As this process mechanically proceeds to dismantle social structures, a new solidarity cannot arise out of the ideas and conduct of a world that has already disappeared—it can come only from the concrete need that people have to give direction to their lives. And this new direction will entail changing the environment in which they live. This change in their environment, if it is to be true and profound, cannot be imposed from without, cannot be set in motion by external laws or any form of fanaticism. It can only come from the power of shared opinion and minimum collective action with the people who make up the social environment around them.
8. Reaching All of Society Starting with
One’s Immediate Environment
We know that by changing our situation in positive ways we will be influencing our surroundings, and that others will share this point of view and form of action, giving rise to a growing system of human relationships.
So we must ask ourselves: Why should we go beyond the immediate environment where we begin? The answer is simple: To be coherent with the proposal of treating others in the same way we want them to treat us. Why wouldn’t we pass on to others something that has proven to be of fundamental importance in our own lives?
If our influence begins to expand, it means that our relationships and therefore the constituents of our environment have also developed. This is a factor we need to bear in mind right from the first, because even though our actions may begin in one small area, their influence can project very far. And there is nothing strange in thinking that others will decide to accompany us in this direction. After all, the great movements throughout history have followed this same course—logically, they began small, and then developed because people felt these movements interpreted their needs and concerns.
If we are coherent with these proposals we will act in our immediate environments, but with our vision placed on the progress of society as a whole. For what meaning is there in speaking of a global crisis that must be faced with resolution if society is only going to end up as isolated individuals for whom others have no importance?
Out of common need, then, those working together to give a new direction to their lives and to events will create environments for direct communication where they can discuss these themes. Later on, as awareness spreads through many means of communication, this surface of contact will grow. A similar process will occur as people create organizations and institutions compatible with this proposal.
9. The Social Environment in Which One Lives
We have already seen that the impact of this swift and unpredictable change is experienced as crisis—the crisis with which individuals, institutions, and entire societies are now struggling. So, although it is indispensable to give direction to developments, how can one do this, subject as one is to the action of larger events? Clearly, one can direct only the most immediate and nearby aspects of one’s life, and not the operation of institutions or society at large. Nor is it easy attempting to give direction to one’s life, since no one lives in isolation; everyone lives in some situation, in some environment.
We may think of this environment as the universe, the Earth, our country, state, province, and so on. each of us has, however, an immediate environment—the environment in which we carry out our daily activities. This is the environment of our family, our work, our friendships, and our other activities. We live in a situation of relationship with other people, and this is our particular world, which we cannot avoid, as it acts on us and we on it in a direct way. Any influence we have is on this immediate environment, and both the influence we exercise on it and the influence it exerts on us are in turn affected by more general situations—by the current disorientation and crisis.
10. Coherence as a Direction in Life
If we want to give a new direction to events, we must begin with our own lives and include the immediate environment in which we carry out our activities. But the question remains: To what direction will we aspire? Without doubt to one that provides coherence and support in such a changeable and unpredictable environment.
To propose that one will think, feel, and act in the same direction is to propose coherence in life. Yet putting this into practice is not easy, because the situations in which we find ourselves are not entirely of our own choosing. We find ourselves doing the things we need to do, even though these things may not at all agree with what we think or what we feel. We find ourselves in situations over which we have no control. To act with coherence, then, is more an intention than a fact—it is a direction, which if kept before us guides our lives toward increasingly coherent conduct.
Clearly, it is only by exerting influence within one’s own immediate environment that one will be able to change any aspect of the overall situation in which one lives. In so doing, one will be giving a new direction to one’s relationships with others, and they will be included in this new conduct.
Some may object that their employment or other factors cause them to frequently change their residence or other aspects of their lives. But this in no way affects the proposal, for every person is always in some situation, is always part of some environment. If we are striving for coherence, the treatment we afford others must be of the same type as the treatment we demand for ourselves, no matter where we are.
There are, then, in these two proposals the basic elements for giving direction to our lives to the extent of our strength and possibilities. Coherence advances as a person is increasingly able to think, feel, and act in the same direction. And we extend this coherence to others—because only in this way are we ourselves being coherent. And in extending this to others we begin to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. Coherence and solidarity are directions, they represent conduct to which we aspire.
