The modernisation myth

About the author
Gavin Kitching is head of the school of politics & international relations at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He was a pioneer in the field of African studies. His books include Class and Economic Change in Kenya (1980), Development and Underdevelopment in Historical Perspective (1982), Marxism and Science: Analysis of an Obsession (1994), Seeking Social Justice through Globalization: Escaping a Nationalist Perspective (2001), and Wittgenstein and Society: Essays in Conceptual Puzzlement (2003).

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama outlines quite well the familiar historical reasons for the response of some western societies to severe and intractable forms of conflict (especially religious conflict) at certain points in their history, which led them to create judicial and educational institutions designed to ameliorate such conflicts. The purpose of this institution-building was mainly prudential (knowledge, and thus fear, of the dreadful consequences of not doing so); but an effect of the continued functioning of these institutions over time (intended or not) was to expand the social range of empathy among the people affected by them.

The real question that arises from Fukuyama's depiction of this process, however, is whether there is any reason to believe that the process of modernisation itself is linked in any systematic or general way with the expansion of "empathetic range". Theories that connect such expansion to levels of education, or to the emergence of multicultural and "lifestyle-diverse" modern cities, or to greater mass travel, may suggest that there is such a link.

Gavin Kitching is head of the school of politics & international relations at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.


This article is part of an openDemocracy symposium on Francis Fukuyama's afterword in the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For an overview of the debate click here


Also published:

Francis Fukuyama, "After the 'end of history'"
(2 May 2006)

Danny Postel, "The 'end of history' revisited: Francis Fukuyama and his critics"
(2 May 2006)

Saskia Sassen, "A state of decay" (3 May 2006)

Talal Asad, "A single history?" (May 2006)

Anthony Pagden, "The end of history, or history all over again?"
(May 2006)

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "Politico-religious cults and the 'end of history'" (10 May 2006)

David Scott, "Fukuyama's crossroads: the poetics of location" (12 May 2006)

Olivier Roy, "The end of history and the long march of secularization"
(16 May 2006)

Charles S Maeir, "The intoxications of history" (18 May 2006)

Stephen Holmes, "The logic of a blocked history"
(23 May 2006)

Vinay Lal, "The beginning of a history" (25 May 2006)

I am sceptical, for two reasons. First, it seems to me that these matters are too historically contingent, too much a product of particular historical events and particular political and (indeed) economic contexts for any happy generalisation of this type to hold. There is far too much evidence that trends in modern societies – economic collapse (or even severe recession), military and/or political threat – can, when conjoined to certain forms of political manipulation, lead to an abrupt narrowing of empathetic range. This narrowing is almost always signalled by the sharp rise of ignorant or malignant stereotypes of various "others" – Jews, communists, Muslims, infidels, or terrorists.

This is not to deny that religiously uniform societies or those emerging rapidly from a situation of social and cultural isolation may themselves have very severe difficulties in dealing with difference. It is true, as Fukuyama says, that nearly all such societies are or have been "pre-modern". But it is to say that greater levels of empathy and toleration in such a society will not in and of themselves result from "modernisation" in any of its familiar manifestations: increasing religious diversity, changes in occupational structure, rising formal educational levels, greater urbanisation, and (especially) enforced cultural exposure to outside values and lifestyles.

Any change in a society towards empathy is, in short, likely to be deeply influenced by historically contingent factors. Germany is a much more democratic and tolerant society than it was seventy years ago, but it is so because of (among other things) the experience of Nazism and of defeat in the second world war; neither factor could be incorporated into any general theory of Germany's "modernisation". Moreover, such tolerance is itself coming under threat at present. Nothing guarantees that it will last.

Second, I am dismayed to find Fukuyama still discussing issues of development and modernity like some 1950s-60s modernisation theorist – in complete disregard of the way in which the modernisation project has been historically embedded in relations of formal and informal domination (that is, in colonialism and imperialism). The reason this matters is not (in the conventional "left" view) that colonial and imperial domination rendered that project fraudulent, a mere cover for exploitation and pillage. It is rather that such relations often severely compromised the modernisation project – either in the sense that it was pursued halfheartedly and "on the cheap" (as over a large part of Africa) or that it was ideologically compromised from the first by being identified with the colonial and imperial invader.

The test of practice

All this is especially important in the case of the Muslim societies of the middle east. Albert Hourani and a host of other scholars have shown that a small minority of intellectuals and statesmen in the Arab world showed an intellectual and political interest in the ideas of the European enlightenment almost from the time of their appearance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But this interest and appreciation was effectively strangled at birth (and/or prevented from finding any real popular support) because it was almost immediately torpedoed by British and French imperial adventures in the region.

From then until today, powerful conservative or reactionary groups in those societies have been able to delegitimise modernisation efforts by identifying them with the colonial or imperial enemy. That task has been made even easier when (as in many cases) the benefits of such modernisation efforts have been very unequally distributed – an extreme inequality intimately related to the fact that semi- or quasi-modernisation has often been externally imposed rather than growing from local roots.

I am not arguing some pernicious thesis to the effect that Islamic fundamentalism, let alone terrorism, is the "fault" of European imperialism. But I am arguing that the historical experience of middle-eastern societies – strongly authoritarian, patriarchal and pre-modern, legitimised by a fiercely proselytising religion with its own (defeated) imperial pretensions, then disrupted by a botched and incomplete modernisation project emanating from the west – has created deep fractures and polarisations that have long provided fertile ground for various forms of ideological extremism (of which Islamism is only the most recent).

As a result of this approach, I feel unable to say whether liberal democracy combined with advanced capitalism marks an end (let alone "the end", teleologically speaking) of history. I do not think it is at all impossible that democracy could collapse in advanced capitalist societies, especially if the majority of the population in those societies came to believe that it had to choose between maintaining democracy and maintaining its prosperity (or security). It is, in my view, far too sanguine and (pace Hegel) un-dialectical a view to see material prosperity as simply the subordinate "handmaiden" of democracy. That may be true up to a historical point, only for a nasty reversal to turn the former into a deadly enemy of the latter.

By the same token, I do not believe that one can predict that as currently poor or poorer societies get richer they will get more democratic. This is a matter entirely to be determined by the values, desires and struggles of the people in the societies in question. One may hope that this will happen (and I do), but one cannot predict or project that it will.

History has no end (in either sense of "end"). It is only because that is so that human beings can hope (and fear, and desire, and warn, and struggle) to any purpose at all. This means that it is only because the future cannot be predicted that humans can be human at all. The same point is true in reverse: it is because humans are human that their future cannot be predicted.