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Modernity: What does it mean for Current Society?
Modernity is defined as the quality or state of being current or present. Some scholars argue that as time goes on, more powerful governments have increasing control of the individual life. However, in current society, most governments are of a democratic nature, compared to the monarchial or totalitarian governments that were common at the start and occasionally throughout the modern era. This type of government gives the individual a mind of his own, and the freedom to fight for his rights. Hence, the governmental control of individual life has, in fact, decreased over time, because the individual has a say in political affairs.
The only edge that governments today have over the individual is the new, advanced technology that has evolved ever since the Industrial Revolution. Governments can listen in on phone conversations, or read a person’s personal emails. However, most of these actions are the effort to catch wanted criminals on the loose by hearing their conversations and tracking down their location. For the most part, technology has only improved lives for the individual and for the tasks at hand in government.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, governments were mainly absolutist monarchies, or states ruled by one king. In Europe, these monarchs ruled by the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, which says that kings derive from God, and are God’s lieutenants on Earth. In these states, the king was the only one permitted to form policies. In France, ruler Louis XIV declared himself the ‘Sun King,’ because he felt France should revolve around him as planets do around the sun. Absolutism was also found in Russia at this time. In all of these nations, the people had no say in what went on in government. In Russia, for example, tsar Peter I, in effort to westernize the country, forced the people to dress in traditional Western clothing and use a Western calendar, despite discontent with this demand. As put by Thomas Hobbes in 1651, teacher to British King Charles the II, the people of these nations gave up their right of autonomy for the greater commonwealth, and left the state to the ‘leviathan’, or monarch who had total control (The Leviathan: Political Order and Political Theory).
In monarchial states, citizens truly had no reason to think for themselves. The government dictated economic and military policies, and essentially determined the culture of the state, just as Peter did in Russia. However, this all began to change in the late 18th century, when scientists started using reason to conceptualize the world, as opposed to religion. This age is called the Scientific Revolution, and this new behavior brought about a different way of thinking.Philosophers, too, used reason to understand the natural laws of the world. Called the Enlightenment, thinkers in this period developed theories about the world that changed the way the individual thought of his place in society. For example, philosopher Immanuel Kant says, “Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” (“What Is Enlightenment?”). Kant informs the literate population of the power of thought and reason, and says not to simply follow the media, or the Church. Another Enlightenment thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft, argues for the right of education for women in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Many of the new notions from the Enlightenment gave people ideas of popular sovereignty, such as in the argument of philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau in “The Social Contract.” The Enlightenment left people questioning the very foundations on which they lived their lives.
The Enlightenment left particularly strong mark on the French people, and had them questioning the foundations of the their government, leading to a critical revolution. Before the revolution, France still relied on systems dating back to the Middle Ages, or the L’Ancien Regime. In this system, the third ‘estate’ of commoners had essentially no privileges, while the first and second estates of the clergy and nobility had many. Even though the third estate was the poor majority of the population, the nobility still had the privileges of landholding, light taxes and equal rights. The clergy was not even forcibly taxed. L’Ancien Regime no longer reflected social and political realities. Emerging in France were intra-estate divisions, which complicated the order of the state. In addition, the nobles’ feudal rights no longer held the same purpose they held in the Middle Ages—the centralized state had taken over the job of protecting vassals. Being exposed to liberal ideologies through newspapers and the liberal urban setting, city dwellers picked up on the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Throughout the French Revolution, the general public took the government situation into their own hands. Commoners believed they deserved “steady work and enough bread at fair prices”. After rumors that the king’s troops would plunder the city, on July 14th 1789, hundreds of people marched to the Bastille to obtain their own gunpowder. The public won the battle against the governor of the prison, and the people achieved their goal of bringing back the recently dismissed liberal minister of finance, who had their interests in mind.
