Volker H. Schmidt on Global Modernity

Global-Modernity_-A-Conceptual-Sketch_book-coverThe Breakthrough of Global Modernity by Volker H. Schmidt

The past three decades or so have seen what arguably amounts to the greatest and most dramatic transformation in human history. During this phase, various critical thresholds have been surpassed as a result of which many of the hallmarks of modern development for the first time reached truly global proportions, shaping the lives of people around the world and turning what until then had been a minority phenomenon into a lived reality for the majority of the population. To make sense of this development, I propose the concept of global modernity. This concept bundles and systematizes, at a relatively high level of abstraction, changes that have been observed separately in much of the pertinent social science literature, including the literature on globalization, much of which has advanced our understanding of the contemporary social world considerably but at the same time lacks an integrative perspective. The concept of global modernity aims to provide precisely such a perspective, treating change as a highly complex, multi-dimensional, yet interrelated process that leaves no sphere of life untouched.

The paper proceeds as follows. In a first step, I will present data from several fields to illustrate what I mean by the breakthrough of (global) modernity. I will then briefly sketch the concept of global modernity as I use it. Finally, I will make two suggestions as to the likely consequences of this breakthrough.

On the empirical plane, let’s begin with the economy. The world of today is rich beyond the imagination of even the most farsighted 19th century observers, and much of this wealth is the product of what historians call “modern economic growth”, widely believed to have taken off around 1820. Following this take-off, the value of the world’s GDP increased by the equivalent of 22 trillion US$ until 1985. Nothing like this had ever happened before. But it is also nothing compared to what happened since then. For as early as 2010, only 25 years later, global GDP had risen by another 30 trillion dollars. A comparison with earlier stages of societal evolution can give us a sense of just how fundamental this change is. For instance, it is estimated that the economic growth in the three years from 1995 to 1998 is “greater than total growth in the 10,000 years before 1900” (Christian 2004: 446). Not surprisingly, this pattern also translates into higher incomes. Measured in constant dollars and using purchasing power parities (PPP), world average per capita incomes increased by US$ 5,000 between 1870 and 1980 (up from US$ 870 to US$ 5,949 per annum). That is a remarkable development. But then they shot up by an additional 3,500 dollars in the next three decades (to US$ 9,541 in 2009; cf. Eckes 2011). If we trust the CIA (2015), they now stand at $ 13,100, measured in 2013 dollars.

Economic growth is not an isolated phenomenon. It is accompanied by developments of similar scale in other spheres, some of which I will get to below. But let me first stay a little longer in the economic realm. As we all know, and as many of us deplore, the fruits of growth are very unevenly distributed. Were they more equally distributed, then far more people could benefit from them, and nobody would have to suffer poverty. In the pre-modern world, poverty was largely a production problem – the aggregate social product was simply too small to lift everyone above the poverty line, meaning that poverty was the “normal” expectation for most sections of the population. Today, poverty is a distribution problem; the resources needed to eradicate it are principally available. Given this background, the continuing existence of mass poverty is widely viewed as a scandal. Nonetheless, significant reductions in the relative population share of the global poor have in fact occurred over the course of the past 200 years. Using the one dollar per day consumption standard of the World Bank to determine absolute poverty, three quarters of our ancestors fell below that line as late as 1820, and with an estimated per capita income of US$ 651 annually, “the” average world “citizen” came in fact quite close to it (Firebaugh 2003: 13). 160 years later, in 1981, the majority of the world population (51 per cent) was still poor by the slightly more demanding US$ 1.25 per day standard that the World Bank uses today. In 2014, the figure was down to 22 per cent, or roughly 1.2 billion people (UNDP 2014: 19). That is still more than the entire world population of 200 years ago, estimated to have stood at one billion. But it also means that almost 80 per cent of people around the world have now escaped the most extreme forms of poverty, and while the numbers would be different, the trend would be the same if we raised the poverty line to a yet higher standard. The recent rise of a genuinely global middle class (see e.g. Kharas 2010) mirrors this trend.

