For some time now I have been receiving correspondence from various countries requesting that I explain or elaborate on certain of the subjects addressed in my books. For the most part what they have sought are explanations about such concrete issues as violence, politics, the economy, the environment, as well as social and interpersonal relationships. As you can see, these concerns are many and varied, and it is clear that the answers will have to come from specialists in these fields, which of course I am not. Yet while trying as far as possible not to repeat what I have written elsewhere, hopefully I will be able to present a brief outline of the general situation in which we are now living, along with some of the principal trends looming on the horizon.
In other eras, a certain idea of “cultural malaise” has been used as the unifying thread in this type of description. Here, in contrast, I will focus on the rapid changes taking place in the economies of different countries, as well as in their customs, ideologies, and beliefs, in an attempt to trace the particular type of disorientation that today seems to be asphyxiating both individuals and entire peoples.
Before entering the subject at hand, I would like to remark on two points. The first has to do with the world that has disappeared—a subject that may seem to some to be treated with a certain nostalgia in this letter. I will say on this point that those of us who believe in human evolution are not in the least depressed by the changes we see. On the contrary, we would like to see events accelerate faster still as we try to adapt ourselves increasingly to these new times.
The second point concerns the style of this letter—a style some may interpret as completely lacking in nuance, presenting these themes as it does in such a “primitive” way—so unlike the formulations of those whom we criticize. Regarding the form of expression that these champions of the “New World Order” might prefer, I simply offer the following comment. When speaking of these people, passages from two very different literary works keep echoing in my mind—George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Each of these exceptional writers foresaw a future world in which, through means either violent or persuasive, the human being is finally overwhelmed and reduced to an automaton. But I believe that, influenced perhaps by an undercurrent of pessimism that I will not attempt to interpret here, both writers in their novels attributed rather too much intelligence to the “bad guys” and too much stupidity to the “good guys.”
Today’s “bad guys” are very greedy people who have many problems, but who are in any case wholly incompetent to orient historical processes, processes that clearly elude both their will and their capacity to plan. These people, who are not very studious, are served in turn by technicians who possess only fragmentary and woefully inadequate resources. So I will ask you not to take too seriously those few paragraphs in which I have amused myself by putting in their mouths words they have not actually spoken, although their intentions do indeed go in the direction indicated. I believe that these matters should be approached without the customary solemnity so characteristic of this dying age, and that instead they should be treated with the irreverent good humor one finds in letters exchanged between true friends.
1. The Present Situation
From the beginning of history, humanity has evolved through working to achieve a better life. Yet today, across wide regions of the planet, and in spite of the enormous advances achieved by humankind, what we see are power, economic might, and technology being used to murder, impoverish, and oppress people—destroying, moreover, the future of the generations to come and the overall equilibrium of life on this planet. While a tiny percentage of humanity now possesses great wealth, for the majority even their basic needs remain unmet. While in certain areas there may be sufficient jobs and adequate wages, in many other areas the situation is disastrous. And everywhere the most humble sectors of society undergo horrors each day simply to avoid starvation.
Today, and solely by the fact of having been born into a social environment, every human being should have access to an adequate level of nutrition, health care, housing, education, clothing, and services. And when they reach an advanced age, all people need to have a secure future for the remaining years of their lives. People have every right to desire these things for themselves, and they have every right to want their children to have a better life. But today, for thousands of millions of people, even these basic aspirations remain unfulfilled.
2. The Alternative of a Better World
Numerous economic experiments have been tried, with mixed results, in attempts to moderate the aforementioned problems. Today’s trend is to apply a system in which we are told that hypothetical “market laws” will automatically regulate social progress, avoiding in this way the economic disasters of the previous experiments in controlled economies. According to this scheme, wars, violence, oppression, inequality, poverty, and ignorance will all fade away without any untoward consequences. Countries will integrate into regional markets, until finally we arrive at a global society that is without barriers of any kind. In this way, we are assured, just as the standard of living for the poorer sectors of developed regions will rise, so too will the less advanced areas receive the benefits of this progress.
The majority of people will adapt to this new arrangement, which competent technicians and business people will set in motion. If, however, something should fail to work out, it will certainly not be because of any problem with these infallible “natural economic laws,” but only because of the shortcomings of those particular specialists—who, as happens in business, will simply be replaced as often as necessary. At the same time, in this “free” society the public will choose democratically among different options, always provided, of course, that their choices lie within this same system.
3. Social Evolution
Given the present circumstances, it is perhaps worthwhile to briefly reflect on this alternative, which is currently touted as the way to achieve a better world. Indeed, a great many economic experiments have been tried, yielding rather inconsistent results. Yet notwithstanding this, we are nonetheless being told that this latest experiment holds the only solution to our fundamental problems. There are, however, certain aspects of this new proposal that some of us fail to grasp.