11. Proportion in One’s Actions as a Step
How can we advance in the direction of coherence? First, we need to maintain a certain proportion in the activities of our daily lives. We need to establish which among all the things we do are most important. For our lives to function well, we need to give the highest priority to what is of fundamental importance, less to secondary things, and so on. It could turn out that simply by taking care of two or three main priorities we will achieve a well-balanced situation.
We cannot allow our priorities to be turned upside down or to become so fragmented that our lives grow out of balance. To avoid having some activities proceed far ahead while others fall too far behind, we need to develop all of our activities as a connected whole and not as isolated actions. It is all too easy to become blinded by the importance of one activity and to allow this single priority to unbalance all of our other activities. And then, because our whole situation has been jeopardized, in the end we fail to accomplish what we had considered so important.
It is true that at times urgent matters arise that we need to deal with right away, but it should be clear that this in no way means we can go on indefinitely postponing the things necessary to maintain the overall situation in which we live. It is a significant step in the direction of coherence to establish our priorities, and then to carry out our activities in appropriate proportion.
12. Well-Timed Actions as a Step Toward Coherence
There is a daily routine we follow that is set by schedules and timetables, our personal needs, and the workings of the environment in which we live. Yet within this framework there is a dynamic interplay and richness of events that go unappreciated by superficial people. There are some who confuse their routines with their lives, but they are in no way the same, and quite often people must make choices among the routines or conditions imposed on them by their environment.
Certainly it is true that we live amid inconveniences and contradictions, but it is important not to confuse these things. Inconveniences are simply the annoyances and impediments that we all face. While they are not terribly serious, of course if they are numerous or repeated they can increase our irritation and fatigue. Without question we have the capacity to overcome them. They neither determine the direction of our lives nor stop us from carrying a project forward. They are simply obstacles along the way that range from the minor physical difficulty to larger problems that may nearly cause us to lose our way. While there are important differences in degree among inconveniences, they all lie within the range of things that do not stop us from going forward.
Something quite different happens with what are called contradictions. When we are unable to carry out our central project, when events propel us in a direction away from what we desire, when we find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle from which we cannot escape, when we do not have even minimal control over our lives, then we are ensnared by contradiction.
In the stream of life, contradiction is a sort of countercurrent that carries us backward in hopeless retreat. This is incoherence in its crudest form. In a situation of contradiction, one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions oppose each other. And though in spite of everything it is always possible to give direction to one’s life, one has to know when to act.
In the routine of daily life we often lose sight of whether or not our actions are timely, and this occurs because so many of the things we do are codified or set by convention. But when it comes to major difficulties and contradictions, we must not make decisions that expose us to catastrophe.
In general terms, what we need to do is to retreat when faced with a great force, and then advance with resolution when this force has weakened. There is, however, a great difference between the timid, who retreat or become paralyzed when faced with any difficulty, and those who take action to surmount the difficulties, knowing that it is precisely by advancing that they will be able to get through the problems.
At times it may happen that it is not possible to go forward immediately because a problem arises that is beyond our strength, and to tackle it head on without due care could lead to disaster. This problem we are facing that is now so large is also, however, dynamic, and the relationship of forces will change, either because our influence grows or because the problem’s influence weakens. Once the previous balance of forces has shifted in our favor, that is the moment to advance with resolution, for indecision or delay at that point will only allow further and perhaps unfavorable changes in the balance of forces. Well-timed action is the best tool to produce a change in the direction of one’s life.
13. Growing Adaptation as an Advance Toward Coherence
Let us further consider the theme of direction in life—of the coherence we want to achieve. To propose a direction toward coherence raises the question: To which situations should we adapt?
To adapt to things that lead away from coherence would, of course, be highly incoherent, and opportunists suffer from a serious shortsightedness on precisely this point. They believe that the best way to live is simply to accept everything, to adapt to everything. They think that to accept everything, as long as it comes from those with power, is to be well-adapted. But it is clear that their lives of dependence are very far removed from what could be understood as coherence.
It is useful to distinguish three kinds of adaptation: being unadapted, which stops us from extending our influence; decreasing adaptation, in which we do not go beyond accepting the established conditions in our environment; and growing adaptation, through which we build our influence in the direction of the proposals outlined here.
