Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age

When Enlightenment’s Wake first appeared twelve years ago the idea that we inhabit a post-Enlightenment world was received with some scepticism. The claim that we are living in ‘an age distinguished by the collapse of the Enlightenment project on a world-historical scale’, ‘dominated by renascent particularisms, militant religions and resurgent ethnicities’ – as I put it at the start of the book’s first chapter – seemed to be at odds with the dominant forces of the time. Communism had collapsed, democracy was spreading and globalization was advancing rapidly. Western governments and international institutions framed their policies on the assumption that these trends were irreversible. In the academy liberal political theorists dutifully reproduced the consensus: the process might not be strictly inevitable, but there could be no reasonable doubt that, sooner or later, all of humankind would join the West in accepting Enlightenment values.

Not much more than a decade later this certainty has crumbled into dust. Enlightenment values are now seen as mortally threatened, while the faith in progress that was affirmed so adamantly just a few years ago has been replaced by a sense of being locked in an apocalyptic struggle with the forces of darkness. A major factor in this shift of mood has been Islamist terrorism – a genuine threat, but far less serious than those of Nazism and communism that were overcome in the last century. Others are the development of a new type of authoritarianism in post-communist Russia, which is using its natural resources to reassert itself as a great power, and the dawning realization that with the emergence of China the global hegemony of Western political values is finally at an end. Again, the revival of religion has shaken the belief that society is bound to become more secular as science advances. If the Enlightenment myth of progress in ethics and politics continues to have a powerful hold, it is more from fear of the consequences of giving it up than from genuine conviction.





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