First, there is the question of economic laws. It could appear plausible that, as in nature, there are certain mechanisms that through their free interplay will automatically regulate social evolution. However, we find great difficulty in accepting the argument that any human process, and certainly the economic process, belongs to the same order as natural phenomena. On the contrary, we believe that human activities are non-natural, that they are instead intentional, social, and historical. These particularly human phenomena do not exist in nature in general or in other animal species. Then, since economic processes reflect human intentions and interests, in light of events we see nothing to support the belief that those with control over the well-being of humanity are concerned with overcoming the difficulties of others less privileged than themselves.
Second, the assertion that societies have progressed notwithstanding the vast economic differences that have always separated the few “haves” from the majority of “have-nots” seems quite unsatisfactory. History demonstrates that peoples have advanced when they have demanded their rights from the established powers, and that social progress has clearly not been the result of some automatic “trickle down” of the wealth accumulated by one sector of society.
Third, it seems rather excessive to hold up as models certain countries that by operating within this so-called free market economic system have achieved a high standard of living. These countries have, after all, undertaken wars of expansion against other countries. They have imposed colonial and neo-colonial systems. They have partitioned nations and entire regions. They have exacted tribute through methods based on violence and discrimination. Finally, they have taken advantage of cheap labor in weaker economies, while at the same time imposing unfavorable trade terms on them. Some will argue that these procedures are no more than what are known as “good business deals.” However, they cannot affirm this and then still claim that the economic development of these “advanced” countries has taken place independent of a special and unequal type of relationship with other countries.
Fourth, we frequently hear of the scientific and technical advances and the initiative that “free market” economies foster. But it is clear that scientific and technical progress began from the moment human beings invented clubs, levers, fire, and so forth, and that this progress has continued in a process of historical accumulation that has paid little heed to any particular economic form or set of market laws.
If, on the other hand, what they are trying to say is that the wealthy economies attract the largest part of the supply of talented people, that they have the resources to pay for equipment and research, and finally that they can provide more motivation in the form of greater compensation, then it should also be noted that this same phenomenon has occurred since ancient times, and is neither limited to nor the result of any one type of economy. Rather, it is simply that in this particular time and place—independent of the origin of such economic strength—an abundance of resources has accumulated.
Fifth, there remains the expedient of explaining the progress of “advanced” communities as the result of certain intangible natural “gifts”—special talents, civic virtues, hard work, organization, and the like. This is, however, no longer a rational argument, but instead a kind of devotional affirmation that, with some sleight of hand, obscures the social and historical realities that explain how those peoples were formed.
There are many of us, of course, who lack sufficient understanding to see how, given its historical background, the present market scheme will be able to survive even in the short run. But that forms part of another discussion—one that includes the question of whether this “free market economy” really exists at all, or whether in reality we are perhaps dealing with various forms of protectionism and indirect or disguised control, through which those in charge promptly loosen the reins in those areas where they feel in control and tighten them in areas where they do not. If this is the case, then every new promise of progress will remain in practice limited solely to the explosive development and spread of science and technology, which is independent of any supposed automatism in economic laws.
4. Future Experiments
Today, as throughout history, whenever necessary the prevailing scheme will simply be replaced by another that supposedly “corrects” the defects of the previous model. But all the while wealth will continue to concentrate step by step in the hands of an increasingly powerful minority.
At the same time, it is clear that neither evolution nor the legitimate aspirations of the people will come to a stop. So it is that soon we will see the last of any naive assurances that the end of ideologies, confrontations, wars, economic crises, and social unrest is at hand. And since no point on Earth is unconnected to the rest, both local solutions as well as local conflicts now rapidly become global. One other thing is certain: That which has prevailed until now can no longer be maintained—neither the present schemes of domination nor the formulas for struggle against them.
5. Change and Relationships Among People
The regionalization of markets, like the demands for local and ethnic autonomy, underscore the disintegration of the nation state. The population explosion in poorer regions is stretching to the breaking point all attempts to control migration. The large extended rural family is fragmenting, displacing younger members toward the overcrowded cities. The urban industrial and post-industrial family has shrunk to the minimum, while at the same time the macro-cities must absorb an enormous influx of people who were formed in disparate cultural landscapes. Economic crises and the conversion of productive models are giving rise to renewed outbreaks of discrimination.
