..

      1. justanotherprogressive

        Yes there is! But like in my Economics classes too, I found myself always arguing with others over what I could see with my own eyes v. what I was told to believe. So I went with the math/science route because there my eyes didn’t lie to me….

      2. Darius

        And we need new syntheses, at which this is an attempt.

        It’s not a stretch to say the trend since the renaissance has been to exalt the individual. Kanth is aiming for a communitarian philosophy. An interesting departure point for discussion. I don’t see what people find so offensive.

        1. Harold

          Individualism of the Renaissance was much exaggerated by individualistic 19th c. Renaissance scholars. For some reason, 20th c. textbooks repeat 19th clichés almost verbatim.

    1. reslez

      “They didn’t accomplish much” meaning they lost militarily to cultures with more aggression and better weapons.

      It seems to me that humans, as hierarchical mammals, really do have a desire to compete with each other for status and respect. The trouble is in organizing all of society around this one struggle, forcing everyone into explicit competition and making the stakes too high. When the losers can’t afford to buy food, when they and their little children live on the street and die in the cold, when their kids can never compete on an equal field to improve their own status, things have gone too far. And in addition to material needs, humans also have a need for independence, an escape from being constantly ordered around by the winners and under someone else’s thumb.

      Capitalism made the stakes too high. But it was designed by the winners.

      You might argue that there were plenty of “hopeless losers” in the systems that preceded capitalism — the orphans, elderly crones, and beggars without livelihoods who used to wander the hedgerows in medieval times. We have more resources now which also means no excuses.

      Note, as an aside, how granting economic rights to outgroups like women and Blacks brought them into the same market competition. Well, a lot of men don’t want to compete with women for status. They want to compete with each other. The more competitors you add the harder it is to win. But when all resources are restricted to the market, it’s unjust to exclude any group from access. Once again the stakes are too high. Social democracies are better places to live for exactly this reason.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        It seems to me that humans, as hierarchical mammals, really do have a desire to compete with each other for status and respect.

        I think you’re right about that and if we do ever manage to abolish capitalism and develop a less violent and more egalitarian society, there will need to be an outlet for that innate desire.

        I propose hockey. Beats starting a war….

        1. Grebo

          I propose hockey.

          I was thinking along the same lines. If only we could come up with an inconsequential sport that all the CEO and politician types would want to play instead of making us all fight to the death in their rigged game.

        2. Brian M

          Ecotopia, the 1970s greenie fantasy novel, posits somewhat violent sports competitions that serve this function!

    2. Brian M

      By Jesus’s philosophy do you mean “Follow me around, obey My arcane and petty rules, and give up everything or I will burn you for eternity?”

      Jesus the Hippy is as bad an example (worse, actually, because it reflects less the reality of the Greco-Semitic hodgepodge that is Christianity) than the kind of American Jesus Rand nonsense now ascendant in these United States.

      1. justanotherprogressive

        Perhaps you should read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and read it for meaning instead of trying to take it literally. Also read it “in context” – with respect to what was happening in that part of the world at that time.
        I don’t know if it was a man (Jesus) that existed or if it was a movement attributed to a man, but it was certainly a challenge to the thinking of the time and to the ideas of Plato who thought that some people were better than other people and that those other people had to be ruled.
        When people turned the Jesus philosophy into a religion, they fell back into the Plato trap, and it became just another way to try to control those other people. I see a lot of that same type of thinking today. When you have been socially ingrained to believe you have to see yourself as “better” than other people, you will do whatever it takes to make sure that there are those “other people” – you will go out of your way to find people to throw away, aka competition. (Note, the Jesus philosophy didn’t do that, did it?)
        Does that make me a Hippy? I think it makes me a humanist…..

        1. PhilM

          No, it makes you a cynic. There’s amazing reading on Jesus as a Cynic. He seems to have fused Judaic law and Cynicism, and the finest of what was passed on was the latter; and, naturally, the least honored.

  8. sid_finster

    I am waiting for someone to getting butthurt #triggered! over the reference to evolutionary psychology.

    1. Dug Fur

      Sid_finster: kinda seems like it was you ;)

      But sure, I’ll have a shot: the deployment of evopsych tends to signal a low information, ideologically held position masquerading as an informed reality, whether in what I would call the “traditional” context (eugenics and screeds against urban Democrats) or in its slightly cuddlier form as above (humans just want to have huddles). It attracts weak thinking that wants to (ab)use questionable science in a weak field (neuropsychology is right up there with economics) to justify preconceived notions.

  9. Stephanie

    “The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has … a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends.”

    I’m not entirely sure how this differentiates Eurocentric modernism from any other civilization.

    1. EricT

      Most recently, in the last 400 years, you could say that most European countries really enjoyed colonialism. Which meant extinguishing or enslaving the natives, violence sanctioned by the state. I don’t recall any other modern society in the last 400 years really delving into colonialism.

      1. Lambert Strether

        I’ve been reading The Empire of Cotton, which is terrific. Some of the “modernist thinking” described in this post seems highly adapted to such a project.

        1. Anonymous

          ‘Empire of Cotton’ is the best book I’ve read in the last two years. You get the sense of capitalism as a nearly intelligent and definitely amoral entity, insinuating its way through history. The author thinks the Civil War happened because the two sections needed different things from government, with the North needing a more active government to open markets for industry.

          1. PhilM

            Yes, a problem exactly foreshadowed in the tariff debates (nearly a civil war) of 1830. This book is on my shelf, I can’t wait.

      2. MaroonBulldog

        “I don’t recall any other modern society in the last 400 years really delving into colonialism.”

        The Japanese society gave it a shot, for about 50 years or so, ending abruptly in 1945. During which time, Taiwan and Korea were long term colonies. Manchuria, also, for awhile.

      3. Michael Fiorillo

        Perhaps it’s just as The Honorable Elijah Muhammed used to say: the White Man is The Devil.

        Hard not to smirk when you hear it; hard to look at the history of the past 400 years and not acknowledge some truth to it.

        That said, the scale, degree and technology of domination may vary among societies, but the appetites and obsessions that shadow human behavior remain pretty constant; greed, fear and the will to power are not limited to the melanin-deficient (I know this piece didn’t focus on race, but Eurocentric).

        That said about that, all of the above may punch our clock on this sweet, swingin’ blue sphere, in much the way the author warns.

        1. Brian M

          Plenty of “devils” among all the races. How many people did Mao kill? Even granted the nefarious forces of Colonialism, Mobutu Sese Seko was still a devil.

  10. Marco

    It’s been suggested here (via a Lambert post I think) that the switch to sendentary agriculture was the clearer demarcation line where humans lost their way. The resulting “curse of plenty” where surplus grain needed to be guarded and nomadic aggressive groups could survive (and prosper) via raids on “The Store”. Hell follows surplus.

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      Surplus gives a margin of error against bad weather.
      The development of writing systems, and later metallurgy, were probably the nail in the coffin.

          1. vlade

            you mean for all the 30 years they lived? (on average) Most of the time trying to figure how to survive from one day to another by
            a) having enough food (That they couldn’t store)
            b) not getting eaten by something
            c) not getting killed by their neighbors (hey, even chimps raid each other, so most likely even early humanoids did…)
            d) not dying in childbirth if you happen to be a woman
            e) not dying of a trivial wound getting infected (still common as late as early 20th century)
            f) with the sacrifice (preferably human) as one of the best remedies to the above?

      1. lyle

        I might add that easy transport gives a larger margin, Evidently in 17th century France famines could strike small regions and due to the cost of transport food did not move. (The cities were somewhat protected as the mob could do bad things to the leadership)

    2. b1daly

      Your comment gives me a clue as to the cause of the queasy discomfort I get when reading such vague condemnation of modern society.

      The author is fooled by the sense that, because the world appears to be going to “hell in a hand basket,” that humans have “lost their way.”

      This is a common theme in religion, that imagines that humans have fallen from “grace.” It seems so apparent, thousands of people, day in, day out, dying, and suffering along the way.

