What does it mean to live in the modern world? How different is that world from those that preceded it, and when did we become modern?
In Distant Strangers, James Vernon argues that the world was made modern not by revolution, industrialization, or the Enlightenment. Instead, he shows how in Britain, a place long held to be the crucible of modernity, a new and distinctly modern social condition emerged by the middle of the nineteenth century. Rapid and sustained population growth, combined with increasing mobility of people over greater distances and concentrations of people in cities, created a society of strangers.
Vernon explores how individuals in modern societies adapted to live among strangers by forging more abstract and anonymous economic, social, and political relations, as well as by reanimating the local and the personal.
Distant Strangers How Britain Became Modern
What Is Modernity?
Wherever they live and in whatever condition, most people across the world consider themselves modern, even though they have very different understandings of what that means. It is easier to say what modernity is not than what it is. It is not a place or territory; you don't know you have arrived by a stamp in your passport. It is not a date or moment that when it arrives transports you into the modern world. It is neither an attitude nor the product of a modernist aesthetic. So what is modernity? How do we know who is modern and when they became so?
These questions have preoccupied many of the finest social scientists during the past two centuries. Despite the many differences in their accounts, most accept that becoming modern is a process that entails the demolition of "traditional" forms of life and the construction of new, "modern" alternatives to them. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the founding fathers of the social sciences viewed this process as revolutionary and endowed it with an inexorable logic that would eventually transform the entire world. They advanced two competing types of analysis: one emphasizing economic and social conditions; the other cultural, political, and institutional ones. They were not by any means mutually exclusive forms of explanation. Most accepted that all these domains of life were dramatically transformed; rather the argument was over where causal responsibility lay-was it economic changes that led to cultural ones or vice versa, did social forces generate political changes, and so on. Critically, both sets of explanations were rooted in structural and comparative understandings of change. They sought to explain not just whether the transition to modernity was driven by economic, social, political, or cultural structures but how similar processes of modernization were occurring in different countries at roughly the same time.
Marx never used the term modernity, yet he clearly identified the emergence of capitalism in Britain as sweeping away traditional forms of economic and social organization. As he memorably wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind." Many others have followed Marx in considering the creative destruction of industrial capitalism as a central feature of modernity even if they do not always share his analysis of its causes or corrosive effects. Writing almost a century later, Polanyi considered what he called The Great Transformation (1944) to be not capitalism and its new forms of production per se but the ideological invention of the free market and the reorganization of social life around it. Polanyi here was writing less against Marx than those who, during the 1940s and 1950s, valorized the free market model of capitalism and used the British case of industrialization as an exemplary world historical model whose stages of economic growth and modernization others should follow.
Just as Marx believed the modern "bourgeois epoch" came with class struggle and the "uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions," so others have analyzed modernity as the experience of a new set of social conditions. Following Engels's The Condition of the Working Classes in England (1844), there has been a good deal of focus on the process of urbanization that was often seen as an effect of workers flooding to jobs in the new urban centers of industrial manufacturing. The recrafting of social relations within these new cities, and their dynamics of antagonism, cohesion, or anomie, preoccupied the classical sociology of Durkheim and Simmel.
These accounts of modernity as an economic or social condition rooted in industrial capitalism and urbanization have not gone unchallenged. Since the late nineteenth century there have been rival accounts that emphasized the cultural, political, and institutional foundations that structure modern life. A key element of these accounts, particularly in their early articulation by Maine, Tonnies, and Weber, was the rise of individualism and its increasing centrality to modern systems of legal, social, and political organization. The polymath Henry Maine-legal theorist, historian, and civil servant-identified the transition from status to contract as the basis of modern civilization. He did so by mapping the ways in which the foundations of legal authority and power changed from systems based on kinship or tribal loyalties to those centered upon the individual and adjudicated by the state. Similarly, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies identified two types of social organization that he termed Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. While the former was characterized by a sense of innate community and the mutuality of social life, the latter denoted an individualism in which voluntary association was instrumental and self-serving. Although he acknowledged that these two social forms could coexist, Tonnies believed that there had been a transition from Gemeinschaft to Geselleschaft in modern industrial and urban conditions. Finally, Max Weber also placed the rise of the individual at the center of the modern condition. He did so in two ways. First, he found the origins of capitalism in the competitive individualism unleashed by the Protestant Reformation. And, second, he traced the transformation of political authority away from the charismatic forms that ensured specific groups or persons could rule communities to the modern, anonymous bureaucracies that governed subjects through abstract systems of rational control.