In the midst of all this, technological acceleration and mass production result in products that are obsolete almost before they reach consumers. This continuous turnover of objects has a correspondence in the instability and dislocation so visible in contemporary human relationships. By now, traditional “solidarity,” heir to what was once known as “fraternity,” has lost all meaning. Our companions at work, school, in sports—even old friends—have all taken on the character of competitors. Within couples, both partners struggle for control, calculating from the beginning of the relationship whether they have more to gain by staying together or separating.
Never before has the world been so closely interconnected, yet each day individuals experience a more anguishing lack of communication. Never before have urban centers been more populous, yet people speak of their “loneliness.” Never before have people needed human warmth so much as now, but any approach to another in a spirit of kindness and help elicits only suspicion. This is the predicament to which our hapless people been abandoned, each isolated individual being led to believe in the greatest unhappiness that he or she has something important to lose—an ethereal “something” that is coveted by all the rest of humanity! Under such circumstances, the following story may be related as if it reflected the most authentic reality.
6. A Tale for Aspiring Executives
“The society now being set in motion will at last bring us prosperity. But apart from the enormous objective benefits, there will also be a subjective liberation of humanity. Old-fashioned ‘solidarity,’ a notion proper to poverty, will no longer be necessary, for by now practically everyone agrees that you can solve almost any problem with money, or its equivalent. We will therefore dedicate all our efforts, thoughts, and dreams toward this end. With money, you can buy fine food, a nice home, and afford travel, entertainment, high tech playthings, and people to carry out your wishes. At last there will be efficient love, efficient art, and efficient psychologists to correct any personal problems that remain. And soon, even these problems will be resolved, thanks to new developments in neurochemistry and genetic engineering.
“In this society of abundance we will see suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and all those other insecurities of the urban dweller simply fade away—as is sure to happen any day now, we are assured, in the economically developed countries. Discrimination will disappear as well, and communication among all people will increase. No longer will anyone have to bear the sting of needless rumination on the meaning of life, loneliness, sickness, old age, or death, because, with the appropriate courses and a little therapeutic help, it will be possible to block these sorts of reflections that until now have been such a hindrance to society’s output and efficiency. Everyone will trust everyone else, because competition at work, school, and in personal dealings will result in mature relationships.
“The last of the ideologies will finally disappear and no longer be used to brainwash people. Of course, no one will interfere with protest or nonconformity about minor things, provided that people express themselves through the appropriate channels. As long as they do not confuse liberty with license, citizens may gather (in small numbers, for reasons of hygiene), and may even express themselves outdoors (provided that they do not disturb others with noise pollution or publicity materials that could deface the municipality, or whatever it will be called in the future).
“The most extraordinary thing of all, however, will come to pass when police surveillance is no longer necessary, because every citizen will have resolved to protect others from the lies that could be inculcated by some dangerous ideological terrorist. On encountering suspicious activity, these guardians of the public welfare will rush to the news media, where they will find a warm welcome, and a warning will quickly be issued to the public. But the activities of these responsible citizens will not end there, for they will write brilliant studies, which will be published immediately. They will organize forums in which experts and pundits who shape public opinion will elucidate these things for the unwary, who would otherwise be at the mercy of the dark forces of state economic control, authoritarianism, anti-democracy, and religious fanaticism.
“It will, moreover, hardly be necessary to pursue these troublemakers. With such an efficient information system in place, no one will dare go near these dangerous elements for fear of being contaminated.
“The more serious cases will be efficiently ‘deprogrammed,’ and will publicly express their gratitude at being reintegrated into society and for the benefits they have received upon recognizing the gifts of freedom.
“As a result of all this, those diligent guardians who have warned the public—if they were not sent specifically to carry out this vital mission—will be able to emerge from their anonymity and sign autographs as they attain the social recognition that befits their high moral character and, as is only logical, receive a well-deserved reward.
“The Company will be one big happy family, assisting with all phases of education, relationships, and recreation. Thanks to robots and automation, physical labor will no longer be required, and working for the Company from one’s own home will provide genuine personal fulfillment.
“As a consequence, society will no longer have any need for organizations aside from the Company. Human beings, who have struggled for so long to achieve well-being, will at last reach the heavens—leaping from planet to planet they will discover true happiness. And that is where we will find our young citizen: well-established, competitive, charming, acquisitive, triumphant, and pragmatic—above all pragmatic—an executive in the Company!”
7. Human Change
The world is changing at a dizzying pace, and people can no longer hold on to much of what they believed unquestioningly until now. The acceleration of events is generating instability and disorientation in every society, rich and poor alike. In this situation of change, both traditional leaders and their “formers of public opinion,” as well as old political and social activists, no longer serve as points of reference for people.
Yet a new sensibility is being born that corresponds to these changing times. It is a sensibility that grasps the world as a whole—an awareness that the problems people experience in one place involve other people, even if they are far away. Increasing communication, trade, and the rapid movement of entire human groups from one place on the planet to another all attest to this growing process of globalization.
