Ralph Schroeder responds to to Volker H. Schmidt

Age of Limits- Social Theory for the 21st CenturyA response to Volker H. Schmidt’s ‘Breakthrough of Global Modernity’


Ralph Schroeder

In his Thinkpiece ‘Breakthrough of Global Modernity’, Volker Schmidt summarizes some of the arguments of his book ‘Global Modernity: A Conceptual Sketch’ (2014) and extends it by discussing the rapid economic growth that can be expected in Asia, and especially in China and India. I agree with much of what he says about the transformative nature of modernity, but he also distinguishes his position from others, and singles out my book ‘Age of Limits: Social Theory for the 21st Century’ (2013) for criticism when he says that it ‘barely captures the dynamism of (much of) the non-Western world’.

This misrepresents my position. In the book, I compare four countries, two developed (the United States and Sweden) and two developing (China and India), though the arguments potentially applies more widely. The United States and Sweden and other developed market democracies face constraints on economic growth insofar as they are committed to expenditures on social rights but without being able to raise significantly higher taxes because their voters won’t allow it. The United States in particular is also subject to the instabilities of financial markets. But these limits to economic growth (and possibilities for further democratization via the extension of social rights) do not apply in the same way to India and China, and I say this (2013: 190-91). What does apply to all four countries, and indeed to the whole globe, is a further limit that will constrain high levels of economic growth, and especially the rapid rates experienced by China and India, which is that they are not sustainable vis-à-vis the environment, albeit on an indefinite time horizon: they are incompatible with how physical resources are being transformed in the service of economies oriented to high consumption (which are still at a relatively low level in India and China) and which will affect the stability of the planet’s climate.

So when Schmidt concludes his essay optimistically by asking ‘Who is going to stop it’, referring to how the spread of economic growth across the world is leading to profound and global modernizing changes, then I would reply that there will be limits to growth: growth cannot continue by the means of how the environment is currently being transformed, although I agree that it is not yet clear how a ’stop’ will be imposed, even it is clear that some kind of stop – or limit – is inevitable. The problem with functionalist schemas like Schmidt’s is that they overlook growing tensions and conflicts. These include not just the tension between high levels of growth and the environment, but also, for example, the political tensions brought about by growing inequality in India and China. Functionalists also cannot recognize the growing tensions over the extension of political rights (in China, or indeed in Singapore, Schmidt’s academic home) and of social rights (in both China and India). And the lack of further extensions of social rights, and their partial retrogression in the United States, is also a source of ongoing political conflict in advanced liberal democracies. Ultimately, a key difference between functionalist theories like Schmidt’s and non- functionalist macro-sociologies such as those of Ernest Gellner (1988), Michael Mann (2013) and Randall Collins (2013) and my own (2013) is that functionalists privilege the economy and culture, overlooking the cages of different kinds of nation-states and the geopolitics outside them.

To take one example: in geopolitics, Schmidt talks of an emerging ‘polycentrism’. But among the potential instabilities and conflicts on the path to more centres of power there is a major and potentially dangerous asymmetry, which is that a single military power will continue to be dominant for the foreseeable future – even as other parts of the world become rival economic powers without having the military power anywhere close to that of the United States (as Mann 2013 points out). Functionalists also, finally, overlook that technoscience is separate from culture, which is one reason why there are bound to be conflicts over how technoscience is used to transform the environment, unless consumption is curbed drastically (unlikely) or the state is able to direct technoscience in the direction of a more sustainable exploitation of resources (Mathews [2014] argues that only certain states, such as China, are able to do this). I agree with Schmidt that social science leaves much to be desired in understanding globalization and modernity, but there are alternatives to functionalism in understanding (at least some) globalizing forces.

Ralph Schroeder is Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute. He has interests in virtual environments, social aspects of e-Science, sociology of science and technology, and has written extensively about virtual reality technology. His co-authored book Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities was recently published by MIT Press.


Collins, R (2013) ‘The End of Middle Class Work: No More Escapes.’, in Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism have a Future?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 37-69.

Gellner, E (1988) Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History. London: Collins Harvill.

Mann, M (2013) The Sources of Social Power, vol.4: Globalizations, 1945-2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mathews, J (2014) Greening of Capitalism: How Asia is Driving the New Great Transformation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Schmidt, V (2014) Global Modernity: A Conceptual Sketch. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot.

Schroeder, R (2013) An Age of Limits: Social Theory for the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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