To close, let us synthesize the themes of this letter:
1. Driven by the technological revolution, the world is undergoing rapid change, which is colliding with established structures and the formative experience and habits of life of both individuals and societies.
2. As change makes more factors in society become “out of phase,” this generates growing crises in every field, and there is no reason to suppose this will diminish; on the contrary it will tend to intensify.
3. The unexpectedness of today’s events clouds our ability to foresee the direction that these events, the people around us, and ultimately our own lives will take.
4. Many of the things we used to think and to believe in no longer work. Nor do we see adequate solutions forthcoming from any society, any institution, or any individual—all of whom suffer the same ills.
5. If one decides to stand up to these problems, one must give direction to one’s life, striving for coherence among one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. And because we do not live in isolation, we must extend this coherence to our relationships with others, treating them as we want to be treated. While it is not possible to fulfill these two proposals rigorously, nonetheless they constitute the direction in which we need to advance, which we will be able to accomplish above all if we make these proposals permanent references, reflecting on them deeply.
6. We live in immediate relationship with others, and it is in this environment that we must act to give a favorable direction to our lives. This is not a psychological question, a matter that can be resolved solely in the head of an isolated individual, it is related to the concrete situation in which each of us lives.
7. Being consistent with the proposals we are attempting to carry forward leads us to the conclusion that it would be useful to extend to society as a whole those elements that are positive for ourselves and our immediate environment. Together with others who are moving in this direction, we will put into practice the most appropriate means to allow a new form of solidarity to find expression. Thus, even when we act very specifically in our own immediate environment we will not lose sight of the global situation that affects all human beings and that requires our help, just as we need the help of others.
8. The precipitous changes in today’s world lead us to seriously propose the need for a new direction in life.
9. Coherence does not begin and end in oneself, rather it is related to one’s social environment, to other people. Solidarity is an aspect of personal coherence.
10. Proportion in one’s activities consists of establishing one’s priorities in life, of not letting them grow out of balance, and basing one’s actions on these priorities.
11. Well-timed actions involve retreating when faced with a great force, and advancing with resolution when it weakens. When one is subject to contradiction, this idea is important in making a change of direction in one’s life.
12. It is unwise to be unadapted to our environment, which leaves us without the capacity to change anything. It is equally unwise to follow a course of decreasing adaptation to an environment in which we limit ourselves to accepting the established conditions. Growing adaptation consists of increasing the influence we have in our environment as we advance in the direction of coherence.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 17, 199
Fourth Letter to My Friends
In previous letters I have given my views on society, human groups, and individuals in relation to this moment of change and loss of references in which we happen to live. I critiqued certain negative tendencies in the development of events and outlined the better-known positions held by those who claim to have answers to the urgent concerns of these times.
It should be clear that all of these considerations, whether well or badly formulated, correspond to my particular point of view, and this in turn finds its foundation in a certain set of ideas. No doubt due to an awareness of this on the part of some of my correspondents, I have received encouragement to make more explicit from what point of view, from “where,” my critiques and proposals are developed.
After all, in the course of our daily lives ideas occur to us that may or may not be very original, but that in any case we don’t claim to justify. And increasingly we find that we hold one idea today and the opposite one tomorrow, without going beyond the capriciousness of an everyday appreciation of things. Each day, then, we believe less—not only in the opinions of others but even in our own—as we become accustomed to seeing opinions as something transient, changing from hour to hour as they fluctuate with the volatility of the stock market. And if, among these varied opinions, some do possess greater permanence, it is only because they are consecrated by the fashion of the day, which will always be replaced by the fashion of tomorrow.
I am not defending the value of unchanging opinions, I am simply pointing out the current lack of consistency among opinions generally. In truth it would be very interesting for changes in people’s opinions to come about based on an internal logic and not simply as though bending before every erratic wind. But who today has any taste for internal logic, with so many flailing around as though drowning in these turbulent times. Even as I write this, I am keenly aware that what I say will not even be able to enter the heads of certain readers, because they will have failed to find one of the three possible codes they demand, which are: (1) that this letter provides them with entertainment; (2) that this letter provides them with something they can use at once in their business; or (3) that this letter coincides with what is consecrated by fashion.