As the global character of more and more problems comes to be understood, new criteria for action arise. There is an awareness that the work of those who desire a better world will be effective only if they make their efforts grow outward from the environment where they already have some influence. In sharp contrast to other times, so full of empty phrases meant only to garner external recognition, today people are beginning to find value in humble and deeply felt work, work done not to enhance one’s self-image, but rather to change oneself and bring about change in one’s immediate environment of family, work, and friendship.
Those who truly care for people do not disdain this work done without fanfare, this work that proves so incomprehensible to those opportunists who were formed in an earlier landscape of leaders and masses—a landscape in which they learned well how to use others to catapult themselves to society’s heights.
When a person comes to the realization that schizophrenic individualism is a dead end, when they openly communicate what they are thinking and what they are doing to everyone they know without the ridiculous fear of not being understood, when they approach others not as some anonymous mass but with a real interest in each person, when they encourage teamwork in both the interchange of ideas and the realization of common projects, when they clearly demonstrate the need to spread this task of rebuilding the social fabric that others have destroyed, when they feel that even the most “unimportant” person is of greater human quality than some heartless individual whom circumstance has elevated to what is, for now, the pinnacle of success—when all this happens it is because within this person destiny has once again begun to speak, the destiny that has moved entire peoples along their best evolutionary path, the destiny that has been so many times distorted and so many times forgotten, but is always re-encountered in the twists and turns of history.
Today we can glimpse not only a new sensibility and a new mode of action but also a new moral attitude and a new tactical approach to facing life. If I were pressed to be more specific I would simply reply, though it has been said time and again over the last three millennia, that today people are experiencing anew the need for and the true morality of treating others as they want to be treated. I could add to this, almost as general laws of conduct, that today people are aspiring to:
1. A certain proportion, in which one tries to give order to the most important things in one’s life, dealing with them as a whole and not allowing some aspects to move ahead while others fall too far behind.
2. A certain growing adaptation, in which one acts in favor of evolution rather than momentary concerns, turning away from the various forms of human involution.
3. A certain well-timed action, in which one retreats when facing a great force (not every little obstacle) and advances when that force weakens.
4. A certain coherence, in which one accumulates those actions that bring one a feeling of unity, of being in agreement with oneself, and reject those actions that generate contradiction, that are registered within oneself as disagreements among what one thinks, feels, and does.
I do not feel it is necessary to elaborate on why I say that people are feeling anew “the need for and the true morality of treating others as they want to be treated,” although some may object that this is not in fact how people act today. Nor do I believe it necessary to give lengthy explanations about what I understand by “evolution” or by “growing adaptation” as opposed to adaptation based on permanence. Concerning the parameters for knowing when to retreat or advance before a great or weakening force, people will certainly need to be able to recognize precise indicators beyond those mentioned here. Finally, it is obviously not easy to implement the proposal of accumulating unifying actions or, from the opposite point of view, rejecting contradictions, when dealing with the contradictory situations that touch our lives.
All of these considerations may be true, but if you review this letter you will see that these things have been discussed within the context of a new type of conduct to which people are today beginning to aspire—a type of behavior quite different from that to which people aspired in other times.
In this letter I have tried to note those special characteristics we see beginning to take shape that embody this new sensibility, this new type of personal conduct, and this new form of interpersonal action—all of which, it seems to me, go beyond a simple critique of today’s situation. And while we know that criticism is always necessary, how much more necessary is it to do things in a new way—a way that is different from that which we criticize!
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
February 21, 199
Second Letter to My Friends
In the previous letter I focused on the situation in which we now live and on certain tendencies visible in contemporary events. I also used the opportunity to discuss various proposals that defenders of market economics proclaim as if these were the inescapable preconditions for all social progress. I made note of the continuing decline in solidarity and the crisis of references now taking place. Finally, I outlined some positive characteristics that are beginning to appear in what I called a new sensibility, a new moral attitude, and a new tactical approach to facing life.
Some of my correspondents have expressed their disapproval of the tone of that letter, feeling it touched on subjects that are too grave to allow such irony. But let’s not be so melodramatic—the system of proofs presented to justify the ideology of neoliberalism, social market economics, and the New World Order is so riddled with inconsistencies that this is hardly something to get worked up about.
I would like to point out that while the foundations of that ideology have long been dead, soon that entire edifice of ideas will be overtaken by a crisis so evident that even those who confuse meaning with expression, content with form, and process with circumstance will finally perceive it. Just as the ideologies of fascism and real socialism died long before these systems collapsed in practice, so too will the right-thinking people of today be caught by surprise as they recognize the collapse of the present system only after the fact.