Clearly, all these classical accounts of modernity posit a clear separation between the traditional and the modern. One might even say, and many have, that their characterization of the traditional (as archaic, primitive, feudal, etc.-all the terms have pejorative connotations) serves less to accurately describe the past than the distance of the present conditions they seek to analyze and capture. To a certain extent this was the point. The object was to emphasize the historical novelty of systems and conditions that their contemporaries took for granted as natural. Establishing that the way the modern world worked was of relatively recent vintage made it mutable and therefore possible to change again.
And yet these caricatures of the traditional yielded caricatures of the modern. Because the traditional was intended to illuminate the modern, and vice versa, there was no understanding of the forms of imbrication that unsettled any clear distinction between them. Indeed, the transition from the traditional to the modern was portrayed as so absolute and rapid it was frequently described as occurring through a series of revolutions-scientific, agricultural, industrial. These revolutions were invariably seen as sequential, with one unleashing another in a developmental process of what became known as modernization: so that the agricultural revolution made possible industrialization, which catalyzed urbanization. And finally, this process of modernization, although a product of a particular time and place (whether England 1780-1830, or Euro-America 1780-1880), was considered universally relevant. All those who wished to become modern had to follow the prescribed route or remain trapped within the yoke of tradition or prisoners of a bastard modernity. Interest in these classical models of modernization as a dramatically unfolding and universal process waxed during the Cold War as the United States and Soviet Union offered competing models of the modern world.
By the late twentieth century, these theories and accounts of modernization had been discredited. Historians were at the forefront of exposing the fallacies of universal models of historical development that expected, in Edward Thompson's formulation, the working class to "rise like the sun at an appointed time." So too were postcolonial critics who insisted that the modern world did not have to be cast in a Euro-American mold. After all, the West had become modern at the expense of those they enslaved and colonized and then organized supposedly universal laws of historical progress around their own experience.Instead of a trickle-down process of modernization from the West to the Rest, postcolonial critics contended there was no one way to be modern and no checklist of modernization to complete along the way. So compelling were these critiques that by 1995 the term modernization, with all its associations with sequential and unilinear processes of development, had been displaced in academic journals by the seemingly less loaded term modernity. Understood in cultural terms as historically specific, there was no longer any one path to becoming modern; instead modernity allowed the modern condition to be pluralized and found in any number of alternative and regional forms across the world. Indeed, as the term modernity no longer describes a specific condition or process of transformation, it is often used to describe any context in which the rhetoric of the modern is found. Reduced to a word or vocabulary, the work of analysis is in examining its varied uses and meanings and the politics that lay behind them. In this way modernity has now acquired a whole series of hyphenated prefixes that extend far beyond its regional or national alternatives. Thus a variety of competing conservative, colonial, imperial, suburban, Sapphic, feminine, gendered, and metropolitan modernities have been found in interwar Britain alone! For some scholars, modernity now even comes with attitude-it can be dangerous, displaced, refracted. If there is any coherence to this proliferation of modernity's prefixes, it is the attempt to track how different groups assert their interests by laying claim to the language of the modern.
