Modernisation as an American Ideology

I have written about modernization here as an ideology that functioned in diverse contexts. In one sense, it certainly did serve as a political instrument. It was, in some cases, an analytical model deliberately used in private, institutional settings to evaluate options and generate effective policies.

At other times, it was a rhetorical tool employed to justify particular actions. On a different and much more powerful level, however, modernization was also a cognitive framework that, often unconsciously, was closely linked to what historian Eric Foner has described as the “system of beliefs, values, fears, prejudices, reflexes, and commitments in sum, the social consciousness of a social group.”

Much like the early-twentieth-century “liberal-developmentalism” that Emily Rosenberg has analysed, the ideology of modernization functioned as far more than a narrow “political weapon.”

Understood in Karl Mannheim’s terms, it was also a perceptual framework through which much broader, widespread understandings of America’s national identity, mission, and world role were apprehended.

Modernization, in this more far reaching sense, was thus an element of American culture, an ideology shared by many different officials, theorists, and media sources about the nation, its historical “development,” and its ability and duty to transform the “less developed” around it. In using modernization to link culture and identity with foreign policy programs, my thinking, like that of many other historians, has been influenced by the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

By treating ideologies as “cultural systems” and “a public possession, a social fact, rather than a set of disconnected, unrealized private emotions,” Geertz emphasized their function to “render otherwise incomprehensible social situations meaningful, to so construe them as to make it possible to act purposefully within them.”

Ideologies, in these terms, make sense out of apparent chaos and rapid change, order complex information and events into meaningful, intelligible relationships, and prove valuable in planning future courses of action amid uncertainty.

Thinking along these critical lines has led me to explore additional questions about national identity and the potential resonance between modernization and much older ideologies of Manifest Destiny and imperialism. If not an entirely original model, how might modernization have recast previous visions of Western superiority and articulated them as American power continued to expand in changing historical circumstances?

In the historiography of American foreign relations, my consideration of this problem has been influenced by the work of William Apple-man Williams and Walter La-Feber. Although both scholars were labelled economic determinists by their critics, each of them worked to reconstruct the ideological worldview of those in power and argued that the guiding perceptions were firmly grounded in a deeply historical construction of the nation’s identity.

The “Open Door” of Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy and the imperial vision of LaFeber’s The New Empire were both rooted in the belief, derived from a broadly accepted cultural understanding of the Turnerian frontier, that America’s domestic vitality would depend on continued expansion through either commercial or colonial means.

As Williams argued in explaining the dominant weltanschauung, those in power reached back as far as the westward movement of the early nineteenth century to argue that America was the “world’s best hope” and “deduced from that axiom the conclusion that American expansion naturally and automatically ‘extended the area of freedom.” According to Williams and La-Feber, early-twentieth-century proposals to reshape the world in America’s image effectively refashioned a sense of Manifest Destiny and contributed to the growth of the United States as an imperial power.

Examining similar issues in the Cold War era, I argue that the social scientific theories and policies of modernization, despite the claims of their proponents, were neither decisive intellectual breakthroughs nor completely new political initiatives. In terms that echoed Enlightenment explanations of Western superiority and imperial justifications of the need for an altruistic, benevolent West to provide both material assistance and moral tutelage to direct the course of the less “advanced,” American modernizers drew on elements of an earlier worldview to articulate one suited to their times. Although not a mere appropriation, the ideology of modernization, in both its intellectual and institutional forms, incorporated and revised much older perceptual frameworks. In changed historical conditions and amid different cultural understandings of race, religion, and national duty, modernizers had to compose an ideology and language of their own. But in asserting the historical validity of a single path to modernity and laying claim to a superior understanding of it, they played the notes of a very familiar song.

In my approach to this problem of ideological and historical resonance, I have also found the questions raised by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Edward Said particularly suggestive. The development of a position of power, Foucault argued, requires the “correlative constitution of a field of knowledge.” Like the nineteenth-century social reformers he describes, the proponents of modernization theory and policy constructed a taxonomic categorization in which “all offences must be defined; they must be classified into species from which none can escape.”