Doesn’t this all seem a bit ridiculous? It’s like sitting through the same bad movie time after time. As we watch it over and over we begin to scrutinize tiny details—imperfections in the walls of the movie sets, the camera angles used, and whether the actors have shaved carefully—while the lady sitting beside us is overcome with emotion at what she is seeing for the first time, and what, for her, is reality itself.
On my own behalf, then, I might point out that I have not mocked the enormous tragedy that stems from the imposition of the present system, but instead the monstrous pretensions and grotesque end of this system—an ending that we have already witnessed before on too many previous occasions.
I have also received correspondence requesting more precise definitions of the attitudes recommended for facing the present process of social change. Before making any recommendations of this kind, however, I believe it would first be useful to try to understand the principal positions now held by various groups as well as by isolated individuals. Here I will limit myself to presenting the most popular positions, giving my views in those cases that seem to be of greatest interest.
Throughout the long ascent of humanity progress has occurred in a slow process of accumulation up to the present time, when the pace of economic and technological change has begun to outstrip the speed of change in social structures and human behavior. Many factors in society are becoming more “out of phase” all the time, which is generating growing crises in today’s world.
This problem can be approached from various points of view. Some believe that the current disarticulation will automatically regulate itself, and they therefore recommend that we not attempt to direct this process, which would in any case be impossible to orient. This approach embodies an optimistic-mechanistic thesis. Still others believe we are heading toward an inevitable explosion—they hold a pessimistic-mechanistic thesis. Various moral currents are also making their appearance, attempting to stop change and, as far as possible, return to some original past where they assume that comfort is still to be found. They represent an anti-historical position. Meanwhile, all around us we hear a rising chorus of voices from contemporary cynics, stoics, and epicureans. The first deny that there is importance or meaning in any action at all. The second face events unflinchingly, even when everything goes badly. Those who adopt the third position seek personal benefit in every situation, thinking only of their own hypothetical well-being, which extends, at most, to their own children.
As in the final stages of past civilizations, many people today are opting for positions that pursue individual salvation, assuming that no task they might undertake with others could have any meaning or possibility of success—at most others have a useful role to play only insofar as they profit one within a speculation that is strictly personal. That is why aspiring business, cultural, and political leaders perfect and polish their public images, striving to seem credible so that people will believe they think of and act on behalf of others. This is, of course, a rather fruitless task, because by now everyone knows the tricks and no one believes in anyone else.
The old values—religious, patriotic, cultural, political, union, and so on—have all been subordinated to money in a landscape in which solidarity and, therefore, any collective opposition to the contemporary scheme of things has been eroded, even as the social fabric continues to unravel. Afterwards, another stage will follow in which this inordinate individualism will be outgrown—but that is a theme for later on.
With our landscape of formation weighing us down and our beliefs in crisis, we are not yet in any condition to admit that this new historical moment is approaching. Today, whether we wield some small measure of power or depend absolutely on the power of others, we all find ourselves touched by this individualism—a situation in which those who are better placed in the system have a clear advantage.
2. Individualism, Social Fragmentation, and the
Concentration of Power in a Few
Individualism necessarily leads, however, to the struggle for the supremacy of the strongest and the pursuit of “success” at any price. This position began among a few who, relying on the acquiescence of the majority, respected certain rules of the game among themselves. In any event, this stage will soon exhaust itself and it will become “all against all,” because sooner or later the balance of power will tilt in favor of the strongest, and then the rest, either together or in alliances of various factions, will end up dismantling this fragile system.
In the meantime, however, as economies and technologies continue to develop, the powerful minorities continue to change along with them, perfecting their methods to such a degree that in some wealthy areas the majorities now effectively transfer their discontent to secondary aspects of the predicament in which they live. It appears that people generally no longer question the system as a whole but only certain urgent aspects when these strike close to home. Because of this, there are some who suggest that despite the overall rise in the world’s wealth and standard of living, the great masses of humanity who are left behind will simply be content to await a better life in some distant future.
All of this demonstrates an important shift in social behavior. And if this has occurred, activism for social change will continue to weaken as traditional political and social forces are left devoid of proposals. With the emptiness of individual isolation only partially filled by those structures that produce goods and leisure activities, the fragmentation of personal and collective life will continue to increase.
In this paradoxical world, all centralization and bureaucracy will be swept aside, breaking with the former structures of management and decision-making. Yet at the same time, this deregulation, decentralizing, and liberalizing of markets and procedures will leave the field wide open for the concentration of wealth and power to flourish on a scale unknown in any previous era, as international finance capital continues to flow into the hands of an ever more powerful banking system.
