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Varieties of Modernity

Paul Gillespie

Formations of European Modernity, A Historical and Political Sociology of Europe, by Gerard Delanty, Palgrave Macmillan, 352 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1137287915

This ambitious book by one of Ireland’s leading sociologists, professor of sociology and social and political thought at the University of Sussex, proposes a new way to think about Europe informed by recent developments in political and social theory, historical sociology and research on comparative civilisations. Delanty is dissatisfied with previous work on the subject (including his own) since it was often too introverted about the European heritage and paid too little attention to how that heritage interacted with, or was even created by, relations with the other civilisations it connected with historically. He brings a critical concern with cosmopolitan thinking to the task, along with a deep interest in multiple modernities – the idea that there is no one path to that state but many and that Europe’s journey is therefore not privileged. Above all he insists on linking sociology and history “to provide an interpretation of the significance of Europe through an analysis of the course of European history”, so as to create “a critical reconstruction” of the meaning and identity of Europe for the present day. As he explains in the book’s conclusion, he wants to defend the potential of a reconfigured European integration in a new era.

The book’s structure ably reflects these objectives. Opening with an extended discussion of his theoretical framework it then divides into three main parts: “Sources of the European Heritage” examines the Greco-Roman and Judaic legacies, Christianity, the Byzantine and Russian legacies, the Islamic world and Islam in Europe; “The Emergence of Modernity” deals with the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, the nation-state and empire, Europe’s regions and conflicting projects of modernity in the twentieth century; and the third part, entitled “The Present and its Discontents”, deals with Europe since 1989, contradictions between capitalism and democracy in austerity and the European heritage understood as a conflict of interpretations.

Thus history is built into the deep structure of the argument. This is not a narrative approach, however, but a thematic one aimed at identifying the major elements of the European heritage and how they relate to adjoining and distant civilisations as well as to each other. Delanty is well aware of historians’ reluctance to theorise their work and thinks we are the poorer for that insofar as resulting uses of the subject tend to crude teleology or relativism, where they do not also reproduce older notions of Europe’s civilisational superiority. He believes sociology offers a special insight into structural change and that it is necessary to draw out theoretical assumptions and state them clearly before embarking on his thematic history.

His theoretical position deserves careful attention from all who take Europe and its future seriously. He argues that used in the substantive way it now is in academic and public debate the idea of Europe can all too easily veer towards an ahistorical essentialism, driven by ideological accounts of the historical experience. Classical and Christian heritages play a large part in such discourses in right-wing thought, the Renaissance and Enlightenment in liberal-left accounts. In fact the idea of Europe is a product of modernity, Delanty writes, and did not occur in earlier periods in at all the same way. His view of modernity draws on Peter Wagner’s work, defining it as “condition that involves the actualisation of regulative ideas such as freedom, equality and autonomy and their realisation in the modern world; it is an emancipatory condition that proclaims human autonomy, both individual and collective, as an aspiration for modern times and that this must be realised in the concrete institutional order of society”. Delanty adds that such ideas, including autonomy but others as well such as self-reflexivity and social learning, are part of society’s cognitive order, and are in this sense trans-historical, marked by “the belief that human agency can transform the world in the image of a possible future”. They are part of what he calls the cultural model of society, a “social imaginary” along the lines of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s future-oriented projection of possibilities in the present.

What is distinctive about Europe is the way it combined several such inheritances in varieties of modernity, drawing on SN Eisenstadt’s notion of multiple modernities in his work on comparative civilisations. Europe unfolded as a specific societal model when such beliefs were actualised. Relations between capitalism and the state were crucial; both, accommodating to claim-making from civil society, gave this model a distinctive concern with social solidarity, albeit at different speeds in different periods, classes and regions.

Cosmopolitanism is another key ingredient of the argument. Delanty has published and edited widely on the subject, in his book The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory (Cambridge 2009), as the long-standing editor of the European Journal of Social Theory and recently of a handbook s published by Routledge. He explains that this book began as a new edition of his earlier influential one, Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality (1995), but that he found it necessary to offer a new interpretation based on intellectual developments since then. It is now essential to look at Europe both historically and from a global angle and to see it as one of many world-historical regions. Cosmopolitanism adds a critical and normative perspective to the task.

