Historicising British Modernities

Since the 1960s, much of twentieth-century British historiography has been written within an implicit ‘modernization’ paradigm. This framework argues that human societies are all roughly on the same developmental trajectory, and that as societies get richer and more technological, they will naturally tend to become more peaceful, more individualist, more equal, and more secular. On this view, these criteria allow us to classify some societies as objectively ‘modern’, and others as objectively ‘less modern’.

Yet this framework has severe problems. First and foremost, it is Eurocentric: it takes a particular European developmental trajectory (carefully downplaying some of Europe’s more disastrous episodes) and tries to impose it on the whole of recent global history. But it isn’t obvious how the paradigm might fit many non-Western countries. South Korea gained massively in wealth and education between 1953 and today, and that economic growth was accompanied by the large-scale growth of Christianity. China has achieved impressive economic prosperity between 1949 and today, but it did so under a Communist dictatorship, which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. As non-Western countries have developed economically and technologically, they haven’t necessarily adopted Western cultural models, and, in retrospect, it seems arrogant of Europeans to have expected that they should have.

Indeed, the complexity and multi-directionality of global history strongly suggests that we shouldn’t be trying to shoe-horn all ‘developed’ countries into a single developmental model: instead, we should see each local society as attempting to enact its own particular vision of the future.

This means that the fact that many Western cultures have believed in the ‘modernisation’ paradigm is extremely significant. For the ‘modernisation’ paradigm has an ideological footprint of its own: it intervenes in cultural debates in its own right, by dismissing some cultural patterns as inherently ‘backward’, and privileging other cultural patterns as inherently ‘forward-looking’. Since global history is so diverse, such classifications are always inherently ideological.

Nonetheless, the assumptions underlying the ‘modernisation’ paradigm are so entrenched in our thinking that it is easy to miss how recent these assumptions are. My next project, Historicising British Modernities, argues that this paradigm only entered British common-sense during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and itself played a crucial role in the restructuring of British culture that occurred during the Sixties.

From the early nineteenth century to the early 1950s, British discussion was structured by a ‘civilisation’ model of modernity, which argued that ‘Western civilisation’ was over two thousand years old, and that Britain’s future health depended on its ongoing adherence to the Greco-Roman inheritance and Christianity. This ‘civilisation’ framework was quite different from the later ‘modernisation’ framework. Their narratives were different: civilisation-ideology claimed that twentieth-century Western societies had their origins in antiquity, but modernisation-ideology denied this, identifying a massive transformation at some point between 1500 and 1900, which forever separated ‘modern’ Western societies from their ‘traditional’ pasts. But underneath this difference was a deeper disagreement about the nature of human societies. The ‘civilisation’ framework insisted that advanced societies were built on particular cultural foundations: thus ‘Western civilisation’ would naturally be different from ‘Chinese civilisation’, for example. But the ‘modernisation’ framework insisted that advanced societies were built on their material wealth and their technology: hence the expectation that the cultures of ‘modern Britain’ and ‘modern China’ might, one day, converge.

Consequently, Britain’s transition from a ‘civilisation’ framework to a ‘modernisation’ framework in the late 1950s and early 1960s had all kinds of important cultural ramifications. The British Empire, for example, suddenly went from being regarded as ‘advanced’ (i.e., ‘Britain is like the classical Romans, and they had an Empire, so it’s natural that we do too’), to being regarded as ‘traditional’ (i.e. ‘the Empire was so last century – we’re modern, and we’re all about free associations of nation states’). This was a central reason why the Empire got forgotten so quickly in 1960s Britain, and why it was nearly absent from domestic British historiography until the 1990s. (For more on forgetting the Empire, see Bill Schwarz’s The White Man’s World [2011]).

In the field of ‘religion’, ‘religion’ suddenly went from being considered a human universal (i.e. ‘all societies need religion – it civilises people and brings them together’), to being considered a leftover from the past (i.e. ‘traditional societies need religion, but we’re modern, so we don’t’).

And in the sphere of individual behaviour, radical individualism suddenly went from being considered ‘backward’ and uncivilised (i.e. ‘advanced societies are built on human co-operation, so everyone should follow a collective moral code, otherwise we’ll sink back into barbarism’), to being considered forward-looking and modern (i.e. ‘technology and wealth naturally pushes societies towards irreversible emancipation’).

As British culture imbibed this new ‘modernisation’ framework, British social behaviour began to change, as people acted out the new vision of what it meant to be modern. The Empire was forgotten; radical individualism rapidly increased; there was a rapid increase in secularisation.

But none of this was actually a natural consequence of wealth and technology: it was due to British culture’s contingent re-imagination of what it meant to be modern, which was suddenly triggered by the nuclear scares of the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the darkest days of the Cold War.

In short: it was not the case that Britain’s Sixties was caused by universal processes of ‘modernisation’ or ‘postmodernisation’. Instead, against the backdrop of severe crisis, British culture adopted a new ideology of the future, and began attempting to enact it.