The political class will experience a similar paradox in that they will have to champion these new values, which in eroding the power of the State will simultaneously undermine their own leadership role. It is little wonder then that for some time they have been replacing words such as “government” with other words such as “administration,” trying to lead “the public” (no longer “the people”) to understand that a country is now a business.
In any event, and until the consolidation of a global imperial power, conflicts between regions could well occur as previously they occurred among countries. Whether such confrontations will be limited to the economic sphere or spill over into the arena of limited warfare, whether massive and incoherent unrest will as a consequence erupt, whether governments will fall pulling down countries and whole regions, will not in the least deter the process of concentration toward which this historical moment is heading. Local grievances, inter-ethnic fighting, migrations, refugees, sustained crises—none of these will alter the general picture of the increasing concentration of power.
And when the recession and unemployment become chronic among the populations of the wealthy countries, the stage of liquidating any remaining liberalism will have finished, ushering in the politics of control, coercion, and emergency in the finest imperial style—and who then will be able to speak of a free market economy, and what importance will it have to maintain positions based on an uncompromising individualism?
In this letter I will also respond to other concerns that my correspondents have raised concerning how to characterize the current crisis and its associated tendencies.
3. Characteristics of the Crisis
Let us turn now to the crisis of the nation state, the crisis of regionalization and globalization, and the crisis facing society, the group, and the individual.
In the context of the process of globalization, the flow of information is accelerating as the movement of both people and goods continues to increase. Technology and growing economic power are becoming concentrated in businesses that are ever more powerful. And this phenomenon of accelerating interchange is now encountering the limitations and slowed pace that are produced by traditional structures such as the nation state.
The result is that within each region national borders are becoming blurred. This means that countries are having to make their legislation more homogeneous, not only in matters of trade regulations, duties and tariffs, and personal documentation, but also in adapting their systems of production. Changes in labor and social security laws cannot be far behind. Ongoing accords among these countries will show that a common legislature, judicial system, and executive will provide improved effectiveness and quicker response time in managing the region. Primitive national currencies will give way to some type of regional medium of exchange that will avoid the losses and delays of previous exchange operations.
The crisis of the nation state is a readily observable fact, not only in those countries that are joining to form regional markets but also in those whose battered economies have fallen significantly behind. Everywhere voices are being raised against entrenched bureaucracies, demanding the reform of established schemes. Old resentments as well as local, ethnic, and religious rivalries are resurfacing in regions where countries have recently been formed as a result of partitions, annexations, or artificial federations. And the traditional State is having to face this centrifugal tendency at just the time that growing economic difficulties are calling into question its effectiveness and legitimacy.
Phenomena of this type are growing in the areas of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. These problems will also deepen in the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and Asia Minor. In a number of countries of Africa whose borders have been artificially drawn we are beginning to see such symptoms as well. Accompanying these breakdowns are large-scale migrations of refugees toward borders, which can threaten the equilibrium of an entire region. With any significant imbalance in China, this phenomenon could spill directly into more than one other area, especially in light of the present instability in the former Soviet Union and the countries of continental Asia.
In the meantime, the regional centers of economic and technological power have become configured: the Far East, led by Japan; Europe; and the United States. While the rise and influence of these regions exhibits an apparent polycentrism, events demonstrate that the United States with its military might in addition to its technological, economic, and political power is now in a position to control the world’s key lines and areas of supply.
In the process of increasing globalization, this lone remaining superpower is emerging as the governing force in present events, whether the other regional powers like it or not. This is the ultimate meaning of the New World Order.
It seems that we have yet to reach a time of peace, although the threat of world war has receded for now. Local, ethnic, and religious upheavals, social unrest, mass migrations, and limited wars still appear to threaten the supposed present stability. As the less wealthy areas fall still further behind the growth of the technologically and economically accelerated areas, they become more “out of phase,” which only compounds their problems. Latin America is a case in point, for even as the economies of various countries experience important growth in coming years, their dependence on the centers of power will be increasingly evident.
As the regional and world power of multinational companies continues to grow, as international finance capital continues to concentrate, political systems lose autonomy and their legislation must adapt to the dictates of these new powers.
Today we see the functions of increasing numbers of institutions being directly or indirectly supplanted by various departments or foundations of the Company, which in some areas has developed the means to oversee everything from cradle to grave for both employees and their children: birth, education, career placement, news and information, marriage, recreation, social security, retirement, death, and burial.
there are already places where citizens can avoid old-fashioned bureaucratic paperwork and get by with only a credit card and, increasingly, with just electronic money. And when people use electronic money, a record is made of not only their expenditures and deposits, but also of a wealth of other pertinent information on their background, habits, movements, present status, and so forth, all duly computerized. Of course, while this does free some people from a few minor delays and concerns, these personal conveniences also serve a disguised system of control. Along with the growth in technology and the accelerating rhythm of life, political participation diminishes and decision-making power becomes ever more remote and intermediated.