I am certain that these few paragraphs beginning with “Dear Friends” and extending to here will leave some readers as thoroughly bewildered as if they were written in Sanskrit. Yet every day these same persons understand matters of great difficulty, ranging from sophisticated banking operations to the exquisite niceties of computer network administration. Somehow, however, such people find it impossible to understand that in this letter I am speaking of opinions, of certain points of view, and of the ideas that serve as their foundation—and of the impossibility that they will understand even the simplest of these things if these matters do not correspond to the landscape they have assembled in the course of their educations and their compulsions. So this is how things stand!
Having addressed that question, I will now try to summarize in this letter the ideas that form the foundation of my views, critiques, and proposals. In presenting things I will exercise care not to go much beyond the level of advertising slogans because, as we are cautioned by many learned and expert journalists, organized ideas are “ideologies,” and these, like doctrines, are today only instruments of brainwashing employed by those who oppose free trade and social economics in the marketplace of opinion, which these guardians so carefully regulate for our benefit.
Those people who conform to the demands of postmodernism today—who heed the requisites of haute couture with evening wear, flashy ties, shoulder pads, running shoes, and dapper jackets, who follow the dictums of deconstructionist architecture and destructured decor—demand of us that the elements of our discourse not fit together. And let us not forget that their critique of language repudiates as well all that is systematic, all that is structural, and everything related to processes!
Of course, it will come as no surprise that this position corresponds to the dominant ideology of the Company, in whose representatives there is a horror of history, just as they are horrified at ideas in whose formation they have not had a hand and in which they have not been able to purchase a substantial percentage of shares.
All bantering aside, let us now begin with a brief inventory of our ideas, at least those that seem most important. [Much of the following was included in a talk given by the author in Santiago, Chile, on May 23, 1991].
1. The Starting Point for Our Ideas
We do not initiate our conception of things with the affirmation of generalities, but rather in the study of the particulars of human life: what is particular to existence, what is particular to the personal register of thinking, feeling, and acting. This initial position means that the conception outlined here is incompatible with any system that starts from an idea, the material, the unconscious, the will, society, and so forth.
If someone accepts or rejects a given conception of things—however logical or eccentric it may be—it is always the person who is in play, accepting or rejecting this conception. The person does this, not society, or the unconscious, or matter.
Let us speak, then, of human life. When I observe myself, not from a physiological point of view but from an existential one, I find myself here, in a world that is given, neither made nor chosen by me. I find that I am in situation with, in relationship with phenomena that, beginning with my own body, are inescapable. My body is at once the fundamental constituent of my existence and, at the same time, a phenomenon homogenous with the natural world in which it acts and on which the world acts. But the nature of my body has important differences for me from other phenomena, to wit: (1) I have an immediate register of my body; (2) I have a register, mediated by my body, of external phenomena; and (3) some of my body’s operations are accessible to my immediate intention.
2. The Human Being: Nature, Intention, and Opening
It happens, however, that the world appears not simply as a conglomeration of natural objects, it appears as an articulation of other human beings and of objects, signs, and codes they have produced or modified. The intention that I am aware of in myself appears as a fundamental element for the interpretation of the behavior of others, and just as I constitute the social world by comprehending intentions, so am I constituted by it.
Of course, I am speaking here of intentions that manifest in corporal action. It is through the corporal expressions of, or by perceiving the situation of the other, that I am able to comprehend the meanings of the other, the intention of the other. Moreover, natural or human objects appear as either pleasurable or painful to me, and so I modify my situation, trying to place myself in favorable relationship to them.
In this way, I am not closed to the world of the natural and other human beings, rather precisely what characterizes me is opening. My consciousness has been configured intersubjectively in that it uses codes of reasoning, emotional models, and schemes of action that I register as “mine,” but that I also recognize in others. And, of course, my body is open to the world insofar as I both perceive and act over the world.