This pluralization of modernity has come at a certain cost. If modernity has become so elastic that it assumes multiple forms and can be found almost everywhere at any historical moment, it is no longer clear whether it has any use as an analytical category. Indeed, historians have now discovered a plethora of modernities in all corners of the globe between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries! No wonder we are all confused and some have pleaded that we just do without modernity as a category of analysis and description. Certainly the recent forum on "Historians and the Question of Modernity" in the American Historical Review did little to inspire confidence that the term could be rescued. Yet however much historians might want to rid ourselves of this troublesome category, we cannot live without it. We are, after all, in the business of tracing change over time, and we have to move from the particular to the general to do so. Thinking with modernity allows us to mark a moment of historical transition from an earlier period that may have seeded the origins of many aspects of modern life but was nonetheless decidedly different. We need to understand the alterity of the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds and recognize that they did not always anticipate later developments but represented alternative historical experiences. As a broad and inevitably reductive analytical term modernity can also help us explain patterns of historical change that appear to be shared by many countries. Investigating those shared historical processes does not need to reduce them to a universal telos. Rather than returning to a view of modernity as simply emanating from the West to the Rest, the object should be to illuminate not only what is similar or shared but how they are experienced differently in different places and at different times.
Modernization theory was structured around the quest for a single origin or cause that triggered and explained a subsequent path of historical development. Thus capitalism was the product of Europe's Protestant Reformation, which created a new type of individual, organized within monogamous nuclear families, who sought salvation through hard work. Or, more recently, the great divergence of economic fortunes between Europe and China from the eighteenth century has been explained by accidents of geography that placed rich and easily accessed mineral deposits close to industrializing localities. In history, as in life, such golden bullets rarely exist as explanations or solutions, for we inhabit multiple processes of change that converge, clash, and combine, manifesting themselves in sometimes surprising and paradoxical formations. Thus instead of seeking the causal origin of modernization, I use the concept of modernity to capture the nature of the modern condition. I am less interested in why societies become modern than in how they do so. The aim of this book, then, is to invite the reader to share a particular perspective on what it means to be modern and how we got there.
So how did Britain become modern? I have three answers that structure the argument of this book. Firstly, I aim to show that the sustained growth and increasing mobility of its population, including over an expanding empire, created a new society of strangers. Secondly, I suggest that this generated a range of new challenges for the conduct of social, economic, and political life that had hitherto primarily (if not exclusively) rested upon local and personal relations. Increasingly abstract and bureaucratic forms were used to address the challenges of living around, doing business with, and governing (often distant) strangers. And yet, thirdly, this process of abstraction was dialectical in nature. Just as we have long known that the invention of new traditions was an inseparable part of the experience of modernity, so the new forms of abstraction and estrangement catalyzed attempts to reembed social, economic, and political life in local and personal relations.
It is not my contention that Britons were the first to live or trade with strangers. According to Simmel, the figure of "the stranger" had long played three important roles: they facilitated extra-local trade, provided an objective perspective of those societies they moved through or lived among, and generated more abstract social relations. Although Simmel took his examples from early modern Europe, he might just as well have looked further back to the experience of mass urban life in ancient Rome or further afield to the intercontinental trade networks of the Indian Ocean or the early modern imperial systems of the Ming, the Mughals, and the Ottomans. Yet rather than view the stranger as an exceptional and transhistorical figure, defying the limits of space and time, I suggest that the rapid and sustained expansion of populations that were increasingly mobile over greater distances in the modern world created a society of strangers. And as Adam Smith suggested, Britons were probably the first to live in a society of strangers. They did not just live with strangers, they lived amongthem, and this generalized the dilemmas Simmel saw the stranger pose and generated fresh challenges for the practice of social, economic, and political life.
Rapid population growth, often extending over decades, was not unknown in early modern Asia or Europe. Yet it was always checked and often reversed by epidemics, famines, wars, and natural catastrophes. It was Malthus's genius to discover this pattern in his Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798. The cyclical nature of premodern populations meant that in aggregate terms no continent in the world is estimated to have exceeded a compounded annual rate of growth of 0.08 percent before 1750. And yet, as Malthus was writing, Britain was defying the pattern and sustaining the rapid growth of a population on a hitherto unimaginable scale, reaching a peak of 1.6 percent annual growth in the decade after 1811 (or 1.8 percent for England and Wales). This peak should not obscure the long and sustained pattern of population growth: between the 1780s and the 1840s Britain's annual growth did not fall below 1 percent and then did so only because of the famine in Ireland. England and Wales sustained a 1 percent growth rate between 1780 and 1900. Effectively, the population doubled in size during both halves of the nineteenth century. At the advent of the twentieth century, Britain's population was almost four times larger than it had been in the middle of the eighteenth century.