      Another term for his rhetorical strategy is “false exaltation of the past.” I’ve never read anything about”pre-modern” societies that made them sound appealing, in any way.

      There’s a couple more errors of cognition demonstrated in this, admittedly short, piece. Simply, he focuses on the bad, and ignores the good. Every day people get up, and live their lives. There is an astonishing range of lived experience in the world.

      There is also an error of reasoning in his fundamental premise. The idea of individual humans as “rational actors” is an abstraction, used by people engaged in the process of trying to model human behavior.

      Does he think the economist teaching such ideas, really believes humans are like this, and live their lives accordingly? As if they would eschew human intimacy, and the myriad of dimensions of human life that lie outside of simple economic transactions. No friends? No hobbies? No art? No religion? No love?

      This guy (OP) is just stupid.

  11. susan the other

    I think he’s right about Eurocentric modernism being incompatible with human civilization. But it can’t be just an evolutionary accident that civilization is so aggressive. It served a purpose. We refer to it as ‘survival’. I used to tell my daughter not to make fun of those ‘dorky little boys’ too much because they all had a way of growing up to be very nice men. And I told her women are the reason we have all survived, but men have made it so much easier! And etc. We have been very successful as a species; surviving all of our own inquisitions, pogroms, hallucinations… and yes, this is a serious situation we are in. We might even try to guide ourselves out of it, using science and technology, as we huddle.

  12. JEHR

    I believe that one element of modern life that should be removed forever is the infinite search for maximizing profits.

    1. Art Eclectic

      On more than one occasion I’ve compared the rent-seeking profit mongers to Molocks that cultivate us milder Eloi and cannabalize us.

    2. readerOfTeaLeaves

      I suspect there was a fatal error long, long ago: you lend me your ram so my ewe can have offspring. If there are twins, we each get one; if not, we agree upon future breeding rights and grazing areas. After generations of this sort of breeding activity, I have in my mind the notion that there is a ‘natural increase’ from lending or swapping.

      Along comes a scribe with a tablet, whom I have now hired to list the number of my flocks (wealth on the hoof); I lend you forms of wealth (rams, ewes, oxen, axes, boats) , and the scribe assumes there must be some ‘natural increase’ as the outcome of this lending and swapping. Consequently, the scribe carves cuneiform markings to represent what we might call ‘compound interest’ that result from lending and swapping of non-biological resources — despite the fact that if you sit two clay tablets in the sun, they do not (and never will!) create an additional clay tablet. Ditto heaps of dollar bills; it’s not the money that creates increase; it’s the assumption of ‘increase’ (originating in breeding activity of flocks and herds) that makes the money generate surplus — not any property of those scraps of paper themselves.

      BTW: FWIW, double entry bookkeeping seems to trace the earliest period of modernism, which IMVHO adds heft to Kanth’s argument about something shifting … probably earlier than 400 years ago.

      It’s possible that Michael Hudson has covered this; if so, I’ve not had time to read it yet. I hope to in future. David Graeber’s work on redemption (‘buying back’ someone enslaved or indentured) and his anthropological findings also lend heft to Kanth’s analysis.

  13. Karen

    I certainly agree with this:

    “He first caught the scent that something was off as an economics student in India, wondering why, despite his mastery of the mathematics and technology of the discipline, the logic always escaped him. Then one day he had an epiphany: the whole thing was “cockeyed from start to finish.””

    But the economics profession’s problem isn’t “blind faith in science.” It’s a massive failure to apply the scientific method, combined with an expectation that we all put our blind faith in THEM anyway.

    I think our problems do not stem from any theories or ideologies, they are the predictable result of human nature – specifically of the fact that the balance between the loving side of human nature and the aggressive side is not evenly distributed among individuals. It is precisely the most aggressive among us who most desire, and work the hardest, to dominate and control others.

    1. jrs

      I had the same experience as he had with economics with law, ok I only studied it when studying business and that does not a lawyer make, but it made no sense for me. But I do think I maybe just have the wrong kind of brain for it, expect a logic that isn’t there.

      1. gepay

        Like everything human made, there is good and bad law, good and bad lawyers, good and bad judges. Something that happened to me made me realize how one part of the “justice system” does work. I live in a rural mountainous location (sort of a hollow with a creek running through it) I had free ranging ducks kept around by the corn I would feed them. One fall>winter every week or so I would find a dead duck that looked to be killed by a dog. (raccoons kill differently – sneaking up behind and grabbing behind the neck). So one dark winter night when I heard a strange dog barking, I grabbed my single shot .22 and a flashlight and headed down the creek. There I found a black dog killing one of my ducks. It paid no attention to me so I took a shot. The dog kept attacking so I assumed I missed. I took another. On the third shot it finally stopped. As I was walking out a truck came down the driveway. Out jumped two men with rifles. One said he was looking for his dog. While trying to think of what to say, up from the creek came his dog. They immediately noticed it had been shot in the head. Since this, as I later learned was his prize coon dog, he stopped glowering at me and left with his dog to go to the vet. To say it was tense is an understatement. The vet, seeing this dog shot in the head thought what a creep I was. Later a deputy sheriff came out. I told my side of the story, he noticed the many duck feathers along the creek and we found a large piece of the duck and the rest of the dead duck . He then became much friendlier and told me to put the duck and the piece in the freezer as the dog owner was taking me to court. Since there is a law school in my town, I went to the law library and read all of the pertinent laws with the accompanying cases that explained the pertinent details. I had played music for the judge’s daughter’s wedding and believing I understood the law involved – it was just small claims court – I thought I didn’t need a lawyer. However, there was a substitute judge that day that didn’t like the idea of ordinary people not getting lawyers. Even so, I was prevailing – the law was clearly on my side. Then the opposing lawyer said well Virginia statute 23…….. said I was wrong. I didn’t know that that was exactly the same statute I had read that said I was correct. The judge had to look it up. and said I was wrong. He didn’t care to see my dead duck and accompanied piece ripped from it. He awarded the dog owner $2000 in damages and I had to pay court costs. Woe is me, I and my family were financially struggling at the time. That was real money to me. On leaving the court, a lawyer came up to and said that the judge was just wrong and I should appeal. He would represent me for free. he thought that the decision was so wrong.
        I won on appeal. By this time enough time had passed so that my house wasn’t burned down for revenge. Although my kids were told at school that their father was this nut who sits out winter nights waiting to shoot dogs. Also various rednecks did harass me but no violence resulted. Without courts this could have escalated – the passing of time with the dog owner thinking he had won cooled him down. In my part of the world coon hunting used to have a real value – a raccoon could decimate the corn you needed to get through the winter. These days it is as valueless as black bear hunting. – they mostly sit in their trucks along the highway while their dogs with their radio collars hunt the bears. coon hunters at least get a nice walk in the woods at night.

        1. Sylvia D

          Good story–well told. It would make a nice short story. What happened to the lawyer who represented you on appeal? Are you still in contact?

  14. Phil in KC

    Essentially a post-modern critique of modernism without all the jargon of p-m critical theory (yay!!). I don’t think we have enough data from the pre-modern huddling societies to determine if that’s how we want to live. Yes, my boss at work exploits me, but on the other hand, I can walk into an air-conditioned supermarket and survey row after row of steaks that I can afford to buy. I love to drive cars. The cinema is enchanting. Dying of a plague is a very remote possibility. We could give it all up, but there’s no guarantee our lives would be richer or fuller–just different, at best.

    Just how dark were the Dark Ages? Or, to borrow Churchill’s phrase, how dark would a NEW Dark Age be? I don’t think you can get rid of Modernism very easily, for certain parts would survive. Science and tech, for example. Ideas of surveillance and control. But along with this, new prejudices, new superstitions, perhaps? What perverse new form of religion or philosophy might arise from the ashes of our civilization? Two possibles: the cargo cult children of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, or the society depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence. At least the Church in Rome and Constantinople provided some kind of lifeline of civilization during the collapse of the Roman Empire. What similar institution have we now?

