For a word being thrown around so casually these days, one may wonder what exactly modernity means. It’s certainly everything we might initially assume it is. But let’s tease that apart. It’s been defined as a historical period that could have started as far back as Medieval times. Sometimes it’s regarded as the light arising from the Enlightenment, or even beginning sometime in the 19th century with the industrial revolution.
The most inclusive definition associates modernity with a number of historical developments: nations, languages, industrialization, mercantilism, capitalism, urbanization, mass literacy, mass media, representative government and mainly also a shift from traditional culture, meaning a proliferation of things we do when we’re not entirely focused on survival, and systems of knowledge, to the triumph of rationalism and scientific materialism. One may include a number of positive aspects to modernity such as secular culture, evolutionary thinking, developments in psychology, medicine, philosophy and emancipation. But especially now, we can’t avoid also associating environmental devastation with modernity, which is now undermining the very stability of culture and modernity itself.
A formal definition of modernity, according to Walter Mignolo’s substantial body of work on the subject, should begin with the Renaissance, coinciding with the intention of Western Europe to embark on the imperial project which had several faces and which was rationalized as bringing civilization to the New World, saving the world for Christianity and which then evolved into what we now call capitalism.
However we paint it, Modernity is synonymous with colonialism and thus, racism is inherent to it. Could the modern world look as it does today with the current economic regimes as if no imperial intentions had ever existed, no massive transport of black bodies from Africa to North and South America, no East India Company, no appropriation of native lands, forced and unpaid labor, the imposition of governance and financial obligations? I think not.
Thus, hidden behind the rhetoric of modernity, economic practices dispensed with human lives, and knowledge justified racism and the inferiority of human lives that were naturally considered dispensable.
—The Darker Side of Western Modenity
Dark bodies weren’t granted full humanity. And white bodies rationalized their moral responsibility as social systems, spiritual practices or bodies of knowledge were systematically destroyed. We continue to feel the effects of the colonial mentality 500 years later not only through globalization and neoliberal economics but through the definition of development itself and the division of the world into so-called developed and less developed cultures. The term ‘Third World’ was a French invention.
Colonialism did not advance solely as a mercantile or as an imperial military adventure. It was a religious and cultural force propagated through the cracking of indigenous linguistic code, the imposition of new languages, geographical mapping, religious indoctrination, economic subjugation, wiping out cultural memory, arbitrarily defining territories according to political or economic expediency, destroying centuries of cultural wealth, appropriating land and vast material wealth, creating a domestic class of proxy colonialists who benefited directly from the economic subjugation of their brethren and generating entrenched bureaucracies to sustain the inertia of political systems primarily serving colonial interests.
Colonialism emerged from and as what we know as western civilization, ultimately defining modernity in terms of politics, economics, religion and culture. The imperial project was to extend the definitions of civilization, language, philosophy, politics and economics to the colonized world. That initially included Latin America and Africa, extending into the Islamic world and South Asia. The definition of development itself was determined by the western colonial enterprise and persists to this day as defined by Wall street, the IMF & the World Bank. It’s primary purveyors are government agencies and diplomacy, clearing the way for multinational corporations backed, in case additional persuasion becomes necessary, by military might. Even as the overt manifestations of European imperialism dissolved in the mid-20th century, the American imperial project in the Western Hemisphere over the past 150 years is well known
Perhaps the greatest impact of colonialism was to control knowledge and especially the definition of knowledge. The definition of knowledge codifies the essential power relations between races, genders and cultures and became encoded in languages, beginning with Spanish, Portuguese, German and French, all rooted in Latin, extending more recently in English. Since knowledge and its definition is held primarily in western hands over the past few centuries, the way we think about problems and their solutions also arises from within that codification.
In that respect, the rhetoric of modernity is a pernicious monoculture of ideas to the extent that now modernity has become hostile to culture. Like the cannibalistic psychosis of Wetiko, it creeps into all aspects of life in the form of social media, advertising, mainstream political discourse. Modernity constantly encroaches upon and threatens to consume decolonial thinking, diversity, extremity, classifying certain people as outlaws, certain thoughts as unsanctioned and presuming to define normality, centrism and the norms of authentic self-expression. This is modernity cannibalizing itself to sanitize culture for the sake of preserving its own ever-narrowing definition.
We are also in the midst of an uprising over who gets to set the terms of discourse, who gets to define and preserve the codification of white innocence, superiority and patriarchal economic hegemony into the political and economic rhetoric set forth over the centuries of the colonial enterprise. The latest skirmish in this ongoing war is about the 1619 Project, which, by unearthing real history and bringing its unsavory truths to the forefront of modern awareness, lays bare the principle that white privilege only lives by keeping its own past buried.
White patriarchy has had the floor for 500 years and now the plantation systems are breaking down everywhere. There are popular movements with a different idea rising in virtually every culture now fighting for survival and presenting a rising threat to the owners and guards of the prison without walls and the prisons with walls. Repression and authoritarianism are the last remaining tools of control. Witness the right-wing backlash against Bolivia’s Evo Moralies, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the rise of Bolsonaro and the jailing of Lulo De Silva in Brazil, not to mention the increasingly desperate and increasingly lawless measures by the white minority in America to retain minority rule.
What was taken centuries ago cannot be recovered. Inasmuch as we identify with and join the shifting communities of rebellion, art, theater, feminism, resurgent indigenous voices, economic cooperation, the recovery of ancient wisdom, we become fugitives from the plantation to construct a new economy. As decoloniality and the critique of modernity becomes more elaborate and encompassing, it is increasingly clear that we will no longer accept the structures of domination on any level of human activity and relationships, most particularly in regard to the natural world.
The signs of backlash are everywhere. Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure by the University of North Carolina School of Journalism. Republicans voting en bloc against a Black women becoming Director of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The refusal of Big Pharma to support generic vaccines being distributed to less affluent countries. The sudden reversal of the NFL to now regard the claims of neurological damage by black former players as equal to those of white players. How much more systemic can you get? These are actions and perspectives which all arise from and reveal the vestiges of the racist colonial mindset.