Britain's population had not just been the first to break through the Malthusian trap; its growth was rapid as well as sustained. Its rate of growth was faster than any other European nation. Between 1800 and 1913 the number of Britons quadrupled, while Russia's population tripled in size, Italy and Spain's doubled, and France's rose by barely 50 percent. Even though France's population had been almost double the size of Britain's in 1800, it was surpassed by 1900. With only 5.7 percent of Europe's land-mass, Britain's population as a percentage of the total European population (which was itself increasing at unprecedented rates) rose from 7.6 percent in 1680 to 15.1 percent in 1900. Britain's population surge was no less impressive compared to its potentially biggest rivals China and the United States of America (see figure 1). China, for whom we lack reliable data, especially after 1851, continued to exemplify a classic early modern pattern, its population rising and falling until its growth was sustained from the late nineteenth century. Only America's population was growing faster, at more than 3 percent annually until the 1860s before falling to 2.2 percent in the first decade of the twentieth century; rising from a recorded 3.9 million in 1790 to 23.3 million in 1850 and 92.4 million by 1910. This phenomenal surge of people was made possible partly by slavery and immigration. Although the experience of rapid and sustained population growth was replicated by many societies in the late nineteenth century, many more did not experience it until the twentieth century. Thus while the world's annual rate of population growth between 1750 and 1950 was a remarkable 0.59 percent, after 1950 it reached a staggering 1.75 percent.
Britain became a society of strangers not just by dint of the rapid and sustained growth of its population but because of its increasingly urban form. By 1871 Britain was the first predominantly urban society in the world. No other society in human history had experienced this scale of urbanization. France and America (like Russia and Japan) did not reach 50 percent urbanization until the mid-twentieth century, and China not until the end of the century (see figure 2). And the size of Britain's cities, especially London, left all others in its wake: by 1880 London was the world's largest city by some distance (it was the size of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, and Mexico City combined). Thereafter, the rest of the world played catch-up, quickly. Whereas in 1750 there were only three cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants in the world and they were all in Europe (London, Paris, Constantinople), by 1900 there were eleven cities double that size- six in Europe (Berlin, Constantinople [renamed Istanbul in 1830], Leningrad, London, Paris, Vienna), three in North America (New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia), two in Asia (Tokyo, Calcutta). A century later there were twenty-eight cities with populations of more than 4 million (the size of London in the 1870s) in Asia, eleven in North America, four in South America, and three in Europe. Only 13 percent of the world's population had been urbanized in 1900 (up a mere 4 percent from 1600), yet by 1950 that figure had climbed to 29 percent and almost reached 50 percent in 2005 (as Britain had done a century and a half earlier).
Because the British Isles were a relatively small land-mass, the increasing size and urban concentration of the population gave it an unprecedented density, a trend even more apparent when we consider the vast majority of Britain's population lived in England and Wales. Despite the rapidity of its growth, the total population of England and Wales was about as densely concentrated as France's until 1800, while China's continued to outstrip it until the 1840s (see figure 3). It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that the density of Britons in England and Wales became most strikingly apparent. Although China and the United States (like Russia) then had larger populations than Britain, the enormous and expanding landmasses of these countries ensured that their populations remained more dispersed. According to the calculations of The British Dominions Yearbook, by 1918 only Eygpt's Nile Valley and Belgium had more people per square mile than England and Wales. Although Java and the Netherlands were in sight, the next most concentrated population was in Japan, where there were 324 people per square mile compared to 592 in England and Wales.