The natural world, as distinct from the human, appears to me as without intention. Of course, I can imagine that the stones, plants, and stars possess intention, but I find no way to hold an effective dialogue with them. Even those animals in which at times I glimpse the spark of intelligence appear as basically impenetrable to me and changing only slowly from within their own natures. I observe insect societies that are completely structured, higher mammals that employ rudimentary technology, but still only replicate such codes in a slow process of genetic change, as if they were always the first representatives of their respective species. And when I observe the benefits of those plants and animals that have been modified and domesticated by humanity, I see human intention opening its way and humanizing the world.
3. The Human Being: Social and Historical Opening
To define human beings in terms of their sociability seems to be inadequate, because this does not distinguish them from many other species. Nor does capacity for work stand out as their most notable characteristic when compared to that of more powerful animals. Not even language defines them in their essence, for we know of numerous animals that use various codes and forms of communication.
All new human beings, in contrast, find themselves living in a world that is modified by others, and it is in their being constituted by this world of intentions that I discover their human capacity of accumulation within and incorporation to the temporal—that is, I discover not simply a social dimension but a socio-historical one.
Viewing things in this way, we can attempt a definition of the human being as follows: Human beings are historical beings whose mode of social action transforms their own nature. If I accept the above, I will also have to accept that such beings are capable of intentionally transforming their own physical constitutions. And this is just what is taking place.
This process began with the use of instruments by human beings which, placed before their bodies as external “prostheses,” allowed them to extend the reach of their hands and their senses and to increase both their capacity for work and its quality. Although not endowed by nature to function in either aerial or aquatic environments, they have nevertheless created means to move through these media and have even begun to leave their natural environment, the planet Earth. Today, moreover, they have begun to penetrate their bodies, replacing organs, intervening in their brain chemistry, carrying out fertilization in vitro, and even manipulating their own genes.
If by the word “nature” one is trying to indicate something permanent and unchanging, then today this idea has been rendered seriously inadequate, even when applied to what is most object-like about human beings, that is, to their bodies. And in light of this, regarding any “natural morality,” “natural law,” or “natural institutions,” it is clear that nothing in this field exists through nature, but on the contrary that everything is socio-historical.
4. The Transforming Action of the Human Being
Along with the conception of a human nature is another prevalent conception that has asserted the passivity of the consciousness. This ideology has considered the human being to be an entity that functions primarily in response to stimuli from the natural world. What began as crude sensualism has gradually been displaced by historicist currents that, at their core, have preserved the same conception of a passive consciousness. And even when they have emphasized the consciousness’s activity in and transformation of the world more than the interpretation of its activities, they have still conceived of its activity as resulting from conditions external to the consciousness.
Today, these old prejudices regarding human nature and the passivity of the consciousness are once again being asserted, this time transformed into neo-evolutionary theories embodying such views as natural selection, determined through the struggle for the survival of the fittest.
In the version currently in fashion, now transplanted into the human world, this sort of zoological conception attempts to go beyond earlier dialectics of race or class by asserting a dialectic in which it is supposed that all social activity regulates itself automatically according to “natural” economic laws. Thus, once again, the concrete human being is overwhelmed and objectified.
I have noted those conceptions that, to explain the human being, have begun from theoretical generalities and maintained the existence of an unchanging human nature and a passive consciousness. We maintain, quite the opposite, the need to start from human particularity, that the human being is a socio-historical and non-natural phenomenon, and that the human consciousness is active in transforming the world in accordance with its intention. We see human life as always taking place in situation, and the human body as an immediately perceived natural object, immediately subject as well to numerous dictates of each person’s intention. The following questions therefore arise:
• How is it that the consciousness is active; that is, how is it that its intentions can act upon the body, and through the body transform the world?
• How is it that the human being is constituted as a socio-historical being?
These questions must be answered from particular existence so as not to fall again into theoretical generalities, from which a dubious system of interpretation might be derived.
To answer the first question, one must apprehend with immediate evidence how human intention acts over the body. To answer the second, one must begin from evidence of the temporality and intersubjectivity of the human being, rather than beginning from supposed general laws of history and society.
I will not go into greater detail here regarding these questions, as this would take us away from the broad themes of the present letter. For a more extensive treatment I refer you to two essays in the work Contributions to Thought that deal with the above questions. The first essay, “Psychology of the Image,” studies the function that the image fulfills in the consciousness, highlighting its aptitude for moving the body through space. The second essay, “Historiological Discussions,” studies the theme of historicity and sociability.