As they identified the “deficiencies” of the “developing” world, theorists and officials echoed much older representations of Western power and used political, administrative, and economic controls to define a particular trajectory, a “social time of a serial, orientated, cumulative type: the discovery of an evolution in terms of ‘progress.'”

Like their Enlightenment predecessors, the modernizers of the Cold War also marshalled what Foucault referred to as an “‘evolutive historicity’ … bound up with a mode of functioning of power.” “No doubt,” Foucault argued in explaining the Enlightenment impact, “the ‘history-remembering’ of the chronicles, genealogies, exploits, reigns and deeds had long been linked to a modality of power. With the new techniques of subjection, the ‘dynamics’ of continuous evolutions tends to replace the ‘dynastic’ of solemn events.”

Armed with a model they claimed was based on empirical and historical evidence of an organic, natural order, twentieth-century American social scientists and policymakers recast much older representations to define “modernization” as a unitary variable of global change and claim authority over its management. American power, exercised through the practices of modernization, also found new channels into the foreign world it became more highly institutionalized and pervasive.

By placing their own society at the endpoint of a social scientific, linear scale, American modernizers also defined their nation in terms of its relationship to the cultures they perceived as struggling to emulate U.S. achievements. As Edward Said has argued regarding the “Orientalist” patterns of Western scholarship about the Middle East, the construction of identity stands at the very centre of the intersection between knowledge and its political application. “Indeed,” Said emphasized, “my real argument is that Orientalism is and does not simply represent a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.”

Like the Orientalists Said has analysed, modernization theorists, policymakers, and the nation’s media also went about framing an identity for the United States based on a “positional superiority.” They emphatically characterized their society as uniquely advanced “in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.”

While holding that all societies passed through the same, universal stages of development, theorists and policymakers also drew sharp distinctions between the West they belonged to and the world they classified. Rooting the difference neither in geography and natural resources nor in the legacies of imperial exploitation, they instead focused on the West’s “rational,” “activist,” “achievement-oriented” social values and explained the apparent stagnation and unfulfilled potential of the “less developed” world in ways that reinforced a sense of their own nation’s intrinsic cultural vitality and dynamism.

In the Cold War context, the scientism of modernization theory also allowed for a necessary and politically desirable reformulation of the older ideologies on which it was based. As they described America’s world role in terms of an objectively determined, scientifically verified process of universal development, theorists and officials used the ideology of modernization to project an appealing image of expanding power during a period of decolonization.

Modernization, Rostow explained to another Kennedy adviser, would replace colonialism. It would create “a new post-colonial relationship between the northern and southern halves of the Free World. As the colonial ties are liquidated, new and most constructive relationships can be built a new partnership among free men rich and poor alike.”

Articulated in this way, modernization was a means for the continued assertion of the privileges and rights of a dominant power during an era in which the nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East increasingly demanded independence. By describing modernization as a benevolent, universally valid, scientifically and historically documented process, social scientists, policymakers, and the nation’s media also elided America’s own imperial past.

Rather than the nation that expanded across the continent, waged imperial war in 1898, fought for possession of the Philippines, and remained ambivalent on the subject of European empire after World War II, the United States was presented as a force capable of guiding a destitute world along the transformative path it once travelled.

The American Revolution and New Deal, in this sense, became historical blueprints for the kind of anticolonial, democratic progress and reform that struggling states might emulate. Modernizers invoked older conceptions of America’s destined role as world leader and redefined them through a supposedly objective developmental schema. They did so, moreover, at a moment when the forces of nationalism and Marxist social revolution called American assertions sharply into question.

Having explained what I aim to demonstrate through an ideological analysis, I would also like to clarify some additional issues regarding the scope of this essay and its argument.

The Lecturer should recognize, first, that I am not seeking to produce a comprehensive or exhaustive account of either the history of development theory or each of the three Kennedy programs in which I argue it became institutionalized. As mentioned previously, other scholars have undertaken those specific and separate tasks in far greater detail than space will permit me to here.