The final ingredient for making Britain a society of strangers was the increasing mobility of its population over greater distances. Initially, as we shall see, urbanization was primarily the product of relatively short migrations; people usually traveled to nearby cities from the surrounding countryside. Nonetheless, the reach and scale of mobility was radically extended between the middle of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth century when a revolution in transportation bequeathed Britons a radically improved road system, a railway network, and steam ships. The transport revolution greatly facilitated the flow of people as well as goods around and beyond the nation. By 1873 Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg believed that new rail routes, navigation networks, and steam ships made it possible to travel around the world in just eighty days. No wonder that in his Expansion of England (1883) the imperial historian John Seeley declared that "in the modern world distance has very much lost its effect." Even though extranational migration was a general European phenomenon; more migrants left Britain than any other European nation between 1815 and 1930, accounting for 36 percent of all of Europe's migrants. Many of these migrants were destined for the so-called white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa but by 1919 the British Empire stretched over a quarter of the globe and included almost a third of the world's population, an estimated 458 million people spread across 13 million square miles. The United States also remained an integral part of the broader British world and continued to attract the majority of Britain's emigrants throughout the nineteenth century. The English-speaking Anglo world created by Britain's emigrants "grew over sixteenfold in 1790-1930, from around 12 million to around 200 million-a far greater rate than Indian and Chinese growth, as well as Russian and Hispanic."
There is, then, good evidence to suggest that the sustained and rapid growth of a population that was increasingly mobile over ever-greater distances made Britain the first to experience the new social condition of modernity, namely living in a society of strangers. Although new forms of abstraction were used to reimagine and reorganize the practice of political, economic, and social life beyond the local and personal, these were neither new nor unique to Britain. They had been anticipated by the Enlightenments of the East, especially those that had informed the imperial Chinese system of government, and were further developed in Enlightened Europe and put to use by the revolutionary nation-states of the United States and France to establish new forms of government and legitimacy. Although a new nation-state was forged in Britain after the revolution of 1688 and the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, it was the increasing size and mobility of the population, and the extending reach of its imperial polity, that made the application of new techniques of abstraction especially urgent and potent.
New rules of social engagement and more elaborate forms of social classification were codified so that strangers could size up and navigate each other on the street, in the railway carriage, or in the matrimonial advert. In this new society of strangers, power and authority could longer reside solely in individuals made conspicuously visible through ceremonies and tours. Instead we will see how in Britain's expanding imperial state it was gradually relocated to abstract and anonymous bureaucratic systems that were transferable across vast distances. Civil society was also transformed in the mirror image of the modern forms of state power it sought to contest and contain. Those in political movement built organizations that made it possible for people across the nation and empire to imagine sharing interests and even rights with distant strangers. Similarly, economic transactions long embedded in local networks and personal relations of credit and trust were increasingly restructured around new national and imperially standardized, abstract, systems of exchange.
For sure, this process of abstraction was gradual and uneven, but it was also dialectical. That is to say it generated a countermovement of attempts to reembed social, political, and economic relations in the local and personal. We will see how in each of these areas the society of strangers posed a quite different set of problems. As forms of abstraction were variously used to address these problems, they invariably generated fresh challenges that then animated attempts to reembed them. It was a process that highlights how trust had to be built in the new systems and practices around which the modern world was reorganized if they were to endure. Thus, to provide some obvious examples: new centralized, bureaucratic systems of state power encouraged the rediscovery of the local parish as the essential unit of government; charismatic leaders thrived in bureaucratic political organizations; and the factory system of production spawned a highly personalized and paternal style of management. Historians have often mistaken these phenomena as evidence of the survival of tradition-either as the stubborn grip of the ancien regime or an alternative set of values and practices used to resist the modern-rather than as attempts to localize and personalize new abstract systems. Instead of a simple process of change and continuity, transformation and resistance, this dialectic of abstraction and reembedding occurred simultaneously and was mutually constitutive.
Not even a very long book could comprehensively map how the society of strangers and the dialectic of abstraction and reembedding it unleashed made Britain modern. Instead, Distant Strangers proceeds through case studies that seek to illuminate how the realms of society, economy, and polity were restructured and reimagined. This helps illuminate how a new conceptual understanding of society, economy, and polity as not just their own discrete domains but as systems, with their own rhythms and forms of organization that required standardized rules and practices. Indeed, so reified did the understanding of those domains and their systems become that they were endowed with their own explanatory logics-so that history itself was seen to be driven by economic, social, and political laws. Each chapter then explores the remaking of economic, political, and social life while also defamiliarizing those effects of modernity we have often taken as its causes.