    1. Anonymous

      Sounds like bog-standard post-modernist tosh to me, just without the obscure ProfSpeak jargon that usually accompanies it. I fail to see how this is helpful.

      1. Temporarily Sane

        I can walk into an air-conditioned supermarket and survey row after row of steaks that I can afford to buy. I love to drive cars. The cinema is enchanting. Dying of a plague is a very remote possibility

        How lovely for you. Many Americans who aren’t you can’t afford the stakes, the car or even movie tickets and their life expectancy is pretty grim.

        Much of the rest of the world, particularly the global south, lives in poverty because the west and the “emerging nations” need to expropriate its resources to fuel their me, me, me driven consumer societies.

        Than there is climate change which apparently is a problem we can’t offshore or bomb into submission.

        But I’m sure you’ll be fine.

        1. Phil In KC

          You are exactly right to point this out. Yes, compared to 90 per cent of the rest of the world, I’m doing quite fine, thanks to some very small effort on my part and the great good fortune to be born in the USA in the mid-1950’s. Could the earth sustain the other 90 per cent living like this? Probably not. But I don’t see myself, or my cohorts, deciding to make major life changes. I think this compromises our moral credibility. And this points, I think, to a fundamental flaw in the whole platform of the modernist project–the materialistic, consumerist aspect of modernism is unsustainable, immoral, and yet very enticing. I don’t think I’d like to return to sustenance agriculture as a way of life, anymore than I’d want to return to the Christianity that supported Crusades and Inquisitions. I think vaccines and universal education are wondrous things, that I wouldn’t want to give up. But doesn’t that come with nuclear weapons and totalitarianism?

  15. craazyman

    The only thing missing in this post is Bambi. Of course the Bushmen would kill Bambi dead with spears and roast her flesh over a fire. So would we, actually. hmmmm.

    1. somecallmetim

      Was Disney up to something? Bambi wasn’t a ‘her’ – don’t you remember his impressive rack of antlers at the end of the movie?

      1. craazyman

        My God, you’re right. I lost track completely.

        How could any parents — even deer parents — name their son “Bambi”? That seems cruel to the point of sadism. Maybe “Bambo” but not Bambi. At any rate, once Bambi grows a pair the Bushmen would get their butts kicked if they didn’t take him out on the first try.

        There would be no moral self-examination or great works of ethical philosophy to guide their cruelty. They’d just jab as hard as the could and not think about it. At least we think about it when we do it, guided as we are by great works of ethics and massive firepower.

  16. Ivy

    To illustrate one of its signature follies, Kanth refers to that great Hollywood ode to the Western spirit, “The Sound of Music.” Early in the film, the Mother Superior bursts into song, calling on the nun Maria to “climb every mountain, ford every stream.”

    Sounds exhilarating, but to what end? Why exactly do we need to ford every stream? From the Eurocentric modernist viewpoint, Kanth says, the answer is not so innocent: we secretly do it so that we can say to ourselves, “Look, I achieved something that’s beyond the reach of somebody else.” Hooray for me!

    Many would part company with Kanth over the above characterization. There are many reasons why people climb mountains and ford streams that do not include, or even consider, that element of exclusive personal achievement. Some might even aver that climbing and fording and so many other human activities are done “because it is there”, while others appreciate a spiritual or other inspirational aspect.

    Will we climbers and forders be told that we are selfish or otherwise deficient or on the wrong side of history or whatever the mal du jour is because we like a little bit of hygge or Gemütlichkeit as we live our lives?

    1. windsock

      Quite… that is indeed the point where I stopped reading and started skimming… someone who mistakes metaphors in a musical for physical actions is not going to enlighten my world (no matter how much I dislike the film).

    2. jrs

      climbing every mountain and fording every stream is probably impossible in the literal sense (aren’t there way too many streams for this? and mountains probably too), and certainly it is impossible in the metaphoric one.

      So mostly it’s completely unrealistic bilge.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        Clearly, you have not spent enough time in the Rockies, the Cascades, or the Olympics on hot summer afternoons fording streams and climbing every mountain with a decent hiking trail.

        If your feet are hot and you don’t want to take your hiking boots off while you ford streams, depending on whether the stream is less than 2 1/2 feet deep, well, your toes get might-y ic-y!! High-pitched yelping tends to accompany the chill 8^p

        Twirling in alpine meadows is best done in late July or early August; the edelweiss tend to bloom at around 6,500 feet the third week of July, assuming you are walking on a south facing slope. The columbine tend to flower out that same week at that altitude. (The north facing slopes used to still have snow on them the third week of July, but the people who are convinced there is no global warming have not been hiking in the Cascades for decades. There is less snow with each passing year, and it is a very creepy feeling to see the vanishing snowfields.)

    3. Musicismath

      I don’t see why poor Julie Andrews, of all people, has to be singled out here as exemplifying malign post-Enlightenment discourses of proprietorship and exploitation. That’s just mean. Surely those ideologies are better examined through a close reading of the Shamen’s inexcusable ’90s electro hit “Move Every Mountain”?

  17. schultzzz

    I agree dude is right that the values now unraveling (democracy, pluralism, individualism, free speech, international-ism (in both the good and bad ways)) go all the way back to that time.

    But this article is a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Surely none of the third world cultures he praises got where they are by totally throwing out previous systems, the good parts and bad, every time they faced a crisis.

    IMO the problem is enlightenment values have been hollowed out, narrowed to only those superficial aspects of those values which benefit the marketplace. Like how real food got turned into Mosanto fast-food so gradually, nobody noticed that the nutrients are missing.

  18. PKMKII

    While it’s obvious how this thesis deflates modern capitalism, it would also appear to me that the idea of refocusing on “kinship and community” would present a challenge to the “global solidarity” mentality underlying most leftist thinking as well. You cannot simultaneously have an emphasis on the huddled community, while also arguing that workers worldwide have a deeper and more important connection than the business owner and his or her employees (assuming both are from within the same community, natch). Either you assume humans have a universal commonness, which effectively obliterates the notion of community, or you accept humans tend towards tribalism, which both discounts any notion of creating a global, uniform leftist economics, but also suggests a troubling tendency towards xenophobia.

    1. cojo

      Good point, “kinship and community” are analogous to tribalism and nationalism on a larger scale unless you rephrase it to mean kinship with your family and neighbors on the local level, and with humanity on a national/global level. Unfortunately, some of our current liberal globalists seem to be forgetting the part about local kinship and community while embracing global humanity. I dunno, may have something to do with cheaper labor abroad.

      1. PKMKII

        Partly, but there’s also an association in the minds of many liberals and leftists of localized control and thinking equating with oppression, historically. Things like segregation, discrimination, violations of the separation of church and state, anti-labor employment & worksite laws, etc.

        1. cojo

          That may have been the case in the 50-60’s when you happen to have the central government being more “enlightened” than the backward localities. However, today, it may be the other way around where localized control is the saving grace of liberal and leftist ideals compared to a more reactionary central government

    2. tony

      True, and this is the reason I have been considering straight up ethnic nationalism. It seems to provide the best results, for example Sweden’s social democracy was built on that basis. I think it is a way of building Assabiyah without needing to engage in constant bloody conflict.

      1. Temporarily Sane

        Are you American? Let me rephrase that….are you an ethnic American? Even if you’re not American (although the romanticizing of Sweden suggests you are) and live in a relatively ethnically homogenous country turning the clock back to the good ole days of ethnic nationalism is not going to lead anywhere good. How many countries who’ve tried to regain a glorious mythical past have succeeded? Exactly.

        If you are American, Canadian or Australian ethnic nationalism would have you and most other people in those countries moving back to their ancestors’ region of origin.

        Enforced ehnic nationalism is bad news. The ills those calling for it are hoping to solve are almost always due to out of whack economic policies.

        1. tony

          I’m an ethnic Finn, and I used Sweden due to their extreme ethnic nationalism that was associated with building their social democracy. The same motivations were less radical in the rest of the western Europe.

