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In this essay I examine theories of modernization. Contacts welcome here.

According to Rostow, modernization is a societal transformation from ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-Newtonian’ societies to modernized or ‘Newtonian’ societies. In essence, the ‘traditional’ society is characterized by its considerable limitations in terms of production: its technologies and its attitudes are not supportive of ‘modern’ production based on the manipulation of the natural environment in ways that allow and sustain economic growth (4-5).

To be fair, Rostow recognizes that there is a tremendous amount of variation in the diverse societies so categorized. Nonetheless, on the whole they are, not static, but limited in terms of economic growth and social mobility (5-7). The takeoff, the transition towards modernity, began in Western Europe, particularly England, and has spread to the non-Western world largely by imposition and/or imitation (7-14).

Rostow is careful to recognize that the transition itself is a protracted process, one that tends to entail going from earlier phases to more technologically advanced ones, a process of economic maturation (9). Rostow also advances a ‘dynamic’ theory of production, one that takes into account the policies of governments and trends in society (14-15).

However, there are limitations to Rostow’s approach: insufficient consideration is given to the disruptive effects of modernity on what might be called ‘subaltern’ groups. For example, Polanyi documents the disruptive effects of the enclosure movement on the English peasantry in the 16th-17th centuries: although the landlords’ conversion of the commons and expulsion of many peasant tenants led to a form of commercial activity—sheep-raising—with momentous consequences for modernity, it came at the expense of a great deal of misery and dislocation for many peasants (20-23).

Polanyi argues that the development of a market economy was the cardinal characteristic of the rise of modernity (23). The production of goods and services for sale, often with money as the medium of exchange, is the hallmark of such a system (24). The contrast here, Polanyi claims, is with pre-modern methods of exchange: reciprocity and redistribution (28-30).

For Polanyi, the march to modernization is a contest between economic liberalism, that is to say pro-market forces, and social protection, that is to say, conservative or reactionary forces attempting to constrain the scope of change (77). To Polanyi’s credit, he emphasizes the role of class: where the newly-industrialized working class of the 19th century made government and business their stronghold, Polanyi claims, while the trading classes made state and industry their stronghold (77). This class conflict in turn paved the way for the rise of fascism in the 20th century (77-78). In the main, this is a good analysis, one that ascertains the nature and the stakes of class conflict between the working class and the ‘captains of industry’.

Lerner describes the modernization of the Middle East by analyzing both the technological and social features, in terms of infrastructure and organization, as well as the mentality that undergirds them. The setting is the village of Balgat, a bucolic country hamlet not far from Ankara. The inhabitants of the village are presented as being mostly of a rural peasant type: their lives are simple, and the governing principles of their society are those based on kinship and cooperation in the village (19-23).

The Grocer is different: he alone seems ‘worldly,’ a somewhat learned and shrewd man who does not share the attitudes and ideas that are common in the village (22-23). His mental powers are clearly better developed, evincing a superior education: out of everyone in the village, only he has no trouble entertaining such counterfactuals as what he would do if he was president of Turkey, or where he would want to live if not the village (24-25).

Four years later, many changes have come to Balgat: it is now a part of Ankara, and has mushroomed in size (35-37). Modernity has come to it, and even the aged chief seems able to accept it (37). All in all, this is a good look at the conceptual shifts induced by modernization: the ways in which it represents a mental break from pre-modern realities.

However, this should not detract from the trauma that modernization can entail. Huntington explains that urbanization in South Vietnam was driven by the refugee crisis caused by the Vietnam War (649-650). The war, he explains, has forced Vietnamese peasants to the cities, increasing the numbers of those under real South Vietnamese governmental control, but at the cost of tremendous human suffering (650).

Frank argues that many Latin American countries, Chile being a case in point, were actually integrated into global capitalist systems long ago: their underdevelopment, rather than evidence of insufficient incorporation, evinces integration on the metropolis-satellite pattern (6-7). Similarly, Brazil’s industrialization in the 20th century evinces a pattern of domestic colonization, whereby other areas of Brazil have been de-capitalized and further impoverished (8).

While this perspective on different types of modernization experience is needful, it is also worth noting, surely, that institutions matter: the institutional-political histories of Brazil and Chile differ not only from each other, but also from developed Western nations, in ways that quite arguably should be taken into account for making sense of their respective modernization experiences.

Here the findings of Wallerstein are of relevance, inasmuch as he critiques ‘stage’ theory: modernization will not be the same in every country, owing to particulars of economic, social and political development that differ between them (390-401). Still, as Wolf makes manifest, the concept of a world-system is very relevant in explaining the rise and development of capitalism: the actions and market demands of non-Western peoples must be taken into account as well (4-6).

Works Cited

Frank, Andre G. “The Development of Underdevelopment.” Monthly Review 18, no. 4 (September 1966): 17-31. Print.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Bases of Accommodation.” Foreign Affairs 46 (1968): 642-56. Print.

Lerner, Daniel. The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. The Free Press, 1958. Print.

Polanyi,  Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press, 1957. Print.

Rostow, W. W. The Stages of Economic Development: A Non-Communist Manifesto. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1971. Print.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 1-36, 132-37. Print.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. University of California Press, 1982. Print.


Image: John O’Connor, From Pentonville Road looking west evening (1884). Public domain.