Chapter Four: Modernity and capitalism

For some writers, the term ‘modernity’ is of little use and functions to mask the centrality and significance of capitalism. Jameson, for example, proposed, as a ‘therapeutic recommendation’, substituting capitalism for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears (quoted in Callinicos, 2006, p 50). Over 20 years ago, a similar position was taken by Woodwiss:

I wish to question the general sociological utility of the concept formerly known as capitalism – modernity.… In my view, the term ‘modernity’ as a specifically sociological sign has its origins in the representation of American society contained in the work of sociologists like Daniel Bell (1960) and David Riesman (1950), and given a technologically determinist inner logic … in the 1960s. This was a representation that identified the combination of liberal democracy, a capitalist economy, an ‘open’ class structure and an individualistic value system as the antithesis of totalitarianism whether fascist or communist. (Woodwiss, 1997, p 2)

Woodwiss (1997, p 4) recommended, therefore, that ‘we restore … capitalism, to its rightful position of pre-eminence within sociological discourse’.

Despite remarkable transformations having taken place over the 150 years since the publication of Das Kapital (henceforth, simply Capital) in 1867, this chapter stresses its continuing relevance for those working in social work and associated fields. To this day, Marx’s seminal text provides a devastating critique of capitalism and remains a vital resource for those seeking to understand and develop strategies of resistance within capitalism.

The year 2018 is the bicentenary of Marx’s birth and the suggestion that Capital may be of relevance to present-day social workers could be seen as mere provocation since, arguably, the world in which the book appeared is radically different from the one that we now inhabit (Derrida, 1994).

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