5. Overcoming Pain and Suffering as Basic Vital Projects
In the work Contributions to Thought it is observed that the natural destiny of the human body is the world, and to verify this it is sufficient to observe the body’s conformation. The body’s sensory apparatus and those for feeding, locomotion, reproduction, and so on are naturally shaped to be in the world. Further, it is through the body that the image launches its transforming charge—not to copy the world, not to be a reflection of a given situation, but on the contrary to modify a given situation.
In the course of daily events, objects are either limitations on or amplifications of corporal possibilities, and the bodies of others appear as a multiplication of those possibilities insofar as they are governed by intentions that are recognized as similar to those governing one’s own body.
Owing to the condition of finiteness and temporo-spatial limitation in which they find themselves and which they register as physical pain and mental suffering, human beings find it necessary to transform both the world and themselves. Overcoming pain is not simply an animal response, then, but a temporal configuration in which the future is paramount, and which becomes transformed into a fundamental impulse of life, even though it may not be present as something urgent at any given moment. In this way, and aside from the immediate, reflex, and natural response to pain, the deferred response to avoid pain is spurred by psychological suffering in the face of danger, re-presented as future possibility or as present fact when pain is present in other human beings.
Overcoming pain, then, appears as a basic project that guides action. This is what has made possible communication among distinct human bodies and intentions in what is known as the social constitution. The social constitution is as historical as human life; it configures human life. Its transformation is ongoing, but in a different way than in nature, where change does not occur as the result of intentions.
6. Image, Belief, Look, and Landscape
Let us suppose that one day I go into my room, and I see the window. I recognize it, it is familiar to me. I have not only a fresh perception of it, but also acting in me are my previous perceptions of it which, converted into images, have been retained within me. Suddenly, I notice a crack in one corner of the windowpane. “That wasn’t there,” I say to myself, on comparing the new perception with what I retain from my previous perceptions. And I also feel a sense of surprise.
The window of previous acts of perception has been retained in me, but not passively as in a photograph, rather actively, in the way that images function. What has been retained in me operates in the present with respect to what I perceive, even though the formation of those retentions pertains to the past. In this way the past is always present, always being updated.
Before entering my room I took it for granted, it was a given, that the window would be there in good condition. It was not that I was thinking about it, but simply that I was counting on it. The window itself was not explicitly present in my thoughts at that moment, rather it was copresent. It was within the horizon of objects contained in my room.
It is due to what is copresent, to this retention that is updated and superimposed on the perception, that the consciousness infers more than it perceives. And it is in this phenomenon that it is possible to see the most elemental functioning of belief. In this example I would say to myself: “I believed the window was in good condition.”
If upon entering my room I had seen phenomena proper to a different field of objects, for example a motorboat or a camel, this surrealistic situation would have seemed unbelievable, not because those objects do not exist but simply because their location in my room would be outside the field of my copresence, outside the landscape I have formed that acts within me, superimposing itself on every single thing that I perceive.
Now then, in any present instant of my consciousness I can observe the intercrossing of what has been retained and what is being futurized in me as they act copresently and in structure. In my consciousness, the present instant is constituted as an active temporal field of three different times. Here things take place very differently from the way they occur in calendar time, where today is separate and distinct from yesterday or tomorrow. On the calendar and on the clock, now is different from no longer and from not yet, and events are ordered one after the other in a linear succession that I cannot claim to be a structure, but is rather a subgroup within a complete series that I call a calendar. I will return to these ideas again when we consider the themes of historicity and temporality later on.
For now, let us continue with the previous notion that the consciousness infers more than it perceives, through its use of what comes from the past as retentions, superimposed on present perception. In each look or act of looking that I direct toward an object, what I see is distorted. This is not meant in the same sense that modern physics explains our inability to see the atom or wavelengths that lie above or below our thresholds of perception. What I am referring to is the distortion related to the superposition of the images of retentions and futurizations on perceptions in the present.