My goal, in this work, is to open new areas for inquiry by illustrating the power of relationships cutting across social science, national identity, and Cold War foreign relations. I also disavow any claim that concepts of modernization were solely responsible for the Kennedy-era initiatives.

As later paragraphs show, modernization certainly did play a major role. But it did so in the midst of an interaction of personalities, historical forces, human experiences, and even haphazard, contingent occurrences. Modernization theory alone was incapable of “causing” anything.

As an ideology in specific institutional settings, however, it was one of the significant factors that gave meaning to complex events and shaped thinking in consequential ways. I would like to point out as well that this ideological analysis, critical as it is, does not necessarily depend on an accusation of conspiracy, deception, or “bad faith” on the part of Kennedy policymakers and the intellectuals who advised them.

They were convinced that modernization would benefit both the “developing” world and the industrialized West, and few of them perceived much conflict between the American objectives they defined and what they understood as a kind of internationalist idealism and altruism. By the end of the 1960s, however, their largely unquestioned assumptions and supreme self-confidence would be much harder to maintain.

One should also bear in mind that those on the “receiving end” of modernization responded in diverse ways to Western efforts to transform them in cultural and political terms.

The chapters on the Alliance for Progress and the Strategic Hamlet Program, in particular, reveal that responses to modernization came from different political perspectives and varied widely. Although liberal Latin Americans were among the strongest advocates of the Alliance for Progress and supported its efforts, Castro’s Cuba rejected its goals and ideology directly. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem sought to use American aid to bolster his repressive regime while the National Liberation Front mobilized in revolutionary opposition to the U.S. nation-building campaign.

The analyses produced by scholars such as Albert Memmi, Eduardo Galeano, Walter Rodney, and, more recently, Gyan Prakash and Arjun Appadurai also reveal that the ideology of modernization has certainly not escaped critical examination by those it proposed to reform and enlighten. Far from breaking down “traditional” cultures and producing a convergence of uniformly “modern” ones, contemporary forces of mass communication and human migration have fostered the formation of diverse, unpredictable, and overlapping religious, ethnic, and group identities in transnational settings. Modernization, in practice, rarely produced the kind of effects its advocates anticipated on paper.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that, even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not all Americans shared the vision of their nation presented by modernization in scholarly work and public policy. Although I do maintain that most of the limited criticism of Kennedy “development” policies did not challenge the dominant assumptions, it is certainly true that radicals such as C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, and William Apple-man Williams produced early and thoroughgoing attacks on the idea of a modern and modernizing America.

Many returning Peace Corps volunteers, especially African American ones, also came to reject Washington’s description of their ability to produce dramatic, sweeping, and transformative progress abroad. In time, broad-based social movements challenged the way “modernization” was articulated in the domestic context of the “Great Society” and criticized the definition of a “culture of poverty” to be redeemed by federal programs.

Later in the decade, a more radical civil rights movement and the rise of the New Left gave such comprehensive dissent a more forceful, public voice. During the early 1960s, however, those arguments remained comparatively rare in an America that had not yet begun to ask the fundamental questions that the Vietnam War would eventually push to the center of national debate.

During the Kennedy era, the promotion of liberal democracy and the acceleration of economic development were mutually reinforcing parts of an ideology that contributed to the definition of strategic goals and projected a national identity suited to the Cold War context.

Modernization theory alone did not cause the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, or the Strategic Hamlet Program. It did, however, function as a conceptual framework through which the assumptions of social scientists and policymakers about America’s character and international role became embedded in both foreign policy and public, cultural representation.

Rather than substituting an ideological determinism for that of “national security” or “capitalist demands,” my goal for this analysis is to complement the best of previous historical interpretations. Instead of replacing “power” and “interests” with “culture,” I explore the ways in which they are integrally related. American empire, as William apple man Williams argued, certainly was about political containment and market dominance. But it was also a “way of life.



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