Critical modernism forms a very small, rather dated trickle of ideas within development studies. How could it be updated to serve as a lens for current research?
Critical modernism can be understood as a wide sweep of ideas, particularly encompassing thinkers such as Habermas and Gramsci. But it has only a small explicit footprint within development studies largely triggered by a chapter in Peet & Hartwick’s book Theories of Development, published in 1999. Itself developed from earlier work, this was particularly a response to “post-development” ideas that arose in the 1980s.
Despite subsequent editions of Theories of Development, the core text on critical modernism by Peet & Hartwick remains unchanged, and the specific notion has gained little overt traction in development literature:
– A few works by Giles Mohan and collaborators in the mid-2000s.
– A recent paper taking a critical modernist perspective on rights-based development.
– Mark Thompson’s paper which included the question of how Development 2.0 would inform the “debate” on critical modernism within development studies.
Unfortunately there wasn’t really a debate, but we can revisit the question, to ask if critical modernism is worth rescuing from its development studies obscurity.
As a start, what is critical modernism?
As the name suggests, it is critical; meaning that – drawing from Marxist political economy – it focuses on the structures of power that shape the processes and outcomes of development. Practically, it seeks to alter distributions of power in order to improve development outcomes. Methodologically, it listens to subaltern voices: the voices of those who are excluded and marginalised; whose basic needs have yet to be met. But it differs from structuralist critical theory through two additions. First, an incorporation of post-structuralism that acknowledges – alongside the power of resources, institutions and structural relations – the power of discourse and ideas: the power of control over systems of knowledge (see diagram below). Second, an incorporation of analytical lenses other than just class; for example a feminist lens that recognises patriarchal structures of power.
As the name also suggests, it is modernist: meaning that it accepts (albeit “critically”) and is optimistic about Enlightenment values. Teleologically, this means critical modernism accepts the idea of development, with a purpose of progress and alleviation of material want. Methodologically, this means an adherence to scientific method, to evidence-based conclusions, and to theorisation. But it differs from simple modernism in two ways. First, because it critiques modernism; not the substance of modernism but its current form as reflected in late-stage capitalism. Second, because it recognise multiple modernities, as modernism interacts with multiple different localities and their contexts around the world.
From here, I suggest four developments of critical modernism, perhaps increasingly contentious:
a) Ontological development: it is an easy step to aver that critical modernism is commensurate with the research philosophy of critical realism. Hence that epistemological and methodological implications of critical realism apply when researching from a critical modernist perspective.
b) Conceptual development: listening to subaltern voices and incorporating the voluntarism of populist critiques of development means critical modernism recognises the agency of the marginalised – the ability of social movements to effect change, and the ability of the marginalised to use the tools (ideas, technologies, discourse) of the powerful to empower themselves. Hence a denial of structural determinism; instead arguing that structures of power shape but do not determine development outcomes. This requires a re-conceptualisation of power that incorporates both structural power (e.g. power over) and agentic power (e.g. power to); and which identifies power as deriving not from a monolithic structure but from multiple sources, both global and local. Network theories of power may be especially relevant here; for example incorporating the connective power and agency that comes from membership of multiple and multi-scalar networks. In practice, this means seeking universals and commonalities to link within a wider-scale network those local networks (movements and institutions) seeking to empower those at the margins.
c) Methodological development: “Critical modernism listens to what people have to say … Critical modernism finds worth in all experiences”. If we are to take this seriously then it must include listening not just to the marginalised but also those within institutions of power. Critical researchers sometimes fail on this score; standing outside such an institution and painting a caricature that does not engage with, or listen to, its members. This listening is itself universally critical: not unquestioningly believing all that is said by either the powerful or the powerless.
d) Critical development: as noted above, a central tenet of critical modernism is a “blame the player not the game” approach – “Critical modernism focuses on a critique of capitalism as the social form taken by the modern world rather than on modernism” – arguing that the problem is not modernism per se but capitalism as a particular form within modernism.
But the same logic must also be applied to capitalism. Adding the requirements for rationality and evidence base, one can argue three things. First, that capitalism – as well as being the driver for inequality and environmental unsustainability – has been the driver for many of the material gains experienced in the global South in the past two decades. Second, that capitalism is not a form but forms. And that the problems lie not with the substance of capitalism, but with particular forms that it has taken; notably the lightly-regulated forms of neoliberal capitalism and emergent digital capitalism. Capitalism is not “a corrupt form of modernism” but a corruptible form of modernism. Third, that while socialism – even communism – may be highly effective in enabling the transformation from a largely agrarian society into early-stage industrialisation, alternatives to capitalism have largely failed to deliver sustainable later-stage development gains.
Here, we teeter to the very edge of what it means to be critical; well beyond what Peet & Hartwick – with their old-school calls for collective ownership of all means of production and all social institutions – would recognise. The key dividing line lies between those who think capitalism is the problem, and those who think it will be – in some form – part of the solution.
(Likewise politically. Critical modernism eschews kneejerk direct democracy in favour of reasoned, deliberative democracy. But belief in evidence would accept this form of participative democracy only where – in practice – it proves more effective than representative democracy at delivering development.)
To summarise a (revised) critical modernist approach to development studies:
– Critical through central attention to the distributions of power that underlie distributions of development outcomes; and seeking to alter those distributions in favour of the less-powerful.
– A network conceptualisation of power that includes both structure and agency; both power over and power to.
– Critical acceptance of values of modernity including reasoning and democracy, development and progress, science and technology.
– An ontology and epistemology of critical realism
– Methodology based on scientific method and evidence that listens to both the powerless and powerful.
– Perhaps, a focus more on alternative forms of capitalism than alternatives to capitalism.
 Mumby, D.K. (1997) Modernism, postmodernism, and communication studies: a rereading of an ongoing debate, Communication Theory, 7(1), 1-28
 Latest edition: Peet, R. & Hartwick, R. (2015) Theories of Development, 3rd edn, Guilford Press, New York, NY
 E.g. Hickey, S. & Mohan, G. (2004) Relocating participation within a radical politics of development: critical modernism and citizenship, in: Participation – From Tyranny to Transformation?, S. Hickey & G. Mohan (eds), Zed Books, London, 59-74
 Langford, M. (2015) Rights, development and critical modernity, Development and Change, 46(4), 777-802
 Thompson, M. (2008) ICT and development studies: towards development 2.0, Journal of International Development, 20, 821-835
 Reflecting the views of many social movements that want not a rejection of development, but progress, material gains, and which often believe strongly in the power of science and technology (Hickey & Mohan (ibid)).
 Bennett, W.L. & Segerberg, A. (2012) The logic of connective action, Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739-768
 Peet & Hartwick (ibid:313).
 Hulme, D. (2016) Should Rich Nations Help the Poor?, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
 Henderson, J. (1996) Globalisation and forms of capitalism, Competition & Change, 1(4), 403-410
 Peet & Hartwick (ibid:314).
 O’Neil, P.H. (2015) Essentials of Comparative Politics, WW Norton & Company, New York, NY; Kornai, J. (2000) What the change of system from socialism to capitalism does and does not mean, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(1), 27-42