Three quarters of the (remaining) poor live on the land. During the Neolithic Age, the overwhelming majority of humankind had been securing its livelihood through agriculture. This began to change with the Industrial Revolution, whose impact initially remained small even in Britain though, where it affected only a relatively small sector of the economy until far into the 19th century. As late as the 1930s and 1940s, the agricultural population still comprised up to 40 per cent in many of the world’s socio-economically most advanced locations, down from 60 to 90 per cent in the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution (Crone 1989). By the 1980s, it had been reduced to levels as low as three to five per cent. Thus, in a matter of roughly two hundred years, what determined the lives of humanity’s overwhelming majority for millennia, had virtually vanished from this part of the planet. In other regions, where it set in later, the decline of the peasantry was even more rapid. As late as 1950, 64 per cent of the global workforce was still engaged in farming. The ultimate shift toward a predominantly non-agricultural workforce took place after 1980, when the share of peasants first dropped below the 50 per cent mark (down from 52 to 47 per cent in 1990; FAO 2000: 18). Today, the sectoral composition of the global workforce is approaching a pattern which resembles that of the West several decades ago, with the largest group of employees (42.8 per cent ) working in services, only 34.5 per cent left in agriculture, and the remaining 22.7 per cent being industrial workers (CIA 2015).

A change that typically accompanies the decline of the peasantry is the rise of the city. Modern life, it is widely agreed, is urban life. But until recently, most of the world’s population lived in rural areas. That is no longer the case. Between 2007 and 2010, half the world’s population became urban for the first time. Cities have existed for millennia, but the distinctly modern process of urbanization was very gradual and uneven. In 1820, just 2.5 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants (Kumar 1999). By 1900, that figure had risen to 13 per cent (Economist, 3 May 2007) – a fivefold increase in eighty years, but in terms of its effects on humanity still a far cry from the developments following the Second World War. Thus, between 1950 and 1980, the world urban population grew by one billion, and even this increase pales in comparison with the most recent period, between 1980 and 2010, when this population grew by another 1.75 billion, finally surpassing the still sizeable rural population which is expected to shrink further in the coming decades (United Nations 2014).

Related to the above trends is a dramatic increase in global life expectancy, which currently stands at 68.35 years at birth (CIA 2015). This is very close to the 69 years that a person born in 1960 in a high-income country could expect, and it exceeds by more than 50 per cent the 41 to 45 year range typical of what comprised the socio-economically most advanced countries of Western Europe and North America in the late 19th century (Easterlin 2000; Eckes 2011). Indeed, even sub-Saharan Africa mostly reports life expectancies of 50 years and above now, with just a few countries hovering around the 45 years mark that leading Western countries had achieved by the turn to the 20th century (UNDP 2014).

Formal education is one of the key characteristics of modern development, yet mass inclusion of the global population is a recent phenomenon. In 1950, 53 per cent of adults aged 15 and over had experienced at least some schooling, but it took until the 1970s before the illiteracy level dropped below 50 per cent; today roughly 82 per cent of the world’s population can at least read and write. In 2010, almost all children of primary school age were enrolled, and 86 per cent of adults have had some formal education, with close to 50 per cent exposed to several years of secondary education as well. The average years of schooling rose from 3.17 to 7.76 in this period. The absolute numbers are more striking still, both by themselves and in terms of their implications for human capital formation. In 1960, there were about 150 million adults around the world who had completed at least secondary education, 80 million of whom lived in the developed world. Today, there are 1.24 billion, 940 million of whom are from developing countries (Barro and Lee 2010). Tertiary education shows an even steeper increase. In 1900, roughly 500,000 students were enrolled in higher education organizations worldwide, representing 1 per cent of college-age people. By 2000, the figure had grown two-hundredfold to 100 million, now representing about 20 per cent of the global cohort (Schofer and Meyer 2005). But while it took about a century to reach 100 million tertiary students, a mere decade after the millennium another 80 per cent increase had occurred, with 182 million students enrolled globally by 2011 (UNESCO 2014: 16).