He draws on other theorists such as Ulrich Beck but does not share their view that a cosmopolitan position entails a post-national one, in the sense of transcending the nation-state. That is not needed for the argument – and anyway, he adds, it can be the wrong way to understand it given the continuing association of democracy and political identity with the nation-state. Here and elsewhere Delanty’s position is helped by his Irish background, allowing him to distinguish emancipatory anti-imperial nationalisms from the imperial kind. He outlines five ingredients of his preferred critical cosmopolitanism which provides an alternative approach to history from Eurocentric or orientalist accounts, or from Huntingtonian clashes of civilisations. They cover an openness to the world, transformation of self and society in encounters with others, explorations of otherness within the self, critical responses to globality and identification of transformative possibilities within the present.

With this toolkit Delanty sets out on his thematic journey through Europe’s history. It emphasises the continent’s distinctive experience as an “inter-civilisational constellation” always interacting with other civilisations through socio-cultural encounters, dialogues, adaptations, transfers, borrowing, trade and war. Each civilisation is also plural not singular and capable of learning through self-reflection and cosmopolitan hospitality. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, Jewish and Islamic elements were thereby brought into structural relations without being fused or made into a common foundation or core. The historical journey charts such interactions and tracks some of the resulting tensions, including those between individual and collective understandings of community as expressed repeatedly by republican and cosmopolitan orientations towards that subject, from classical to Renaissance times and beyond them.

It is not possible here to review the five historical chapters in part one and the six in part two in detail. They are stimulating intellectually, using the theoretical approach to highlight chosen themes, and based on wide reading, if occasionally giving the impression that this is a catchup course in European history for ignorant sociologists. Delanty succeeds well in laying down the parameters of his argument about civilisational heritage and the emergence of modernity. He is particularly aware of the geographical diversity involved, stressing how east-west differences were subordinated to north-south ones for many earlier centuries, the abiding importance of interactions with Asian, African and Arab cultures, the long-term significance of Byzantine and Russian influences and the porous nature of loose borderlands which allowed such cultural action to happen and often privileged marginal areas over central ones. He is also alert to the pervasive Islamic influence on Europe in the light of recent stereotypes, mediated by a dialectic of fear and xenophobia, fantasy and borrowings which varies from period to period. Thus Europe has several visions of Islam, which itself is internally plural, just as Christianity is.

The argument strengthens in dealing with the Renaissance and Enlightenment, picking up the modernity and cosmopolitan themes and casting them in a firmly inter-civilisational mould, especially concerning relations with Asia. Early exploration, capitalism and colonisation feed into this portrait through networks of trade, culture and power which drove Europe geographically towards the west. These reinforce his basic view that European civilisation should be understood as a constellation of civilisations held together through mechanisms of connectivity and development rather than foundational values, underlying subjectivity or the path-dependent teleology assumed in competing Grand Narratives.

He emphasises the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitanism and goes on to give a positive account of the Romantic movement, stressing meaning rather than reason, and switching intellectual energy from France to Germany. Nationalism and empire are central points in this argument, seen here very much through a global lens. The ideological foundations of nineteenth century nationalism and empire in racial, class and civilisational categories are clearly established. He makes a convincing argument that in the nineteenth century Europe cannot be conceived as a polity, but did become a distinctive society under the influence of industrial capitalism, education reforms, exploding democracies, social protections, demographies and mobilities through steam, rail and telegraph. Though there is no European people, language, religion or history and hence no demos, there is an entanglement of societies in each other and they become embroiled through colonialism in a wider global context. From these conjunctions there came a distinctive model of society and associated modes of communication and conflict. He suggests that geographical diversity is best understood through six overlapping regions of Europe reflecting their various different histories over the last two centuries.

By taking conflicting projects of modernity as his guiding theme for the twentieth century Delanty neatly links them to his argument about multiple pathways to that condition and to the dialogic nature of the emerging European governance structures from the 1950s. He accepts the periodisation 1918 to 1989 as defining the century in Europe, giving prominence to revolutions as the central sites of contestation. Of the four main political currents ‑ communism, fascism, liberal democracy and transnational governance – the latter two won out in the second half of the century; but the first two left enduring marks affecting outcomes for a long time.

His critical discussion of post-modern and post-colonial thought on Europe positions him in neither camp, allowing him to bring his cosmopolitan and modernist preferences to bear. The post-modernists relativised the subject excessively, while the post-colonialists reduced the European experience to an excessively imperial relationship with global others that does not express historic and emerging relational qualities. Both elements need to be rescued in a more positive if critical spirit, a topic Delanty turns to in the final part of the book dealing with the present and its discontents.