The third estate, now called the National Assembly, issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which promised “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”. Even more revolutionary, the declaration says, “…all citizens have the right to concur personally or through their representatives…Free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of mankind…” This change demonstrates the huge difference between people living in tsarist Russia or monarchial England. The individual is granted the right to express political thoughts, and given a sanctuary to talk about grievances. A citizen under Peter I would definitely envy a French commoner. Although France in 1791 returned to a monarchial state, the ideas of the Enlightenment were vivid throughout Europe. The public had rebelled against the Sun King; what would stop them now from revolting again?
Other countries heard of the French Revolution, and people started taking similar steps in their nations. For example, in the 19th century Haitian revolution led by Toussaint Louverture, enslaved peoples were organized into massive armies that threatened the mother country, France. In 1801 Louverture gained a constitution that “granted equality and citizenship to all residents of Saint-Domingue. Louverture’s revolution truly demonstrates the power of an oppressed people to gain back civil liberties that were taken from them, and shows the unquestionable ability of a people to fight for freedoms.
In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline and could “no longer ward off European economic penetration or prevent territorial dismemberment”. Until complete termination of the empire at the end of World War I, subject peoples formed groups and proposed reforms to help save the vast empire. One group, called the Tanzimats, which means ‘reorganization’, sought to reform the legal and education systems. Tanzimat reformers attempted to move the Ottoman legal code away from the laws of religion, while still keeping with Islamic customs. They introduced an extensive education program, providing free schooling at the primary levels.
Although unsuccessful due to the many religious conservatives in the multiethnic empire, the Tanzimat era is the perfect antithesis to the arguments scholars make that “modernity is really the increasing control of individual life by ever more powerful governments". The word powerful implies that governments are overbearing, intervening in daily routines. The antithesis of this would mean a government open to individual opinion, guided by the wants of the people. This is truly the more powerful government, for it controls a morally guided state with content beings. Tanzimat rule ended because not all were satisfied, but this does not mean the regime was unsuccessful in its mission and achievements.
It is untrue to assert that with time comes increasing government intervention of individual lives. As time goes on, civilizations have evolved to conform to the needs of the people. However, sometimes the needs of the people might call for a government other than democracy. For example, in the 20th century, fascism, essentially dictatorship, seemed appealing to Italians. After World War I, economic turmoil and social discontent combined with a fear of socialism (the movement in the Soviet Union, another example of government other than democracy) made fascism a promising choice of government. With Benito Mussolini as the Il Duce (dictator), the state promised that Italy would regain its former glory through conquest and war.
Fascism also drew the attention of Germans. In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power through legal means, and turned Germany into a dictatorship. Hitler, too, promised Germans that he would rid of the shame cast upon them by embarrassing treaties of post-World War I. He also gave Germans a scapegoat—the Jews, whom he calls the parasites of Germany, and says are inferior and evil: “…the Jew is taken as the personification of the devil and the symbol of evil” (Mein Kampf). At the time, the Germans were thrilled that their former glory would be restored, and that economic suffering would end. Undoubtedly, Hitler was arguably the most evil man on Earth, who in World War Two made it his mission to exterminate the Jews. After millions died in the genocide of World War Two, the Allied powers tried the Nazi Party and others at Nuremberg, and formed the United Nations, “the organization dedicated to keeping world peace”. The U.N. is still the peace-promoting organization today—there has not been a world war since.
Throughout world history in the modern era, the common man fought for his deserving civil liberties. By the 19th century, many vast empires were declining due to their more economically and technologically advanced Western counterparts, who had a particular upper hand in trade. In the end, all empires were dissolved, and made way for democracy. Although fascism and socialism were rampant in the 20th century by a select few countries, those regimes were originally supported by the individual man, fighting for his rights to economic stability and security. Those regimes have since been terminated in place of more peaceful systems, in which all individuals can take part. In democracies, the individual is given the right to protest for his justices and beliefs. President Woodrow Wilson, in his Fourteen Points, wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” and called autocracies the “natural foe to liberty” (Woodrow Wilson: War Message) Today’s modern democracies offer the individual freedom of speech, press and assembly. Modernity truly means the increasing rights of the individual—not increasing control.