          Anyway, I don’t care about the US that much, do what you want. However, New Deal, the most successful antiracist program in the US since emancipation was clearly a white nationalist project. It purposefully excluded black, but its class based policies meant it allowed a lot of black people to reach middle class. Black nationalists too were often supporters of segregation, and Marcus Garvey, the man who started this whole black liberation thing, considered himself to be the first fascist and praised the KKK.

          You treat the economic policy as an abstract thing, not motived by a variety of motives. ‘Out of whack economic policies’ implies there is a problem with a lack of education rather than people making intelligent decisions based on their interests and motivation. In Finland, even the wealthy support social democracy, and in Sweden the Left Party suggested dismantling it so they can take in more refugees. This is because Finns have mutual loyalty, and the Left Party is loyal to foreigners or hostile towards Swedes.

          The ‘ultra-right’ Finns party is attempting a basic income experiment, but they are still far right because they want less immigration, and the Left Party is far left because they want more immigration, even if that means adopting the economic policies Brazil.

          Abstract arguments to me seem like rhetorical tricks meant to hide the tribal allegience of the speaker.

          Also, not going to take back any ‘my heritage’ Finns.

          1. Reify99

            The experience of the indigenous circumpolar people of Scandinavia, the Sami, demonstrate the problems associated with ethnic nationalism, with it’s emphasis on enforced conformity.
            1.Sami women were subject to forced sterilization up until the early 70’s.
            2.To their credit, a consortium of lumber companies agreed in the early 2000’s not to log on the remaining migratory paths of the reindeer until 2035. (Though this followed a number of DAPL like moves by the state owned timber company to expand the logging of old growth trees even while negotiations were underway, and occurred finally after years of negotiation.)
            Sami at Standing Rock
            3. Video of Sami forest house that melts away when abandoned.
            4. Deeper background
            Details how modernism/capitalism were used over the centuries to dismantle and subjugate Sami culture, including group identity

            1. different clue

              Several decades ago I attended a talk given by Lakota Treaty elder(?) and Treaty spokesman Celo Black Crow about Lakota Treaty rights and USA Treaty obligations.

              In the audience was someone who described himself as being originally from Spearfish, South Dakota; and who said his grandfather and great uncle were Sami shamans who came to America in flight from direct and overt religious
              persecution by Lutheran officials.


              1. Reify99

                I didn’t know anything about this until late 2013 when I started to research the Finnish timber company, Stora Enso, as a possible investment. I could see that the timber companies were negotiating with the Sami, but I could not see the results of the investigation and what I read suggested that there should be one. I found the name and email address of a negotiator for the Sami side, Jan Saijets. He responded and said that the company had come around to an ethical position, pressed the state run company to reach an agreement which happened in 2010. We also discovered about that time that my wife has Sami ancestry.

            2. tony

              I know. Might be a price I’m willing to pay. And remember, Finns suffered under Swedish ethnonationalism too. But the results spoke for themselves. Still Swedes have always thought of other peoples as inferior, even their current policy of open borders is built on that belief. Swedes are a lot more radical than most, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.


  19. cojo

    I think Kanth is quick to criticize materialism and scientific progress for all our ills while seeming to have missed the horrid standards of living in his anthropological studies prior to scientific progress with enlightenment principles over theocracy. I’d like to know what the longevity of per-enlightenment citizens was compared to today. In fact, longevity in this country around 1900 was still in the mid 40’s for most.

    What I find would have been a better argument is to focus his critique not on scientific progress, but on how there always seems to be a certain small minority of the population which seems to have an out sized voice in how we choose to self govern. What we seem to be losing today is the silent majority of voices who are for universal health care, not eroding further entitlements, bodily security as well as economic security while still being able to encourage those who chose to take risks and put themselves through more work and strain to be fairly rewarded.

    The problem as I see it today, is that the pendulum, both politically, and socially, has swung too far towards the selfish individualist.

    1. PKMKII

      The problem with how science is seen in a modernist context is two-fold. The “blind faith” leads people to see it as all-encompassing, all-powerful, and not recognizing its scope and where that scope ends. Ergo, anything that is successfully sold to the public and TPTB as “science” gets said treatment and is viewed as being unquestionable (like, say, neoclassical economics).

      1. Temporarily Sane

        Yep, in neoliberal ideology science plays the role abandoned by religion. It’s “objective” and therefore must be “true”.

        Hence the obsession with stripping everything of cultural and social context, feeding the data into computers and treating the output as unarguable truths that must be followed.

        Also hilariously ironic that hardcore believers of Scientism denigrate religion but have conniption fits when “science” is questioned.

      2. Troutwaxer

        Unquestionable? Like global warming, which (I’m told) is a plot by commie scientists to destroy capitalism, and nothing to do with the weather?

        Good science is questioned all the time, usually by people with a commercial axe to grind.

        1. PhilM

          And sometimes by people who find H. pylori as the cause of ulcers, and prions as the cause of BSE.

          Glad you are here to tell us which ones are right.

      3. cojo

        You are correct science can be corrupted and manipulated for ill gains, think eugenics and social Darwinism. However, it is the best thing we’ve got. Just as Churchill’s famous quote about Democracy being the worse form of government except for all the rest.

      1. cojo

        Do you have any idea what it was like living for most people before electricity, running water, and modern medicines and sanitation? Life was short, hard, and bleak. For most of post stone age history civilization was organized under a feudal system where half your yield was taken by your feudal lord and you were able to keep the rest for sustenance. The truly free of that time were the bandits, pirates and vagabonds, but they too knew that life was fleeting and death was always around the corner.

          1. cojo

            Perhaps my use of the label ‘feudal’ may have been off, but the breakdown in civil/social structure was very similar, perhaps with serfs being the equivalent of slaves in previous organizations of land tenure in more ancient times. I believe even Michael Hudson referred to the land owners of ancient Egypt having to “lend” some of their skilled labor towards the large public works projects that became the pyramids. I am currently reading a book by David Brewer about the Greece during the Turkish Rule and he goes into detail as to the breakdown of civil society where the only change for most peasants when compared to previous rule by the Franks and the Byzantines prior to that was to whom they had to share the produce of the land and by what percent.

            1. PhilM

              Sorry, but Michael Hudson can’t help you here. He may be wrong, he may be right, but ancient, even late antique, Rome was almost the opposite of feudalism.

              1. cojo

                Thanks for the clarification. I think my examples are more accurately described as semi-feudalism, of which Byzantium was an example, but not Rome. I guess, my point is that these feudal like conditions seem to be eternal, especially in times where there is no strong state to provide for a standing army or where the bureaucracy institutionalizes such conditions for the purposes of taxation via agricultural production.

  20. Don Midwest USA

    Bruno Latour has been on this for decades

    in 1991 the book “We Have Never Been Modern”

    This has been followed by many other books, prizes, invited lectures, and thought exhibition called Reset Modernity. The book, published last year, is related to the exhibition with that title. Published by MIT press with 60 authors.

    Reset Modernity

    Reset Modernity!
    Edited by Bruno Latour and Christophe Leclerc

    Modernity has had so many meanings and tries to combine so many contradictory sets of attitudes and values that it has become impossible to use it to define the future. It has ended up crashing like an overloaded computer. Hence the idea is that modernity might need a sort of reset. Not a clean break, not a “tabula rasa,” not another iconoclastic gesture, but rather a restart of the complicated programs that have been accumulated, over the course of history, in what is often called the “modernist project.” This operation has become all the more urgent now that the ecological mutation is forcing us to reorient ourselves toward an experience of the material world for which we don’t seem to have good recording devices.

    Reset Modernity! is organized around six procedures that might induce the readers to reset some of those instruments. Once this reset has been completed, readers might be better prepared for a series of new encounters with other cultures. After having been thrown into the modernist maelstrom, those cultures have difficulties that are just as grave as ours in orienting themselves within the notion of modernity. It is not impossible that the course of those encounters might be altered after modernizers have reset their own way of recording their experience of the world.

