The Riddle of Modernity

Alan Macfarlane has much of interest to say on the mystery of the modern world – why such a new form of civilization arose and how it works.

He argues that a key reason it arose, and a key reason it endures, is civil society. Previously, people had cooperated in kin groups, in states and in religious groups. In modernity, they add a layer of cooperation in civil associations.

This is the safeguard of liberty and equality, as Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Maitland all realized, protecting the individual from the tendencies towards political centralization or over powerful demands of a familistic or religious kind which stress uniformity. Emerging diversity, co-operation with competition, flexibility, constant new forms of organization and innovation are encouraged. This is the secret of the strength and vigour of England, then America, then Japan and now much of the world. It has swept over the world along with English language, law and games, all of which are linked to each other.

For the first time, increasing wealth fed into the middle parts of the system, rather than top and bottom. A prosperous, bourgeois, middle-class world emerged, full of competing small-scale groupings, ‘teams’ one might say, which tried to outdo each other whether at football, in interpretation of the Christian bible, trade with the Indies, political power. Parties, clubs, associations, these are the organizational secret of modernity. Only they could effectively overcome the two extremes of anomie/contract or holism/status. They made tolerable the
separation between different parts of a society and indeed help to maintain it. They constitute the increasing division of the world into small, meaningful, social spaces which cross the boundaries of primordial loyalties. The grounds of recruitment are not status, but contract, but once formed they have some of the warmth of kinship, without the open-ended claims. And because there are many of them, and none has a monopoly, none can become absolutist. Whether competing political parties ever jostling for power, or religious sects, jostling for salvation, or scientific and artistic associations, competing for truth or beauty, or social clubs, competing for leisure and jollity, or economic associations, competing for wealth, they provide the individual numerous places to develop her or his creativity and energy. The Japanese developed this through a peculiarly flexible sort of kinship system, the English through the Trust. And on these developing institutions were laid the foundations of the first escape into modernity in East and West.

From an e-book on F.W. Maitland (pdf).

Interesting how he links organized sports and team games to civil society and social cooperation.

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