If this was how Britain became modern, when and where did it happen? A key intervention of the book is to suggest that Britain did not become modern in the eighteenth century as a consequence of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Industrial Revolution, or the Enlightenment. As we have already seen, there were early modern precursors that anticipated the society of strangers and the abstraction of social, economic, and political relations, but they worked on different scales and were rarely sustained. My argument neither intends nor needs to provide a caricature of early modern societies as only rooted in local and personal relations where everyone knew each other. Indeed, frequently I return the reader to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to trace the processes of change that made Britain modern. Nonetheless, I am insistent, some will find wearily so by the relentless flow of data that measured both qualitatively and quantitatively, the nineteenth century (and more specifically the decades between 1830 and 1880) was the decisive moment of Britain's great transformation. There are those like Virginia Wolfe with hubris enough to identify a particular moment, in her case "on or about December 1910," when the world cracks and begins anew. Historians are prone to do so by using revolutions-hence the ubiquity of 1789-to demarcate the break between the early and late modern periods, but most recognize that even those dramatic events are part of longer processes of change. Certainly Britain did not become modern in a single decade, let alone a year, or month. The scale and nature of the great transformation was palpable in the 1830s, but it was not until the 1880s that the new forms of social, political, and economic organization were naturalized.
The important but not necessarily constitutive place of the British Empire in that transformation will, I hope, become self-evident in the following pages. Clearly I do not suggest that you need an empire to become modern. Britain's imperial expansion played no part in the dramatic and sustained expansion of its domestic population. Nonetheless, the flow of emigrants from Britain across the empire significantly extended that population's mobility, while the size of the populations and territories colonized generated new problems of governing over and trading with distant strangers. Empire did not make Britain modern, even if the problems of governing distant strangers did make it a laboratory for abstracting and then reembedding new forms of authority. Although these were sometimes imported to Britain from the colonies, it was not a one-way street and the traffic flowed both ways.
Ultimately, I am less interested in whether Britain was the first modern society than whether this understanding of modernity is transferable and can be applied elsewhere without the same difficulties that plagued modernization theories that grounded their accounts in Enlightenment, industrialization, or revolution. My broader contention is that if modernity has any utility as an analytical category it must be to capture a singular condition-a shared historical process-albeit one with alternative trajectories and iterations. Think less of the many tributaries that lead to a river that flows inexorably to the sea and more of a freeway on which cars travel in both directions and one is never entirely sure where each car has come from or which exit they will take.
About the Book
What does it mean to live in the modern world? How different is that world from those that preceded it, and when did we become modern?
"Commands—and deserves to command—the attention of scholars."—American Historical Review
"This is a project of great scope and ambition . . . [Vernon's] book ought to enthuse, stimulate, provoke."—Journal of Modern History"A fresh look at some well-known issues. In this lively and accessible work, James Vernon finds in the study of Victorian Britain a way to reenergize and make useful the slippery category of modernity. Neither a valorization nor a celebration of Britain’s explosive nineteenth-century growth, Vernon’s account instead offers a framework for global histories of modernity as well as a radical interpretation of modern Britain. Vernon takes familiar materials and arguments and transforms them into a highly original argument that reaches well beyond the shores of this small island kingdom."
—Philippa Levine, author of The British Empire, Sunrise to Sunset
"With his signature intellectual ambition and rhetorical force, James Vernon routes the history of Britain’s modernity through the rise and fulfillment of what he calls 'the charismatic state.' Both an influential abstraction and an increasingly powerful mediator of Britons’ experience of their material lives, that state made new subjects, political and economic, who adapted to the society of strangers Britain was becoming. Vernon takes us on a bracing journey through these historical processes, flying over big swaths of time and space, reaching deeply into the recesses of modern culture and illuminating the richest traces as he goes. Readers will feel they are in the hands of a true craftsman, someone at the very height of his synthetic and persuasive powers."
—Antoinette Burton, author of Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism
—Geoff Eley, author of After the Nazi Racial State
Table of Contents
List of Figures
1 What Is Modernity?
2 A Society of Strangers
3 Governing Strangers
4 Associating with Strangers
5 An Economy of Strangers