    At the intersection of art, philosophy, and anthropology, Reset Modernity! has assembled close to sixty authors, most of whom have participated, in one way or another, in the Inquiry into Modes of Existence initiated by Bruno Latour. Together they try to see whether such a reset and such encounters have any practicality. Much like the two exhibitions Iconoclash and Making Things Public, this book documents and completes what could be called a “thought exhibition:” Reset Modernity! held at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe from April to August 2016. Like the two others, this book, generously illustrated, includes contributions, excerpts, and works from many authors and artists.

  21. Sam

    Seems to me that the insight into the relevancy of anthropology vis a vis economics is a product of science.

    And Adam Smith had some good points that have been lost along the way, namely penalizing rent seeking.

    1. Anonymous2

      Smith has been seriously misrepresented. The Theory of Moral Sentiments shows a very different side to that presented by those who selectively quote from The Wealth of Nations.

  22. David

    It’s hard to tell from the rather incoherent summary of what looks like an incoherent argument, but the “everything went wrong after the Enlightenment” meme has been circulating for ages. It was speared pretty effectively by Domenico Losurdo in “War and Revolution” some years ago. The author seems to be jumbling all sorts of arguments together, some valid and some not, but the valid arguments are in general criticisms of liberalism, which is not the same of the Enlightenment.

    1. JerseyJeffersonian

      This is a very good point, as the Enlightenment was not merely a straight line connection to the blight of NeoLiberalism. Rather, there were those, such as Burke, or some of our “Founding Fathers” who were students of history, and while discriminating observers of the deleterious elements of human nature, they were also cognizant of the more helpful elements of that same human nature. They, however, tended toward the view that those helpful elements required deliberate nurturance in order to come to the fore. Some of this nurturance could be achieved by partially neutralizing the deleterious elements by balancing interests (you weren’t going to get rid of the propensities, but you could limit the scope of their play by pitting societal forces one against the other in political structures, vide the doctrine of separation of powers), while nurturance could also be achieved through perpetuation of those societal institutions that address the individual conscience and behaviors like religious doctrine and examples.

      The naked embrace of selfishness, while never absent over these centuries, did have countervailing currents and forces with which to contend that were sometimes able to at least minimize the damage. But more recently, with supposedly scientific NeoLiberal economic thought sweeping the field throughout much of the first world, and with the overall decline of religious and moral systems as a counterpoise, things have reached an unlovely pass.

      But it would be incorrect to solely blame Enlightenment themes for where we are today. Much of what was presumed to be necessary to the proper, humane functioning of the ideal Enlightenment society has been pushed aside in favor of the degraded every-man-for-himself, homo economicus scourge that holds sway.

  23. Fox Blew

    Great post. For further reading, I strongly recommend John Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards”.

    1. Vatch

      Joseph de Maistre, the conservative critic of Enlightenment values, deserves far more blame for the horrors of modernity than do Voltaire or his like minded colleagues. And I can’t even find de Maistre mentioned in the index of Saul’s book.

      Since I haven’t read Saul’s book, I won’t advise people against reading it. But I think that people who are interested in how the Enlightenment may or may not have contributed to the problems of modernity would do well to read Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, by Darrin McMahon. Another book of value is The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, by Anthony Pagden.

      1. Fox Blew

        Thanks for mentioning Joseph de Maistre. I have never heard of him. I think you’d enjoy this book, nonetheless. Saul doesn’t actually “blame” Voltaire. He blames those who came after Voltaire. For that matter, the bulk of the book is about the 20th century’s (mis)interpretation of the Enlightment project. I should have mentioned that the full title is “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West”.

  24. Susan

    echoes: Marilyn Waring per his comment on women.
    the book If Women Counted
    the documentary: Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics

    Interesting story Waring told when I heard her speak in Toronto – As she boarded a bus at the airport to travel to her hotel, and a young man (20s) recognized her because the film is shown to high school students throughout Canada.

    And Capital Institute’s John Fullerton FIELD GUIDE TO A REGENERATIVE ECONOMY Primarily due to reading George Monbiot’s inane rejection of the work of Allan Savory and Capital Institute’s work with Grasslands LLC. Brought to me this morning by Nicole Foss and the Guardian.

    And for farmer’s and lovers of the land, I couldn’t help but hear Wendell Berry, “It all turns on affection.”

    Interesting to have these things intersect with this morning’s coffee. Thank you.

  25. RMO

    Perhaps he should give the book away for free. Or not have written the book in the first place. After all, his only motivations for doing so must have been to elevate himself above his fellow humans, using them as stepping stones to create progress for his own sake and bring in money that will allow him to pursue materialistic gains. Judging by the writing and thinking he displays here I will concede that he may well have not worked very hard on it though.

    1. jrs

      Oh he probably did it for money, but as for motivation to elevate himself over other humans etc. it’s all been said before and better. As in Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, an edifice complex so we can pretend we aren’t going to die etc..

  26. ccff

    Others have accurately stated that you can go back much farther than the enlightenment for this critique. The enlightenment did seem to speed up the collision course with carrying capacity however.

    Three books that cost less than $100 and cover some of the same territory on a longer time scale:

    In Search of the Primitive, Stanley Diamond (1981)
    Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, John Gowdy, Editor (1998)
    Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott (1999)

  27. Schofield

    There are two driving forces in Nature; those organisms that are mindful of the needs of others and engage in mutual cooperation and those that aren’t. The latter can be seen in killer viruses and the former in those who cooperate to eradicate such viruses. The immune system in organisms is the device used to create stability by protecting the organism from stealth acts from other “couldn’t care less about you” organisms. Market capitalism both enables the democractic cooperative process in the sense that it allows us to “vote” for the goods and services we want for our stability and creation of preferred environments. It is also antagonistic to the democratic cooperative process because human societies currently permit rules that allow a greedy “couldn’t care less about others” socioeconomic elite to control capital.

  28. Realpolitik

    The author is incorrect in many premises. Modernity is a logical child of nominalism. That philosophical error is seen with Duns Scotus and, worse, with Occam (13th Caentury). Descartes, Calvin, Kant and their followers constructed the society in which we live through their influence. Without understanding the realist philosophy that was overthrown, it is difficult to come to a correct diagnosis. All other therapies are simply convenient ideologies, many as with NC, utopian.

  29. Peter Dorman

    Kanth’s position looks different if your life, like mine, was saved at an early age by modern medical procedures. I would have died horribly at the age of six (I may be off by a year) had I not had exploratory surgery to discover and fix what was wrong. The rest of you (for better or worse) would have had to huddle without me.

  30. Patrick

    I was with you till the part about a 2.5 day work week being more important than a martian colony. If toil and sadness and 5 days of work per week are the price that we must pay for the survival of our species, then so be it.

    1. jrs

      All those who you would enslave to your 5 day week of toil and sadness for a Martian colony dream they don’t care about (Earth is the only habitat that has actually proven able to sustain humans) do not thank you. But then they are just ever so many slaves building pyramids.

  31. LT

    No one really wants to abandon being able to travel further distances in a shorter amount of time or to communicate instantly over long distances.
    Before we romanticize tribalism, there is a reason people yearned for more freedom and liberties than determined by place and circumstance of birth.
    So the communities of the future will be nothing like the past, they will just be different and just as fluid as ever.

  32. Oregoncharles

    Important insights and huge pitfalls. I don’t have time right now to finish the article or go into detail, but this is a clue:
    ““We have become unhinged from our own human nature as heat-seeking mammals,” says Kanth. “What we really crave is warmth, security, and care — the kinds of things we get at home and in close social units.” Our greatest human need, he says, is something far more humble than launching rockets: we want to huddle.”

    Both true and dangerously reactionary, especially combined with modern technology (which may be the underlying driver of modernism). What’s needed is a way to deal with both realities at the same time. Maybe he even gets to that, but there’s no sign of it to this point.

    He’s really leading us to Green Anarchy, which involves going back to when there were maybe 500 million people on the planet and life was extraordinarily circumscribed by our “huddles”. The Green Anarchists are at least explicit about that, but uninformed about what it involves.