In science, the picture is similar. The current academic revolution is much larger in scope and likely more consequential than the one that created the research university in the mid-19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, German universities, generally believed to have led the world of science at the time, had 2,667 academic staff between them (Cozzens 1997). By the end of 2011, this number had risen to 334,000, and the 42,600 strong corps of German professors alone (Statistisches Bundesamt 2012) several times exceeds the world’s entire academic workforce of a hundred years ago. Globally, the number of research scientists (excluding social sciences and humanities) increased from 5.2 million in 1997 to 7.2 million ten years later (UNESCO 2001, 2010). Even more dramatic is the surge in scientific output. It took science several centuries to reach a publication record of approximately half a million articles per year (450,000 in 1980). Then, in a matter of less than three decades, that figure skyrocketed to 1.5 million annually in 2009 (Science-Metrix 2009; Ware and Mabe 2009). Just six years later, in 2015, it had reached a staggering 2 million (Spiegel Online 2015) and at its current growth rate will double to 4 million in another decade (van Noorden 2014). Science’s exponential growth has been known since the pioneering work of Derek de Solla Price (1963). However, starting from a low base, initially even high growth rates did not make a big difference in the short run. They now do.

The list of changes does not end here. It could be extended by several important developments in the fields of technology (e.g. the rapid expansion of high-speed mass transportation and communication systems that have increased the mobility, connectivity and world awareness of billions of people enormously within a few decades), in the global economy (i.e. the reversal of a situation in which only a minority of the population lived under capitalist institutions to the present situation where this is true of the large majority in just two decades), in the political field (since 1992, more than half of all states have been ruled democratically for the first time), and so on.

Considered individually, each of these changes marks a dramatic change in the domain(s) of life and sector(s) of society they affect. Taken together, they amount to nothing short of a social revolution – the ultimate breakthrough of modernity on a global scale. Temporally, most of this revolution is concentrated in the latter part of the 20th century; spatially, it is concentrated in Asia, especially in East Asia, with South Asia “joining in” a little later, but by and large moving in the same direction. Substantial change is also underway in the Middle East and in Africa, even if the overall picture in these regions is as yet more mixed. And Latin America finds itself somewhere in between.

The breakthrough of global modernity is an event of seismic proportions whose significance the world has barely begun to understand. In sociology, it has thus far largely gone unnoticed. The concept of global modernity aims to shed light on the novel constellation brought about by this breakthrough, as well as on some of the consequences and challenges they present – practically as well as theoretically.

The phrase “global modernity” is not new, but mostly used in a loose, unsystematic fashion. My own conceptualization is rooted in Talcott Parsons’ distinction between the social system, the cultural system, the personality system, and the organismic system (or behavioral organism). Both the deductive mode of system-derivation and the substantive ways in which Parsons designates his systems must be viewed as obsolete and hence dispelled. Heuristically, the scheme is nonetheless useful, not least because its ability to capture modernity’s complexity is unmatched by any of the alternatives currently on offer in the social science literature.

Drawing on this scheme for mapping the field yields a four-dimensional concept of change, with modernization processes involving fundamental transformations in each dimension and all of them being interrelated. Graphically, this can be depicted as follows:


 In a nutshell, the following structural developments (discussed at greater length in a recent book; cf. Schmidt 2014) are believed to epitomize the modern condition:

  • Modernization of society (= one of several social systems): functional differentiation
  • Modernization of culture: rationalization; growth of reflexivity/understanding of the malleability of human affairs and environments; value generalization
  • Modernization of the person: emergence of activist, multiple and reflexive selves; increasing individuation; enhanced cognitive capacities
  • Modernization of the organism: disciplining and perfecting of the human body

The scheme’s purpose is to sketch an analytic framework that demarcates the range of phenomena which must be minimally taken into account if we are to arrive at a meaningful understanding of (global) modernity. Its usefulness must ultimately prove itself empirically. The underlying assumption is that the patterns deemed structural characteristics of the modern are not confined to any particular location. Instead, they reflect universal developments that materialize wherever modern arrangements take root. They can do that to different degrees in different dimensions, in different forms, and in different combinations of the various elements. But total absence of any of these elements would refute the scheme’s validity.