Thus, when I contemplate a beautiful sunset in the countryside, the natural landscape that I observe is not determined by and in itself. Rather, I determine it, I constitute it through the aesthetic ideal that I hold. And the special peace that I feel gives me the illusion that I contemplate passively, when in reality I am actively superimposing numerous of my own internal contents on the natural object itself. This phenomenon holds not only for the present example, but for all looks that I direct toward reality.
7. The Generations and Historical Moments
Social organization continues and expands, but this cannot take place solely through the presence of social objects that have been produced in the past, that we make use of in the present, and that we project into the future. Such a mechanism is too simple to explain the process of civilization.
Continuity is given by the different generations of human beings, which do not exist side by side, separate and apart from each other, but rather coexist, interact, and transform each other. These distinct generations, which make continuity and development possible, are dynamic structures. They are social time in motion, without which civilization would fall into a natural state, losing its character of being a society.
It happens, moreover, that in every historical moment the generations that coexist have distinct temporal levels, retentions, and futurizations that configure different landscapes of situation and belief. For the active generations, the bodies and behavior of children and the elderly constitute a presence that betrays where they have come from and where they are going. So, too, both ends of this triple relationship can recognize their extreme temporal positions. And this situation never stops or remains static, because while the active generations age and the elderly die, the children grow up and begin to occupy active positions. In the meantime, new births continuously reconstitute society.
When, as an abstraction, we “interrupt” this ceaseless flow, we can speak of a certain historical moment in which all members located in the same social setting can be considered contemporaries, living in one same time. But it should be noted that not all contemporaries are coetaneous, that is, they are not all the same age, nor do they have the same internal temporality in terms of landscapes of formation, present situation, and projects. What happens in fact is that a generational dialectic is established between those who are in the “layers” that lie closest to each other and who are trying to occupy the central activity, the social present, in accordance with their different interests and beliefs.
It is this internal social temporality, and not as some philosophies of history would have it the succession of phenomena placed linearly one after another as in calendar time, that structurally explains the historical becoming in which the different generational accumulations—that is, the accumulating landscapes of the distinct generations—interact.
Constituted socially in an historical world in which I continue to configure my landscape, I interpret that toward which I direct my look. This is my personal landscape, but it is in addition a collective landscape for large numbers of people in this time.
As has been previously observed, different generations coexist in the same present time. As an elementary example, those who were born before the transistor was invented and those born into the world of computers are both now living in the same moment. Numerous such coexisting configurations differ from each other in their experiences—not only in the ways that they act, but also in how they think and how they feel—and what used to work in one epoch regarding social relationships and modes of production has slowly, or at times abruptly, ceased to function.
People expected a certain result in the future; that future arrived, but things did not turn out as projected. And that former mode of action, that former sensibility, that former ideology—none of these any longer coincide with the new landscape now asserting itself in society.
8. Violence, the State, and the Concentration of Power
Human beings, through their opening, their freedom to choose between situations, their ability both to defer responses and to imagine their future, also have the possibility to negate themselves, to negate aspects of their bodies, to negate their bodies completely as in suicide, or to negate other human beings. It is this freedom that has allowed a few to illegitimately appropriate the social whole, that is, to negate the freedom and intentionality of others, reducing those others to prostheses, to instruments of the intentions of the few. Therein lies the essence of discrimination, with physical, economic, racial, sexual, religious and other forms violence as its methodology.
It is through power over the apparatus of social regulation and control, that is, the State, that violence can be established and perpetuated. Because of this, social organization will require an advanced type of coordination that is safe from any concentration of power, whether private or of the State.
When it is claimed that privatizing all areas of the economy will make society safe from the power of the State, what is not disclosed in this is that the real problem lies in the monopoly or oligopoly, which simply transfers power from the hands of the State to the hands of a Parastate, no longer managed by a bureaucratic minority but now by that private minority itself as it continues to advance this process of concentration.
The various social structures from the most primitive to the most sophisticated are all proceeding toward ever greater concentration. Eventually they will reach the point that they become immobilized and begin a stage of dissolution, a stage that will give rise to new processes of reorganization, but at a higher level than before.
From the beginning of history, society has proceeded toward globalization, and there will come a time of maximum concentration of arbitrary power, displaying the character of a world empire, which will be without any further possibilities of expansion. The collapse of this global system will follow the logic of the structural dynamics of all closed systems, in which disorder necessarily tends to increase.
