Modernity and Differentiation

According to Pearse, the peculiarly modern civilization of the West bears a number of characteristics deemed threatening to pre-modern civilizations in other parts of the world. The emphasis in particular on the autonomous exercise of personal choice is highly dangerous to communities whose very survival is dependent upon the subordination of individual preferences to communal norms.
November 1 st 2004

Two months ago in this space, I wrote of the important new book by Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. According to Pearse, the peculiarly modern civilization of the West bears a number of characteristics deemed threatening to pre-modern civilizations in other parts of the world. The emphasis in particular on the autonomous exercise of personal choice is highly dangerous to communities whose very survival is dependent upon the subordination of individual preferences to communal norms. These norms, after all, are not merely the arbitrary impositions of an oppressive and mindless conformity, as they tend to be caricatured in the West; they are, rather, essential to the well-being of a community living close to nature and the means of subsistence.

This explains much of the animus felt toward the West by scores of millions embedded in traditional, pre-modern cultures. As Western entertainment infiltrates these cultures and as young people are attracted to, say, the loosened sexual mores engendered by the cultural revolution of the past four decades, it unleashes a serious threat to the ability of these cultures to maintain their integrity. Pearse argues powerfully that it is time for the West to rejoin the rest and to relinquish its arrogant ways.

Pearse is part of a chorus of recent commentators who argue for the revival of pre-modern elements in Western civilization. Three years ago, for example, political scientist Robert Kraynak published Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (University of Notre Dame Press). Here he argues that, although democracy is certainly dependent on the foundations laid by Christianity and cannot survive on the shaky footing of contemporary scepticism and relativism, the Christian tradition itself is not supportive of liberal democracy.

Indeed, from biblical times through the early modern era, it was assumed that government by its very nature consists of a nonelective hierarchical arrangement of authorities set over the governed. Only recently has this been called into question, and on grounds not strictly compatible with Christian faith properly understood. As a traditional Catholic, Kraynak believes that at present a politics of prudence favours a "mixed monarchy," or "constitutional monarchy under God" (232), rather than liberal democracy, which in his estimation is only a second-best regime.

Undeniably, there is something compelling in the longing for pre-modern ways. Urban centres are reputedly faceless entities characterized by anonymity and lack of community. By contrast, the village, untouched by modernity, is assumed to be the nurturing soil of human virtue. Families remain close and neighbours rush to help each other in need. Religious faith is more likely to flourish in this setting than in the corroding acids of the city. Even hereditary monarchy gives politics a human face—something that the abstractions of republican constitutions cannot hope to replicate. People's loyalties are less dispersed, and their homes are multi-functional, providing a place at once to earn a living, to raise and educate offspring, and generally to cement interpersonal ties. However, this is not the entire story. In fact, its very accuracy might be called into question in many respects.

A decade ago, Robert Putnam published an intriguing study of political cultures, titled, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993). In 1970, the Italian government devolved political authority to 20 regions created along quasi-federal lines. In each of these regions, governmental institutions were established to preside over local affairs. For the next two decades, Putnam and his colleagues undertook to study the effectiveness of these institutions in responding to the needs of their citizens in the fields of agriculture, housing, and health care. Not unexpectedly, there was considerable variation in their performances. However, Putnam and his colleagues were surprised at the role long-standing regional political cultures played in this variability.

The north of Italy is the seat of the late mediaeval civic republics, such as Florence, Genoa, and Venice. These republics established commercial empires in the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean and even into the Black Sea. While they were hardly what we would today call democratic, they did nurture a certain civic-mindedness that would come to permeate their societies as a whole. By contrast, the southern part of the Italian peninsula was historically under the suzerainty of various autocratic dynasties, from the Byzantines, Normans, and Arabs to the Bourbons and Habsburgs. Here, over the course of centuries, vertical patron-client relationships were developed and maintained, thus discouraging the sorts of horizontal relationships required for a true civic culture.

Remarkably, these divergent patterns have endured for some seven centuries, as Putnam's study demonstrates. In the north, regional governments are efficient and responsive to citizens' expressed needs. Here people from all walks of life involve themselves in a variety of activities, which could be loosely labelled civic, if not always overtly political. According to Putnam, "in the most civic regions, such as Emilia-Romagna, citizens are actively involved in all sorts of local associations—literary guilds, local bands, hunting clubs, cooperatives and so on. They follow civic affairs avidly in the local press, and they engage in politics out of programmatic conviction" (97).

Like Tocqueville's nineteenth-century Americans, northern Italians are great joiners. Daily newspapers are found everywhere and are widely read. Entrepreneurial activity and labour union membership both have strong foundations in the north. As a result, the Italian north is one of the genuine economic powerhouses of the world, justifying Italy's inclusion among the Group of Eight advanced industrial democracies. Infusing and supporting all this activity is a high level of public trust among the citizenry.

The pre-modern south, however, could hardly be more different. Much less prosperous and civically oriented than the north, regional governments here function with evidently less efficiency. Officials appear not to be bound by regular working hours, and citizens "do not disguise their contempt for their regional government" (5), which they believe to be largely unresponsive to their needs. As Putnam describes it, "in the least civic regions, such as Calabria, voters are brought to the polls not by issues, but by hierarchical patron-client networks. An absence of civic associations and a paucity of local media in these latter regions mean that citizens there are rarely drawn into community affairs" (97).

Far fewer daily newspapers are published in the south, and there are few readers for those that exist. On the positive side, extended family ties are stronger in the south, but outside the kinship network levels of mutual trust are low, effectively deterring people from joining, say, a revolving credit association or choral society, even if they were of a mind to do so.

Putnam's study is significant for what it says about the durability of political cultures over time. But for our purposes, it is just as significant in so far as it shatters two persistent stereotypes. First, it is widely believed, and not only in Marxist circles, that economics drives politics. Yet it seems that existing civic traditions were far more significant than economic resources in facilitating both good government and economic prosperity in the Italian regions.

Second, traditional feudal societies are alleged to be more communally-oriented than advanced industrial societies, which are often thought to atomize people. Yet it is in precisely the most urbanized part of Italy that citizens are likely to participate in a variety of collaborative activities with a public focus.

The Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd argues that as God's image-bearers fulfil his cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) their activities tend to become dispersed in a variety of institutional settings, each of which is appropriately related to that activity. Children are taught in schools, goods are bought and sold in stores, the sick are treated in hospitals, art is viewed in museums, and so forth. This is what Dooyeweerd calls the historical norm of differentiation, which is in turn the foundation for sphere sovereignty or differentiated responsibility, the principle most strongly associated with the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper and his followers.

I believe Dooyeweerd's analysis is correct, and it may be that Putnam and his associates have provided him with some needed empirical evidence. Contrary to what many assume, it seems that vibrant communities are associated with differentiated societies rather than with undifferentiated societies, where a single kind of hierarchical relationship dominates the multiplicity of human activities. This indicates that, although the likes of Pearse and Kraynak are right to alert us to the hazardous spiritual fruits of modernity—it is, after all, in northern Italy that communism's influence was strongest—any attempt to repeal what I have called the structural components of modernity, including constitutional government, the relative lack of corruption, the rule of law and the market, all of which are by-products of the differentiation process, is quite simply reactionary. So if, to quote Pearse again, the West must rejoin the rest, it ought not—and indeed cannot—do so by repudiating the complex pluriform nature of its own societies.


David T. Koyzis is a Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology and taught politics for thirty years at Redeemer University College. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (also translated into Portuguese) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with his wife and daughter.