Confronting Modernity

Criticisms against globalization take many hues. In times of economic crisis, we campaign against unfair trading between rich and poor nations. When western news agencies highlight any political fracas, we protest against the mischievousness of their journalists. When western rock concerts enraptured our youths we sound the clarion call to protect our culture against the corrupting influence of foreign values.

Confronting Modernity: The Cultural Challenge of Globalization

Ng Kam Weng

Criticisms against globalization take many hues. In times of economic crisis, we campaign against unfair trading between rich and poor nations. When western news agencies highlight any political fracas, we protest against the mischievousness of their journalists. When western rock concerts enraptured our youths we sound the clarion call to protect our culture against the corrupting influence of foreign values.

Evidently, critics of globalization attempt to seize the moral high ground, couching their rhetoric in moral terms. Our critics, however, need to go beyond assigning blame and move towards a constructive critique. We should first try to understand why we are lagging behind the more developed nations. This should be followed by cogent analyses of the forces that propel the overwhelming onslaught of globalization, the market mechanism and cultural dynamics that make globalization such an irresistible phenomenon today. We will then be able to formulate a comprehensive response to globalization.

To begin with, there is no lack of books that explain in detail how globalization affects the economy and the job market. But it should be noted that globalization only refers to surface effects of a larger phenomenon. Scratch below the surface and we will uncover Modernity as the dynamo that drives globalization. We should not be so mesmerized by globalization as to overlook the behind-the-scene engine of Modernity. Otherwise we are no different from the myopic guards in Communist Europe years ago who wondered why they could not detect the contraband that they presumed were hidden in bags of earth which a farmer brought across the border each week in his wheelbarrow. It was only years later that they discovered that the earth was only a decoy. What the farmer was smuggling in unnoticed were the wheelbarrows.

What then is this thing called Modernity? It is a set of assumptions, values and patterns of action that was the product of the European Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which has assumed global dominance in the socio-economic, cultural and political spheres of life. The power of Modernity lies in its comprehensive approach to life. It includes a framework of moral understanding (the value of reason, the supreme importance of individuality, the value of tolerance and relativism) as well as institutional carriers of such values.

The first carrier includes capitalism with its corporate culture that demands a tough-minded management of resources based on the most efficient means of production. The effective outcome this concentration on material resources results in a concern for the price of things rather than their value. Further disregard for things spiritual amounts to a practical atheism toward everyday life.

The second carrier is the modern state with its bureaucracy that seeks to control all citizens. Max Weber’s with chilling foresight saw the bureaucracy as an ‘iron cage’ run by “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” The efficiency of state bureaucracy renders ideology irrelevant. Politics is reduced to gaining access to the state bureaucracy as a means to mould a compliant citizenry.

Third, we should not forget the all powerful knowledge sector that includes the modern university and the mass media. Critics may be tempted to take too lightly the entertainment industry, since it makes a commercial success of popular culture. But no one can deny that the entertainment industry powerfully shapes the values and perception of the masses? Our leaders have often exhorted Malaysians to develop a knowledge-economy. Awareness of these powerful carriers should impress us the need to go beyond general exhortation and to work out in detail the form of knowledge that is adequate for the building of a dynamic Malaysian society.

Of course Modernity does bring with it some benefits. For example, we have learnt to cherish the dream of liberty, fraternity and equality in the project of social democracy. A rational approach to understanding and solving the problems of life – exemplified by modern science, technology and medical advancements – has unshackled us from superstitions that have become lodged into our local cultures.

Nevertheless, we cannot help but wonder if Modernity isn’t in reality a poisoned chalice. To begin with, we note that the powerful forces of Modernity unrelentingly devastate our valued traditions and sow seeds of contradiction in our society. Harold Berman poignantly captures the maelstrom of Modernity brings,

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are . . . modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’”

Modern rationality promises certainty in knowledge centred on the self-sufficient knower. Unfortunately, this critical philosophy has generated a relativistic view of life and breakdown of relationships. It should be instructive to analyze how such consequences are played out among our youths in view of recent concerns about the unhealthy influence of foreign entertainment industry on them.

What is happening to our youth? First, without strong trusts in traditional institutions our young people operate without a stable sense of selfhood and social identity. Naturally they lose both the interest and the ability to relate to people. Second, without convictions of the reality of transcendence there is no incentive to be accountable to a higher authority. Third, without assurance that they have a soul within, they become obsess with sensuality and materialism

We complain that young people today do not care to work out a personal identity that connects them to a wider network of social relationships. But how can we blame them if what they experience in their daily life is an impersonal bureaucracy that seeks to control them or an industrial corporation that is only interested in manipulating them into efficient production units?

In reaction, young people desperate for some sense of personal control over their lives attempt to carve their own identity through self-experimentation with their bodies. Our youths may not have heard of aesthetic philosophers like Nietzsche or Foucault, but they certainly share their view of treating the human body as a personal artistic project. Hence, the popularity of ecstasy pills, tattoos and alternative sexual lifestyles. Such self-indulgences vex perplexed parents.

The foregoing observations on youth highlight the difference between globalization and Modernity. Discussions on globalization invariably focus on economics institutions and trade policies. Confronting Modernity, however, is a task of cultural engagement that entails a courageous re-examination of our local values. For example we are forced to confront the question as to whether we need to refashion our religious and cultural traditions since they seem incapable of meeting the needs of youth today. Are our traditions so obsolete that the only recourse is to abandon them?

Raising this question will very likely irk traditionalists who insist on resolutely holding fast to the traditional forms of our cultural practices to ensure a sense of stability in times of rapid social transformation. In the process however, tradition, which should be the living faith of the dead, could end up being deformed into traditionalism that is nothing more than the dead faith of the living.

Let me give an illustration of such traditionalism by considering the rites of passages that mark the significant events of our lives. As a young boy, I remember asking my mother why she rolled red eggs around the head of my newly born sister. Her reply was that she was merely imitating my grandmother in performing the ritual, even though she had absolutely no inkling what the ritual meant. She was certainly a loyal traditionalist insofar as she was merely perpetuating a form of tradition without understanding how it could be meaningfully connected to life today.

On the other hand, we can renew tradition in such a way that it enhances the solidarity of a cultural community. For example, Chinese parents of a newborn child usually call together their kinfolk for a dinner one month after the birth of the child. The rationale for such a dinner was to celebrate the survival of the mother and child in times past, when mortality rate for newborns was high.

Presumably, the traditional rationale for the full-moon celebration no longer applies in modern times. Thanks to modern health care, we no longer fear for the safety of mother and child. One might therefore be tempted to abandon this tradition. However, further thought suggests that the Chinese community should continue this tradition. Today, modern society is structured in such a way that people frequently relocate and settle in places far away from their kinfolk. That being the case, the community needs every excuse to bring kinfolk together to participate in a ritual of solidarity that will strengthen kinfolk relationships.

Loyal traditionalism should not blind us to the deleterious consequences of Modernity around us. It is better to acknowledge firstly, that cultural institutions are often no longer providing an unquestionable anchorage that will give us stability in the flux of Modernity. Then we must follow up with the creative project of retrieving moral resources still embedded in our traditions. Hopefully, such resources will help our young people succeed in putting together a more or less adequate moral framework that can guide them through the labyrinths of modern life. In this way we encourage young people to maintain a healthy respect for tradition while applying a rational and creative approach to solving life’s problems. Only then will our traditions remain vibrant and capable in helping individuals cope with the dizzy flux of Modernity.

Ng Kam Weng