Another dialectic ‑ of nationalism, cosmopolitanism and globalisation – runs through the last twenty-four years of European history. Nineteen eighty-nine incorporated the east into the west, changing both as they acted on one another. The period coincides with neoliberal globalisation, setting up tensions ‑ or contradictions ‑ between capitalism and democracy. Delanty joins those like Wolfgang Streeck and Jürgen Habermas who resurrect the idea of contradiction between system and social integration in addressing the financial and euro zone crises. The euro zone is pressed to integrate economically, compensating for earlier deficits in its design; but sociopolitical integration, including legitimation, goes slower or in a different direction. That is the stuff of crisis and transformation which justifies the intellectual endeavour driving this work. How are such contradictions to be resolved? Is the project of transnational governance doomed to perish on the rocks of contradictory imperatives, the collision of different logics of integration and misconceived foundations? How can Europe’s history be brought to bear on the political dilemmas it now faces?

Delanty, like other sociologists, is sceptical about political science accounts of this crisis in European integration, which have dominated academic and indirectly policy debates. He argues that they overestimate its institutional and legal aspects, whereas sociology can ask more holistic questions if informed by a greater historical consciousness. Such disciplinary disputes are relevant to wider public discussion of the crisis, but Delanty tends to underestimate political agency and institutional design in resolving it, stressing outputs as the key to legitimacy and longer term sociological factors which cut across his emphasis on the need to realise these in practice. He misses some of the most interesting recent political science work on historical structures and comparative regionalism which could have bolstered his case. He is stronger on how Europeanisation changes relations between national and European levels in the crisis, affecting both without necessarily substituting one for the other. This involves a reflexive understanding of their relations. It is akin to the incorporation of the cosmopolitan in the national, echoing the debate about incompatible national and federal approaches to political change.

The best political science, like the best sociology, is aware of this point and can contribute an understanding and a vocabulary to policy debates on Europe’s future. The normative thrust of this book is in that direction. Citizens are too often confronted with either/or accounts of options when something simpler yet more difficult to understand is at stake. The idea of a transformative Europeanisation is one of these. Another is post-sovereignty, which he sensibly prefers as a concept to post-national. Anyone contemplating the putative retrieval of national sovereignty after the Troika leaves Ireland next year would do well to reflect on this point. We will be left with a legacy of intrusive constraint requiring a new political dispensation to tackle effectively, including Dáil procedures going well beyond what is now proposed by the Government to compensate for abolishing the Seanad.

Delanty is good on the category errors which impede a better understanding of identity issues in this new European setting. It is wrong to conflate personal, collective and social identities, since each of them works on a different logic and dynamic. Personal identities, in contrast to collective ones, are malleable and open to change, whereas collective action requires more singular voices. Social identities, in contrast, are more fuzzy, contested and multiple. Debates about such subjects are emergent and surprisingly vocal. Like many intellectuals, Delanty hopes to influence the contours and borders of such debates as much as their substance. That is laudable and necessary, but it requires an intermediating awareness of relations between concepts and everyday practice usually absent from public debate. In the same way his call to avoid polarities of thick versus thin conceptions of identity, for a communicative concept of cultures capable of sustaining a cosmopolitan dialogue between them, and for a more critical and differentiated politics of cultural heritage will look excessively abstract in a political space divided so much between polarised Europhile and Eurosceptic positions.

In fact public opinion is often ahead of political and media elites on these matters. The nuance he describes and calls for can be seen in contrasting popular support for deeper integration and falling trust in elites as revealed in Eurobarometer and other surveys. That can and should be interpreted as potentially transformational, to use his vocabulary. Whether his dialogic conception of European identity and meaning is sustainable in the face of such polarised political choices is more debatable. It can be defended as a rational response to difference, contestation and argument over historical memory, but popular opinion yearns for a stable resolution of such conflicts.

That is where the contradiction between system and social integration becomes more relevant. As Delanty sees clearly, there is no obvious path back to a simple growth-driven solution because of ecological constraints. Capitalism has reached world-historical limits that may be incompatible with social progress along the lines of the historic compromises with labour which underwrote European integration’s permissive (and passive) consensus from the 1950s to the 1980s. All the more reason to welcome warmly his audacious effort to think through the consequences of this impasse for Europeans and his relative optimism that their historical experience of existing and working together can provide a model to guide them in the future.


Paul Gillespie is a journalist and academic. He writes a column on international affairs for The Irish Times, from which he retired in 2009 as foreign policy editor. He is an adjunct senior research fellow in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin, where he was awarded his PhD on “Multiple Political Identities and European Integration”, on which subject he is writing a book. He has a special interest in European politics and political identities, Irish foreign policy, comparative global regionalism and British-Irish relations.