    The positive point here is that the ruling ideology(s) are expired and we need something new that acknowledges our animal selves.

  33. mpalomar

    “To put it bluntly, Eurocentric modernism is not compatible with human civilization. One of them has got to go.”
    Given the Wars of the Twentieth Century and the apocalyptic foreboding with which the 21st C has begun, it’s hard to argue with that. But why does Kanth need to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Instead of rehashing the past 400 years since Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Smith, Locke et. al. embarked on rethinking the Aristotelian Christian feudal straightjacket why not state the problem directly? Does human society exist to benefit the economy or the economy to benefit human society.

    As for, “What do we do” If its not too late and it possibly is, there are groups working towards different models for crafting a new planetary endeavor. I ran across, The Next System Project, maybe its already been posted here. Gar Alperovitz reviews the history that led to the breakdown and at about the 22 minute mark begins to talk about possible new models.
    Unfortunately the time frame of decades is probably correct.

  34. Duke De Guise

    How would the author respond if someone asked him to wait until he had some bad dental problems before he cursed modernity?

    1. Oregoncharles

      We all would like to have it both ways – and in fact, our very survival likely depends on accomplishing that. Not that it’s going to be easy.

      Of course, this is precisely the underlying intention of “Another world is possible.” We need a world that has both warmth and the very real advantages of technology and large-scale organization. Arguably, that was stolen from us over the last couple of centuries – and like a couple of other commenters, above, that may have been the reaction against the Enlightenment more than the philosophes themselves.

    1. Hemang

      Obvious! Kanth and thousands of people like him fart without reading anything. And they write books! Hahahah I am not coming back here anymore.

  35. Hilario

    “….a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.”

    Individual self-interest imposed by state violence? Don’t quite get this.

    1. Norb

      The power of the state is monopolized for the benefit of the few- the 1%- the elite. The goal is to prevent an egalitarian society. A selfish individual needs to trick the group into gaining more than he/she deserves from the spoils of group effort. A narrative must be built up to justify this inequality and make subjects willingly participate in the effort. It becomes the foundation of the culture. When this narrative fails, physical force is always available as a last resort. You will comply. We must not forget the law also. In one way or another, all forms of violence.

      Spectacle and illusion have always been the tools used to justify gross social inequality. Ignorant masses standing in awe before the Political/Religious/Warrior cast. The problem is always how to justify the social arrangements and responsibilities.

      Group effort is the true source of power. The trick is to obfuscate who the beneficiaries should be. Kings and Divine Rulers sanctioned by God are out of fashion, and the current Market Gods and their priests are being exposed for their failures. They are not delivering prosperity and security. War and finding a scapegoat to cover elite failure is next in line. Misdirection, obfuscation, and the evil other, all tools of social control culminating in war. This is the endless cycle of human Progress.

      The movement has always been toward more egalitarianism, the trick is overcoming the resistance and finding a solution for cheaters.

      1. IDontKnow


        Anyone romanticizing non-enlightenment parts of the world has not studied their history very closely. Bureaucratically administered genocide was first practiced in China (the depopulation of Sichuan – 80,000,000), From Persia eastward, caste, clan, and/or guild systems served to enslave, restrict mobility, normalize brutality and self-administer extremely restrictive rules for control by a tiny elite. Physical privacy, that commodity under threat in the west, is alien to nearly all in non-European cultures, part of that control over others lives. Polan’s “A Place of My Own has a nice intro to this last point.

        Balance is hard, administratively it’s easier to do one extreme or the other in individual rights vs. the group, and it’s the ebb and flood between these extremes that has seen enlightenment like blooms in human civilization growth, such at the miracle of Greece.

  36. Sound of the Suburbs

    The US has always had a different attitude to capitalism compared to the rest of Europe.

    Europe moved from feudalism to capitalism and those with all the capital were the descendents of feudal warlords, whose claim to the top was having psychopathic, war loving ancestors.

    They had the capital and could reap the rewards, usually housing the poor in slums and getting men, women and children to work every hour god sent for pay that would be enough to keep them alive and reproduce.

    “Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal – that there is no human relation between master and slave.” Leo Tolstoy

    The US started with a high wage, protectionist model where everyone was allowed to reap the rewards.

    The UK, that engaged in free-trade, was forced to pay very low wages to be internationally competitive.

    Free trade leads to low wages, the US became a super-power through protectionism. Its high wage philosophy lasted until the 1970s.

    Free trade requires a low cost of living to pay low internationally competitive wages.

    The UK repealed the Corn Laws to usher in the era of Laissez-Faire.

    High rents must be covered by wages and price Western labour out of international markets with free trade.

    High rents need high wages and protectionism.

    A low cost of living is essential for free trade and requires subsidized housing, education and healthcare.

    Trump has the protectionist solution.
    Bernie the re-distributive solution.

    Neo-liberalism prices Western labour out of international markets, leading to the rise of the populists and its own demise.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      The interests of national rentiers and international business are opposed to each other.

      This was understood by the Classical Economists of the 18th century where the aristocratic rentiers stood in the way of capitalist progress.

      Adam Smith:

      “The Labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

      Taxes, rent and interest all raise wages.

      The repeal of the Corn Laws usehering in the era of Laissez-Faire

      The aristocratic landowners wanted high corn prices to get more land rent.
      The businessmen wanted lower corn prices, to lower the cost of living for lower, internationally
      competitive wages.

      Economics caused problems straight away with the Classical Economists, when they discovered the old money; idle rich were parasites on the economic system.

      Economics had to be corrupted to hide the truth.

      We still have a UK aristocracy that is maintained in luxury and leisure and can see associates of the Royal Family that are maintained in luxury and leisure by trust funds. As these people are doing nothing productive, nothing can be trickling down; the system is trickling up to maintain them.

      The old money, idle rich are maintained through their land and capital.

      What can these vested interests do to maintain their life of privilege that stretches back centuries?

      Promote a bottom-up economics that has carefully crafted assumptions that hide their parasitic nature. It’s called neoclassical economics and it’s what we use today.

      The distinction between “earned” and “unearned” income disappears and the once separate areas of “capital” and “land” are conflated. The landowners, landlords and usurers are now just productive members of society and not parasites riding on the back of other people’s hard work.

      We don’t understand free-trade because economics has been corrupted.

  37. Sound of the Suburbs

    The (neo-)liberal era is drawing to a close and liberals just can’t face the reality that the wealthy left to their own devices are an accident waiting to happen, their greed is stronger than their ability to think rationally in the long term.

    2014 – “85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world”
    2016 – “Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population”
    2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as half of world’s population

    Wealth is concentrating to such an extent it is destroying the capitalist system through a lack of demand.

    What do liberals think the problem is?
    Russian hacking, fake news, the deplorables, populists, racists, xenophobes …. etc ….

    The markets are signalling there is a glut of investment capital by the low returns on capital.
    The inflation figures are signalling there is a shortage of demand.

    We must ignore the inevitable conclusion because we are greedy and want more even if it destroys the system.

    “The Marxian capitalist has infinite shrewdness and cunning on everything except matters pertaining to his own ultimate survival. On these, he is not subject to education. He continues wilfully and reliably down the path to his own destruction”

    Marx came from a wealthy family and was only too familiar with the greed and hypocrisy of his own class. His faith in those lower down the scale was rather misplaced, as what he saw in his own class was just part of the human condition; short term, self interest drives humanity. Communism and Socialism don’t fulfil humanities short term, self interest.

    What’s in it for me now?
    Wages, dividends, rent, interest, …….

    But he was quite correct in that short term, self-interest leads to the destruction of the system.

    “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

    The wealthy live in luxury and the poor live in squalor, a condition that has existed for the 5,000 years of human civilisation up until the 19th century.

    How does this work with a consumer society?
    It doesn’t.

    The ancient Greek’s noted the greed of the wealthy and had a word to describe how they could never stop accumulating more and more, no matter what the cost to the rest of society.