The family is shrinking and flying apart into the minimum unit of increasingly mobile and changeable couples. As interpersonal communication becomes blocked, friendship disappears, and competition poisons all human relationships to the point that no one trusts anyone else. The sensation of insecurity that people are feeling is no longer rooted in the objective fact of rising crime and violence, but stems above all from their state of mind. It must be added that social, group, and interpersonal solidarity are rapidly disappearing, that drug addiction and alcoholism are continuing to spread devastation, and that suicide and mental illness are spiraling dangerously upward. Of course, everywhere there is still a healthy and reasonable majority, but the symptoms of such advanced disarticulation no longer allow us to speak of a healthy society.
The landscape of formation in which the new generations have grown up contains all the elements of crisis previously cited, and these elements form part of their lives just as much as their technical and career training, as much as elements like soap operas, the advice of celebrity experts in the mass media, affirmations about what a perfect world we live in and, for more privileged youth, the diversions of motorcycles, travel, clothes, sports, music, and electronic gadgets. The problem of this landscape of formation in the new generations threatens to widen the already enormous gap between sectors of different ages, bringing to the fore a virulent generational dialectic of both great depth and vast geographical extension.
It is clear that the myth of money has long since been incorporated at the pinnacle of the scale of values, with everything else increasingly subordinated to it. A large segment of society does not want to hear about anything that could remind them of old age or death, shunning any theme related to the meaning and direction of life. And we must recognize that this is not altogether unreasonable, since reflection on these subjects in no way coincides with the scale of values established in the present system.
The symptoms of the crisis are by now too serious to disregard, yet some will maintain that this is simply the price we must pay in order to exist at the close of the twentieth century. Others affirm that we are entering the best of all possible worlds. The background for both of these affirmations comes from this particular historical moment, when the whole scheme of things has not yet entered crisis, although particular crises are proliferating rapidly. People’s appreciation of events will change, however, as the symptoms of disintegration accelerate and they feel the growing need to establish new priorities and new projects in life.
4. Positive Factors of Change
One cannot question the entire development of science and technology simply because some advances have been or are being employed against life and the well-being of all. In any questioning of science and technology one must first reflect on the characteristics of the prevailing system, which all too often applies advances in knowledge toward spurious ends. Progress in medicine, communications, robotics, genetic engineering, and myriad other fields can of course be applied in a destructive direction. The same holds true of employing technology in the irrational exploitation of natural resources and the generation of industrial pollution, with attendant widespread contamination and deterioration of the physical environment. All such misuse of technology constitutes a grave indictment of the negative character that now commands both the economy and social systems.
Today it is clear that society has the capacity to solve the problems entailed in feeding all of humanity, and yet every day we see starvation, malnutrition, and inhuman suffering increase around us. In short, the established system is not disposed to face these problems and relinquish its fabulous profits in exchange for an overall improvement in the human condition and standard of living.
It must also be pointed out that the process carrying us toward regionalization and finally globalization is being manipulated by special interests to the detriment of humanity as a whole. It is clear, however, that even burdened with such distortions this process is opening the way toward a universal human nation. The accelerated change taking place in today’s world is leading to a global crisis for the system and a consequent reordering of many factors. And all of this will be the necessary condition to reach a reasonable stability and harmonious development of the planet.
Accordingly, despite the tragedies that can be anticipated as the present global system deteriorates, the human species will prevail over all particular interests. This faith in the future is rooted in an understanding of the direction of history that began with our hominid ancestors. This species, which has worked and struggled over the course of millions of years to surmount pain and suffering, is not now going to yield to the absurd. This is why we need to understand processes that are more ample than simple immediate circumstance, and to support, even if we do not see immediate results, everything that goes in the direction of evolution.
When courageous human beings who are moved by a spirit of solidarity become disheartened, this slows the march of history. But it is difficult to grasp this broader meaning if one does not also organize and orient one’s personal life in a positive direction. What is at work here is not the interplay of mechanical factors or historical determinism—it is human intention, which tends to make its way through all difficulties.
I hope, my friends, to move on in the next letter to other more reassuring topics, leaving aside observations concerning such negative factors in order to outline proposals that correspond to our faith in a better future for all.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 5, 199
Third Letter to My Friends
I hope that this letter will help simplify and give order to my views on the present state of affairs. In it I also want to consider some important aspects of the relationships between individuals and between individuals and the social environments in which they live.
