Tireless and emotional

European Modernity and Beyond
May 10, 1996

Goran Therborn is a Swedish sociologist, a middle-aged, post-Protestant workaholic (he tells us), one of the generation of 1968, for whom 1968 is still a beacon of hope and not merely a plea of mitigation, a veteran of class wars and culture wars and the New Left Review, bloodied but unbowed - and unapologetic - a citizen-scholar of the world, a prodigious linguist, a new man and an old lefty, his idiom and his ideology marching together in a triumphant display of progressivist solidarity towards the lumpen clarion conclusion of his book: "The times may have a-changed. But on the barricades of autonomy and maturity (Kant's Mundigkeit), of enlightenment and emancipation, of universalistic humaneness, the wheat of intellectuals and social activists are separated from the chaff. Modernity is under siege, or being abandoned. However, there are quite a few of us who think that it, albeit not necessarily the classical European variety, is still worth fighting for."

Modernity, for Therborn, is defined culturally, as "an epoch turned to the future, conceived as likely to be different from and possibly better than the present and the past". On this analysis modernity ends, and postmodernity creeps in, "when words like progress, advance, development, emancipation, enlightenment, embetterment [sic], avant-garde, lose their attraction and their function as guides to social action" - which is precisely what Therborn believes may be going on at this historical moment.

Future aesthetics, future economics (and what one might call ecologics), and future politics - especially of the socialist variety - have all been challenged, and in some instances (apparently) overthrown. "Something Big has happened," as Chris Brown has written, "and happened for reasons that are equally Big." It is Goran Therborn's self-appointment task to weigh and assay What.

He does this chiefly by means of a sustained commentary on a fascinating array of socio-cultural data, conveniently presented in 74 tables -including for example "Book translations by country of publication", "Patterns of (ir)religiosity in the 1990s", "World views on parenting", "Nobel prizes in science and economics, 1901-1993", "(Un)happiness in the world", and "The extension of civil society, 1990-1991" - much of it drawn from the World Values Survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, some hitherto unpublished, some already available in the work of Ronald Inglehart, notably Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1990).

This commentary is individual and illuminating, if periodically congested, and enlivened by occasional drollery. "Adolf Hitler is very much part of postwar European cultural history, although he took his life among the ruins of Berlin on April 30 1945, in a late, exceptional moment of good taste."

His final assessment is subdued. On the eve of the 21st century, Europe is no longer the centre of the vanguard of modernity, as it once indisputably was, and may never be again. As Therborn puts it, this sceptical continent has a changed location in the world. Europeans are a small minority of humankind (about one-eighth of the world's population), acutely conscious of their glorious past, unhappily oblivious of their modest future. Hence his call to arms.

Theodore Zeldin's Intimate History of Humanity (1994) suggests itself as the perfect companion to European Modernity and Beyond. The former is not so much a social as an emotional history, the latter a kind of emotional sociology in historical perspective. Like Zeldin's, Therborn's work is surprisingly Francophile, and perhaps overly Francocentric; like Zeldin's, it is deeply (though less overtly) personal, and consciously inspirational; like Zeldin's, its concern is with human happiness.

But Zeldin, by contrast, is positively euphoric. He sees humanity as a family that has hardly met. For him, the meeting of people, bodies, thoughts, emotions and actions is the start of change. Thus the astonishing: "The age of discovery has barely begun. So far individuals have spent more time trying to understand themselves than discovering others. But now curiosity is expanding as never before. Even those who have never set foot outside the land of their birth are, in their imaginations, perpetual migrants. To know someone in every country in the world, and someone in every walk of life, may soon be the minimum demand of people who want to experience fully what it means to be alive. The gossamer world of intimate relations is in varying degrees separate from the territorial world in which people are identified by where they live and work, by whom they have to obey, by their passports or bank balances . . . Today, hope is sustained above all by the prospect of meeting new people."

Left-leaning English professor of international relations wishes to meet Swedish professor of sociology, GSOH, similarly inclined. Only Goran Therborn need apply.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

European Modernity and Beyond: The Trajectory of European Societies, 1945-2000

Author - Goran Therborn
ISBN - 0 8039 8934 2 and 8935 0
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 416

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