As I have tried to show, the global breakthrough of modernity is a fairly recent incident. This sheds a critical light on terms such as “late”, “high”, or “post” modernity which have been spooking about in European and North American gazettes for some time now. For taking a global perspective and using customary indicators of progression toward modernity, it would seem only a slight exaggeration to say the transition to modernity is still in its infancy. The world from the late 1970s onward, when these discourses were gaining traction, was indeed moving toward a new condition, but rather than entering a postmodern age, it was becoming increasingly post-Western, because one of the consequences of the breakthrough of global modernity is that it brings to a close several centuries of Western dominance and supremacy. It represents thus a world-historical turning point: the transition from a westcentric to a polycentric modernity wherein the West ceases to be the single most important driver and model of modernization and is reduced to one of several players, no longer able to determine the rules of the game and the parameters of change for all.

A second, related consequence of this breakthrough is that it requires us to expand our observational horizons when theorizing about the features, as well as speculating about the future, of modernity. Restricting myself to the latter for the moment, consider the following. In a book subtitled “Social Theory for the 21st Century”, Ralph Schroeder (2013) proclaims an “Age of Limits” which he argues succeeds the “Age of Extremes” that Eric Hobsbawm (1994) has dubbed the 20th century. Schroeder makes a strong case for his thesis, so it should not be dismissed lightheartedly. Still, adopting the prism of a global sociology (that I am also advocating in the above book) raises some doubts. For the picture that emerges from Schroeder’s account, while arguably reflecting a “spirit of the time” widely shared amongst contemporary Western intellectuals, barely captures the dynamism of (much of) the non-Western world. Using this dynamism as our point of departure, the scenario for the 21st century, and so also the contours of a social theory that has the capacity to make sense of it, would likely take a different shape. Rather than assuming an age of limits to succeed Hobsbawm’s age of extremes, one would then expect even more “extremity”; extremity, indeed, on a wholly different scale.

Why so? In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels (1967: 85) wrote that the one hundred years leading up to the middle of the 19th century had brought about more fundamental change, and had unleashed “more colossal productive forces”, than all preceding history combined. This is a bold, though not necessarily wrong assessment. However, by the standards of the 20th century, about which Hobsbawm (1994: 288) says more or less the same – it experienced, in his words, the “greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation” ever –, Marx and Engels had not actually seen very much. Hobsbawm’s own account ends in 1991 – just ten years into the latest phase of modern change that I am covering here. And if what happened in the early decades of this new phase of a thoroughly globalized modernity suggests anything for the future, then we too may not have seen all that much yet. For the transformation potential of global modernity is far greater than that of the 19th and 20th centuries’ phases of pre-global modernity, during which the reach of modern arrangements was much more limited than today.

This is not the place for a whole scale defense of this claim. I restrict myself to a few supporting notes. During a conversation we had in August 2014, political scientist Jing Huang suggested the following figures as rough indicators of the degree to which the modern revolution had penetrated and mobilized the human population at different points in time: 40 million people in 1850; 400 million people in 1950; and 4 billion people today. With the world population standing at 1.2 billion in 1850, 40 million people represented less than 4 per cent of the total. By 1950, this total had grown to 2.5 billion, so the tenfold increase in the number of people now included in the modern system reflected a share of approximately one fifth of the world population. This share increases to almost two thirds of today’s 7 billion strong world population if indeed some 4 billion people now have their lives fundamentally shaped by modern arrangements.

Assuming these figures are at least broadly accurate, and further assuming that it is not completely off the mark to call the transformations of the 19th century as revolutionary as Hobsbawm rightly calls those of the 20th century, then consider again the productive and, as we should add, destructive forces that had been unleashed by the mobilization of a mere 40 million people around 1850 and compare that with what today’s 4 billion “moderns” can do at far more advanced levels of socio-economic, technological, institutional, organizational development, bringing to bear the greatly enhanced productivity of their labor power, their much higher cognitive competence and an enormously expanded stock of knowledge on the natural and social worlds, the latter of which, moreover, exhibits unprecedented levels of competition coupled with an endless stream of skillfully engineered demand for novelty.

We may well reach various limits in the 21st century. But it would seem to be highly unlikely that these limits will anytime soon bring to a halt an expansionism built into the very structure of a still emerging world society. For who is going to stop it?

Volker H Schmidt is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. His book Global Modernity: A Conceptual Sketch was published in 2014.


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*** Ralph Schroeder has since responded to this article: http://theoryculturesociety.org/ralph-schroeder-responds-to-to-volker-h-schmidt/


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