    Michael Hudson has noted how the Roman Empire collapsed into the Dark Ages through the creditor class taking more and more until the whole thing collapsed.

    The wealthy had their last festival of greed in the 1920s and their excesses caused the Wall Street crash and Great Depression.

    When you allow the wealthy to accumulate more and more they destroy the system through their own short term self-interest.

    Liberals can admit the problem or let everything descend into chaos.

    1920s/2000s – high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase

    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash

    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, rising nationalism and extremism

    1940s – Global War

    The US festival of greed (unfettered capitalism) in the 1920s leads to the Great Depression. The US won’t forgive Europe’s allies their war debts and they have to claim their debts from Germany to pay them. Austerity and hardship in Europe lead to fascism.

    The creditor class want their money.

    For a brief interlude they learn a lesson.

    Keynes was involved with the Bretton-Woods agreement after the Second World War and recycled the US surplus to Europe to restore trade when Europe lay in ruins. Europe could rebuild itself and consume US products, everyone benefitted.

    Can we even imagine the EU doing this with Greece today?
    The creditor class want their money.

    They just can’t help themselves, they are their own worst enemy.

    Are the liberals going to come to their senses or are we going to slide into chaos and war?
    History suggests the latter.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      How have the wealthy created this biased world?

      They have been tinkering with economics and monetary theory to hide how the system really works.

      Professor Werner moving from reality to fantasy:

      “Classical and neo-classical economics, as dominant today, has used the deductive methodology: Untested axioms and unrealistic assumptions are the basis for the formulation of theoretical dream worlds that are used to present particular ‘results’. As discussed in Werner (2005), this methodology is particularly suited to deriving and justifying preconceived ideas and conclusions, through a process of working backwards from the desired ‘conclusions’, to establish the kind of model that can deliver them, and then formulating the kind of framework that could justify this model by choosing suitable assumptions and ‘axioms’. In other words, the deductive methodology is uniquely suited for manipulation by being based on axioms and assumptions that can be picked at will in order to obtain pre-determined desired outcomes and justify favoured policy recommendations. It can be said that the deductive methodology is useful for producing arguments that may give a scientific appearance, but are merely presenting a pre-determined opinion.”

      “Progress in economics and finance research would require researchers to build on the correct insights derived by economists at least since the 19th century (such as Macleod, 1856). The overview of the literature on how banks function, in this paper and in Werner (2014b), has revealed that economics and finance as research disciplines have on this topic failed to progress in the 20th century. The movement from the accurate credit creation theory to the misleading, inconsistent and incorrect fractional reserve theory to today’s dominant, yet wholly implausible and blatantly wrong financial intermediation theory indicates that economists and finance researchers have not progressed, but instead regressed throughout the past century. That was already Schumpeter’s (1954) assessment, and things have since further moved away from the credit creation theory.”

      “A lost century in economics: Three theories of banking and the conclusive evidence” Richard A. Werner


      They used a fake Nobel prize to give their biased economics credibility so it could replace the older redistributive capitalism.

      “The economics prize is a bit different. It was created by Sweden’s Central Bank in 1969, nearly 75 years later. The award’s real name is the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” It was not established by Nobel, but supposedly in memory of Nobel.”

      The “Nobel” prizes helped to give the refurbished neoclassical economics credibility and allow it to push out the old Keynesian ideas (goodbye equality).


      The regressed monetary theory means no one sees 2008 coming.

      When you know how money and debt work, this how easy it is see the black swan coming.


      M3 is going vertical before 2008.
      Money = debt and a credit bubble is blowing up.
      2008 bang.

      1. Sound of the Suburbs

        No one can admit today’s economic ideas are bad and they were used to design the Euro.

        The Euro-zone creates countries with over-valued currencies and under-valued currencies.

        Since 2008, the rest of the world has been trying to de-value their currencies to gain competitive advantage.

        In the Euro-zone, the countries with under-valued currencies grow stronger and the countries with over-valued currencies get weaker.

        Let’s get the rocket scientists in.

        It needs fiscal transfers to compensate.

        Since Bretton-Woods a global recycling system has been in place to keep the whole thing running and to stop it polarising. The US is the hub of the global recycling system.

        After the Second World War the US was the global creditor nation and Europe was ruined. The US surplus was recycled to Europe to build up Europe and allow trade to continue. Europe was ruined, but if the money they spent on US goods was recycled back to Europe the system could work.

        It worked well and Europe built itself up again and trade flourished even though it started from a point where Europe was flat broke and unable to do anything, both sides benefited as this arrangement was good for US export businesses too.

        Eventually the roles reversed as Europe built itself up and the US started to waste huge amounts of money on war. Starting afresh can be an advantage as all the new businesses use the latest technology and established businesses never re-invest enough to maintain their advantage, this worked in Germany’s favour.

        When the US became the global debtor nation it was forced to come off the gold standard in 1971 as everyone was asking for gold and the US would run out, an unsustainable system.

        They came up with idea of using US treasuries as the new global store of wealth instead of gold. The surplus nations could only buy US treasuries with their surplus, allowing the US to go further and further into debt. The US recycled its debts to surplus nations through US treasuries.

        The global economy uses a recycling system the Euro-zone doesn’t.

        What conclusions could we draw?
        Whilst we are thinking, chuck another trillion in Mario.

        It’s just bad economics without re-distribution of the surplus.

  38. Sound of the Suburbs

    The limited human mind can work constructively in smaller societies where the benefits of mutual co-operation can be seen directly.

    Some older societies were quite egalitarian until some more warlike society over-ran them.

    There are good people around but they are so busy helping others and neglecting their own self-interest they don’t tend to rise very far up the ladder.

    To get to the top, self-interest must come first.

    In Communist nations a dictator always seems to take the top slot.

    1. PhilM

      I have to admire this wall of text; although it is literally self-referential, to me it summarizes just about everything I have lived through, and everything else I haven’t, but know something about. I hope the author is keeping it for publication.

  39. Norb

    This whole notion that humans are inherently violent and pathologically self-interested is pure nonsense. It is a delusion brought about by constant brainwashing. The stress that is keenly felt by most people is the lack of opportunity to be more generous and self-effacing. These traits are actively discouraged in todays Market society. It takes great effort to redirect these energies. I would also put forth that this is why most people brought to despair choose drugs as an escape because it is mostly destructive to themselves and not others. Drug use causes mostly collateral damage- like the 500 lb. bomb devastating a neighborhood. Destroying others is not its purpose.

    A social system that provides meaningful work for all its citizens is the obvious, self-evident solution. All else is propaganda, marketing BS by those inclined to support cheating and inequality.

    This is the dilemma. A jobs guarantee is the solution, but that would end capitalism as we know it. Its not that it can’t be done, its a conscious choice not to do it. What people need to survive is very little, easily accommodated by the technology that humans have perfected and discovered over generations. Just as the failed and weakened feudal system broke down and the merchants took control, the merchants have reached the limitations of their worldview and it is collapsing. This notion of a New Feudalism is compelling, but how many will willfully return themselves to bondage?

    Fear and despair are clouding judgement. They act as a counter revolutionary force. When the mind focuses on enlightenment ideas leading to more peaceful egalitarianism, proper action leading to a better future are possible and don’t seem out of reach. The mind must first consider this though. The language must be found first. Rediscovered.

  40. Steven Greenberg

    I think “The Sound of Music” example was grossly misunderstood. One of the reasons to climb every mountain is to achieve a personal or team goal. For the really big mountains, climbers go out in teams. They tie themselves together to get the team to the top of the mountain. It is humans vying against inanimate obstacles to see what they can achieve. It is a group of self-actualized people working in cooperation to achieve a goal they set for themselves.

    1. Peter Dorman

      Similarly for fording powerful, fast-flowing mountain streams. It’s often a team effort.