1. Change and Crisis
In this time of great change, individuals, institutions, and society all find themselves in crisis. And the pace of change—and the intensity of these individual, institutional, and social crises—will only continue to increase. This portends further upheaval, which broad sectors of society will perhaps be unable to assimilate.
Today’s transformations are taking unexpected turns, resulting in widespread disorientation about the future and confusion about what to do in the present. In reality, it is not change itself that is so disturbing to us, because we can recognize many positive things in contemporary developments. What is troubling is not knowing in what direction these changes are heading, and therefore not knowing in what direction to orient our actions.
3. Crisis in the Life of Each Person
Everything around us—the economy, technology, society—is undergoing enormous transformations. But above all it is in our own lives that we experience these changes: in our workplaces, our families, our friendships, and not least in our ideas and what we believe about the world, other people, and ourselves. Amid the rush of events we find many things exciting, yet other things confuse or paralyze us. Our own behavior and that of others all too often seems incoherent, contradictory, and as lacking in any clear direction as the events around us.
4. The Need to Give Direction to One’s Life
Since change is inevitable, it is of fundamental importance to guide it, and there is no other way than to begin with oneself. One must find in oneself a direction for this chaotic change, whose future course is unknown to us.
5. Direction in Life and Changing One’s Situation
Individuals do not exist in isolation. Thus, if they truly give their lives direction, this will change their relationships with the people in their families, their workplaces, and everywhere they carry out their activities. Giving direction to one’s life is not simply a psychological problem that can be resolved within the head of an isolated individual; on the contrary, it is resolved by changing—through coherent behavior—the situation in which one lives with others.
When we become excited by our successes or depressed by our failures, when we make plans for the future or resolve to change our lives, we often forget the fundamental point: The situation in which we live involves relationships with others. We can neither explain what happens to us nor make any choice in our lives without also including certain people and concrete social ambits. Those people who are of special importance to us and the social environments in which we live place each of us in a particular situation, and it is from this situation that each of us thinks, feels, and acts. To deny this or to disregard it creates enormous difficulties both for us and for others. One’s freedom to choose and to act is delimited by these circumstances. Any change one desires to make cannot be proposed in the abstract but only with reference to the actual situation in which one lives.
6. Coherent Behavior
If my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions are in agreement, if they all go in the same direction, if my actions do not create contradiction with what I feel, then I can say that my life has coherence. But though I am true to myself, this does not necessarily mean I am being true to those in my immediate environment. I still need to achieve this same coherence in my relationships with others, treating them the way I would like to be treated.
Of course there can also be a destructive type of coherence, which can be seen in those who are racists or fanatics or in those who are violent or exploit others. It is clear, however, that theirrelationships with others are incoherent, because they treat others very differently from the way they desire to be treated themselves.
That unity of thought, feeling, and action, that unity between the treatment one asks from others and the treatment one gives to others—these are ideals that are not realized in everyday life. Here is the point: to adjust one’s conduct in the direction of these personal and social proposals. These values, taken seriously, give life a direction that is independent of any difficulties one may face in realizing them. If we observe things well—not in static but in dynamic—we will understand this as a strategy that continues to gain ground as time passes. Here, one’s intentions do matter (even though one’s actions may at first not coincide with them), especially if these intentions are sustained, perfected, and extended. These images of what one wants to achieve are firm references that give direction in every situation.
What is being proposed here is not very complicated. We are not surprised, for example, when people dedicate their lives to pursuing great wealth, even when they lack any tangible reason to believe they will achieve it. This ideal spurs them on, despite the absence of relevant results. Why, then, is it so difficult to understand that these ideals of how to treat others and personal coherence can provide a clear direction for human conduct? And these ideals can give one direction despite the fact that these times are neither conducive to having the treatment one asks correspond to the treatment one gives nor to having one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions be in agreement.
7. The Two Proposals: Coherence and Solidarity
To have one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions go in the same direction and to treat others as one wants to be treated—these two proposals are so simple they can be viewed as mere naiveté by people accustomed to the usual complications. Yet underlying this seeming simplicity lies a new scale of values in which coherence comes first, a new morality in which one’s actions are not a matter of indifference, and a new aspiration that entails a consistent effort to give direction to human events. Behind this apparent simplicity one is either staking one’s future on a meaning in life that will be truly evolutionary, both personally and for society, or one is following a path that leads toward disintegration.
As mistrust, isolation, and individualism increase, they erode the fabric of society, and we can no longer rely on old values to provide the cohesion among people that is so essential. The traditional solidarity found among members of a given class, or within associations, institutions, and groups is rapidly being replaced by a savage competition, from which not even the closest bonds of marriage or family escape.