• peterwerff

Should we fear postmodernity?

Although the word 'postmodernity' is not commonly known, the process it describes is increasingly encountered and installs fear in many of us. That fear is partly justified because some basic certainties are dissolving. We can, however, reduce our fear if we better understand what is going on and act accordingly. WHAT IS IT?

Postmodernity, then, means the undermining of stable family settings, regular media, permanently settled companies, permanent predictable markets, including sales offers by companies, reliable banks, the unrestrained provision of social welfare and health care arrangements, and the permanency of universities, trade unions, religious organizations, political parties and elections. Social structures become disposable toys at the hands of the powerful. Other postmodern processes, you may recognize them, are deregulation, economic privatization, economic liberalization, flexibilization of labor, mergers, alienated buying and selling of companies, belief in once-and-for-all technological solutions and infrastructures, fragmentation of social structures, lose integration into new structures, rapid change, here-and-nowism, the belief in unpredictability, chaos theory, secularization and the rise of spirituality. Countries lose their clear demarcation with the growth of cross-border economic production lines, financial transactions, information, entertainment, migrants, tourists and business people. National armies, identifiable by their generals and uniforms, transform into disguised guerrilla bands, drone technology units, hired private armies, combat units of secret services and commercial bodyguard companies. The video clip, with its fragmentation and rapid change of images, exemplifies postmodernity. Contributors to postmodernity are found in business and finance but also among IT pioneers, governments and armies trying to escape from exposure, children escaping from family control and migrants escaping from village control or moving to richer countries. All such changes do not occur in isolation. They are mutually influencing sub-trends, together constituting the overall trend that is called postmodernity.

THE DISQUIET The disquiet and fear in many of us follows from quite realistic observations: the growth of prosperity comes to a halt or the gap between rich and poor increases. And, on balance, the physical environment is losing out. The material stagnation or deterioration is in contrast with rising expectations, also generated by to postmodernity, about more income and technological improvements. The disappointments or frustrations are not always easy to swallow. Moreover, in most parts of the world there is a loss of stable social structures, while larger-scale connections get beyond our routine understanding let alone our control. A deep sense of insecurity or trust is the result. In addition, the public exposure of hitherto vague suspicions about tendentious operations by advertisers, politicians, bankers, secret services, armies, regular media, construction companies and lobbyists around governments brings the sharp awareness that betrayal is rampant. But is the world only caught in a downward, lawless spiral? No, no. Look at some other facts. Diseases are more prevented than ever. Less babies die. Old people live longer. Less people get killed in warfare or other violence. Prosperity grows for most people and the percentage of people below the poverty line gets lower. And public exposure of hitherto tendentious operations does not mean such operations are new. No, they have existed all along and the publicity in itself does not make those practices worse than they were. NEGATIVE REACTIONS Not only the contributors to change but also the people reacting to the change can be seen as part of postmodernity. Among them, feelings of a nearing catastrophe are on the rise. Feelings of bewilderment surface. For many people dealing with an abstract idea such as a trend is beyond reach. Planning to resist immensely powerful companies, governments and armies is also felt to be pointless. One way out for the fearful is the building of imaginary walls against the outside world. Retreat in small-scale life and diving into family histories or the local past can be negative if fostering unrealistic beliefs about connections with the wider world or future scenarios. Another way out is to identify less powerful people and turn them into scapegoats, including immigrants. A truly dangerous reaction to postmodern uncertainties is the following of ultra-rightwing politicians. These leaders further inflate xenophobic fear and antagonism between communities with tribal, religious or territorial loyalties. Rather than redressing the effects, they exploit the effects of postmodernity for personal gain, be it in India, the US, West Asia or Europe. Leftist leaders largely fail in organizing communities on the basis of class loyalty. This is all the more remarkable in the face of stagnating or declining incomes, with the rise of prices, and the growing gap between rich and poor. For the moment, postmodernity is just too pervasive to allow mass uprisings in whatever new forms. The physical environment is losing out. POSITIVE REACTIONS Financers have developed the practice of ‘impact investment’, supporting initiatives that not only aim at financial profit but also at positive impacts on society or the physical environment. In going against some effects of postmodernity, Alternative lifestyles are practiced or advertised. Realistic local, small-scale and bottom-up initiatives abound, including to become more conscious consumers. The Internet not only reveals scandals but also provides solutions for better physical and emotional health, and opportunities for improving social life and the physical environment. Social networks in neighborhoods arise. Single issue organizations replace outdated political parties. Spiritual movements and organizations compensate for secularization. LEARN FLYING Many of us learn, willy-nilly or not, to adjust to rapid change, acquire flexibility, develop short spans of attention, shield ourselves off from an overdose of information and trust ourselves and personal networks. Some learn more easily than others. But school education may prepare all children for living in the postmodern world. Learning to handle freedom, anyway, becomes paramount. Learn to enjoy it. Learn to grow in it. Learn how to swim in deep water. Breathe in and out and be happy with the new life. Get used to parachute jumping without landing. Take a course in skydiving. Learn two speak another language as if it is your native tongue. Learn to use the other hand than your usual one. Learn to learn.  Learn to depend less on outer certainties. Learn to reinforce inner life so that you can better deal with outer uncertainties.  Relieve yourself of being self-convinced. Your survival needs you to loosen your restricted senses. Learn to be alert. The old jungle genes are patiently waiting to be re-mobilized into situational awareness again. Teach your children and grandchildren to survive in a postmodern world. PLAN TO RESIST? You plan to resist the worldwide upcoming trend? You will chain yourself to a large rock? The rock will explode or disappear in the abyss. You will plant your boots solidly on the ground? A storm will rise from the earth and blow you high up in the sky. What, then, is the use of boots? Will you cling to the biggest oak tree in order to survive the tsunami? Forget it. The oak tree will evaporate or lift itself up in the air and open a parachute only for itself.  Are you organizing a new social group to live on an island? The tsunami will make you all swim in the ocean. BOOKS Toulmin, S. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990 Harvey, D. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989

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