  41. dontknowitall

    The Eurocentric modernism Kanth complains about is not to my mind collapsing. Its principles are being renegotiated as the increasingly interconnected non-european world seeks to share the ‘benefits’ but on its own terms. Asian societies that value community over individual liberties see a lot to discard while many westerners find the excessive pursuit of individual achievement has left to the market things that don’t belong there. Anthropology is a near-science given to schools of thought that cannot be tested by scientific means just like religion and so it is a poor guide to finding solutions. We are told individualism is something modern but what was Otzi doing by himself halfway up a glacier five thousand years if not hustling for himself. Ultimately individualism and community need not to be in conflict and will not be if global warming has the potency that scientists, those great individualists, predict.

  42. Cat's paw

    Don’t know whether anyone still reading this post/discussion, but…many of the responses are disappointing. Now, I’ve only scanned the OP and didn’t come away particularly impressed either, but it’s notable that many respond to a critique of the Enlightenment/Modernism with, “what, you don’t like HVAC and living to age 90?” As if technological advances coupled to increasing comfort defined life’s highest meaning and purpose. More broadly, a lot of these responses are simply indicative of Modernist and Eurocentric, if not Enlightenment, values and thinking. Namely, the irresistible, and admittedly effective, impulse to cast everything in binaristic terms–and especially cast anything which questions the fundamental presuppositions of the Enlightenment and Modernity as an enemy to be dismissed, subsumed or eliminated.

    Admittedly, the OP is not doing much of anything innovative or new. Nor is it particularly insightful or biting. India alone has a vast literature dating back a century or more questioning the supremacy of Enlightenment/Modern thought and practice–much of it grouped under the rubric of postcolonialism. Even still, Europe itself has produced many kinds of responses to Enlightenment thinking and values–and almost immediately in historical terms. Romanticism, anyone? A fair percentage of German philosophical thought post-Kant sought to resist the triumphalist march of the Enlightenment. Tl;dr: a lot credible human beings over the last 400 years have had a few problems with the politics and social practices associated with the Enlightenment/Modernity–not the least of which are and were literally tens of millions of Indigenous peoples.

    Frankly, the subject is at once too fundamental and too vast to address in a comment. But there is a deep and fatal problem and there always has been. And the dismissive tone of many of the comments is troubling to me in that it indicates a real denial, ignorance, and a reflexive unwillingness to move into regions of thought and feeling that are uncomfortable and disorienting. Anyway, this is a personal bugaboo of mine–I spent a long time as grad student and beyond making lots of no-money studying the implications of historical Modernism and Enlightenment practices.

    I’ll leave everyone with an Adorno and Horkheimer quotation that at once goes to the heart of the problem and yet is only one of many problems: “For the Enlightenment, whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect.”

    Consider this. Consider how much there is of value in this world which cannot conform to numerical reduction or utility function and then consider how much of this world has been or is deemed without value as a result. Or, and this speaks to the genius of the Enlightenment and Modernity, consider how much of value in this world has had its value redefined, transformed, tranfixed, or redirected into fully alien and alienating forms as a result. To actually consider this can be shattering.

    *Obligatory Caveat–I do not endorse, promote, or advocate the total renunciation, destruction, or abandonment of Enlightenment/Modernity. Nor do I deny any and all advances, advantages, or benefits derived therefrom. Local restrictions may apply.

  43. EyeRound

    The article reads like a book report. Lynn Parramore writes with zero critical commentary, indicating, apparently, zero knowledge of the tradition of European thinking. This, despite the fact that the book on which she reports takes aim at precisely that tradition.

    On the other hand, the NC Commentariat is positively the bee’s knees! For that alone, thanks to Yves for posting this piece.

    1. PhilM

      You’re so right. The whole thing would be colossally disappointing, except for the extraordinary vitality of the intellectual community here. I don’t know how Yves and Lambert do it, because everywhere else on the internet is a freaking sewer; popular delusions and the madness of crowds in action. Somehow, that’s not happening here. I think back on all the episodes where Kirk outsmarted the computer with a simple paradox.

  44. Dick Burkhart

    There is much truth is what Professor Kanth has to say, but I think he neglects the material basis of the modern world. It looks to me that economic growth itself is running out of steam, so naturally the ideologies that supported this form of “progress” must also be questioned. However, I think we must be honest and recognize that the traditionlal tribal village, with all the comforts of social cohesion, simply did not fit well with the rapid economic expansion of the fossil fuel era. What will work better in the coming era of growing disparities and collapse? It’s not clear to me, except that social cohesion has always had a strong survival value.

    Already things are getting ugly, and the serious economic contraction hasn’t even begun.

  45. Clearpoint

    I get what Kanth is saying, but I fail to see how this started with the enlightenment. Seems to me there were conquerors and conquests before the enlightenment and individuals of extreme self interest, i.e. sociopaths and psychopaths, as well. These are the people who play the tune that everyone else dances to. The 4 core beliefs that Kanth mentions are just rationales to explain antisocial behaviour updated for modern times. Did antisocial behaviour spread and grow because of these beliefs? The answer to that question leads me to conclude that it was the rise of capitalism and science and the demotion of religion that caused our beliefs about human nature to evolve.

  46. StPete

    Um, no. Rajani Kanth just needs to get out more… maybe just come back to the USA for a while and hang out with some of the 64.8+ million Democrats and Progressives who voted for Hillary Clinton. Because for all their faults, most are nothing like the kind of people Kanth describes, and abhor that mindset and behavior. They are far more like the women and workers he admires.

    Maybe instead of painting the West with one broad brush, he’d do better trying to figure out what it is about some of the human race that actually does behave as he describes, and inevitably seems to drift into intolerance and fascism.

  47. Billikin

    Not that I disagree with Kanth’s general thesis. I have spent a good deal of time studying Eastern and pre-modern Western thought. But Kanth picked the wrong song, IMO.

    “Climb every mountain
    Ford every stream
    Follow every rainbow
    Till you find your dream”

    The song is about a dream quest, something that is a human phenomenon across many cultures. The song continues:

    “A dream that will need
    All the love you can give
    Every day of your life
    For as long as you live”

    It is not about self-aggrandizement, but about love. Thank you very much.

    A better song for his point would have been, “My Way”.

    “For what is a man, what has he got?
    If not himself, then he has naught
    The right to say the things he feels and not the words of one who kneels
    The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!”

  48. linda amick

    From a metaphysical point of view Aristotle had it right. Too bad all we have are his student notes. Our universe is a living organism with every single part participating in the whole. As a rational animal I am in awe of the whole of it and respectful of all living organisms. If I maim another it is like cutting myself.

    When thinkers began to try and penetrate this whole dividing it eventually into atoms and with Descarte positing an infinite universe rather than a finite living organism, we get man at the center of the universe (I think therefore I am) and everything else a mechanism to be exploited.
    The wrong path was taken around 400 years ago. I agree.

  49. Harold

    But whilst the sceptic destroys gross superstitions, let him spare to deface, as some of the French writers have defaced, the eternal truths charactered upon the imaginations of men. Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines labor, let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. They have exemplified the saying, “To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.” The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.
    ” — P.B. Shelley, Defence of Poetry (1821)

  50. Sound of the Suburbs

    Francis Fukuyama talked of the “end of history” and “liberal democracy”.

    Neo-liberalism was to be the basis for the New World Order of the Washington Consensus.

    Unfortunately, the internal flaws in this ideology have led to its own demise.

    Imagine a Chinese wage paying Western rent.

    Why the West can’t compete internationally, its labour has been priced out of the global market place.

    We may want free trade but we had to understand its requirements.
    A low cost of living.

    The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in the era of Laissez-Faire

    The aristocratic landowners wanted high corn prices to get more land rent.
    The businessmen wanted lower corn prices, to lower the cost of living for lower, internationally competitive wages.

    I remember now, I did that in O-level History. (Age 15 – UK qualification)

    A schoolboy error underlying the New World Order.

    High rents need high wages and protectionism.

    A low cost of living is essential for free trade and requires subsidized housing, education and healthcare.

    Trump has the protectionist solution.
    Bernie had the re-distributive solution.

Comments are closed.