Just as the process of the current structures tends toward globalization, however, so does the process of humanization proceed toward increasing opening of the human being, moving beyond both the State and Parastate toward decentralization and de-concentration in favor of a superior form of coordination among autonomous social particularities.
Whether everything ends up in chaos and civilization starts anew, or we begin a stage of progressive humanization, does not depend on inexorable mechanical designs, but on the intentions of individuals and peoples, on their commitment to changing the world, and on an ethic of liberty, which by definition is something that cannot be imposed. And we will aspire no longer to formal democracy, controlled until now by the special interests of the various factions, but instead to real democracy in which direct participation can be realized instantaneously, thanks to communication technologies that are every day more able to bring this about.
9. The Human Process
Those who have diminished the humanity of others have in so doing necessarily brought about new pain and suffering, rekindling in the heart of society the age-old struggle against natural adversity—but now between on one side those who wish to “naturalize” other human beings, society, and history, and on the other side the oppressed, who need to humanize themselves in humanizing the world. That is why to humanize is to move beyond objectification to affirm the intentionality of every human being and the primacy of the future over the present situation.
It is the image and representation of a future that is both better and possible that allows the modification of the present and makes every revolution and all change possible. This is why the pressure of oppressive conditions is not in itself sufficient to set change in motion, rather it is necessary to realize that such change is possible and that it depends on human actions.
This struggle is not between mechanical forces, it is not a natural reflex. It is, rather, a struggle between human intentions. And that is precisely what permits us to speak of oppressors and the oppressed, of the just and the unjust, of heroes and cowards. This is the only thing that allows the meaningful practice of social solidarity and commitment to the liberation of those who suffer discrimination, whether they are a majority or a minority.
For more detailed considerations regarding violence, the State, institutions, the law, and religion, and so as not to exceed the limits of this brief letter, I refer you to the work entitled The Human Landscape.
I do not believe that the meaning of human actions has to do with senseless upheavals or “useless passions” that end in nothing but absurd disintegration. I believe that the destiny of humanity is oriented by intention, and that as people become increasingly conscious of this intention it opens the way toward a universal human nation.
From what we have previously seen it is abundantly clear that human existence does not simply begin and end in a vicious circle of self-enclosure, and that a life aspiring to coherence must open itself, expanding its influence toward people and social ambits, advancing not only a concept or a few ideas but precise actions that extend the growth of freedom.
In the next letter I will leave aside these strictly doctrinal themes in order to focus once more on themes involving the current situation and personal action in the social world.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 19, 199
Fifth Letter to My Friends
Along with many people who are concerned about the unfolding of present-day events, I frequently find myself in the company of those who have been active in progressive political parties and organizations. Many of them have yet to recover from the shock they received with the fall of “real socialism.” Today, all over the world, activists by the hundreds of thousands are choosing to withdraw into the concerns of their daily lives, making it understood with this attitude that they believe their old ideals have been foreclosed. What for us represented simply one more episode in the disintegration of centralized structures—indeed something anticipated for over two decades—came for them as an unexpected catastrophe. Yet this is not the time for everyone to simply drop out of sight, because as the current political form dissolves this leaves a disparity of forces that is opening the way for a system that is monstrous in both its conduct and its direction.
A couple of years ago I attended a rally where older workers, working mothers with their children, and small groups of young people raised their clenched fists together as they sang the words to their anthem in unison. Their banners were waving as the echoes of their glorious calls to struggle rolled across the scene. And upon seeing this I thought of just how much good will, risk, tragedy, and striving, all moved by heartfelt convictions, had been lost along a road leading to the absurd negation of any possibilities of transformation.
How much I would have liked to accompany that moving scene with a song to the ideals of old militants—those who, giving no thought to the outcome, remained steadfast in their combative pride. And all of this gave rise in me to strongly mixed feelings, and today at a distance I ask myself: What has happened to the many good people who struggled in solidarity for something greater than their own immediate interests, for what they believed would be the best of worlds? I am thinking not only of those who were members of more or less institutionalized political parties, but of all those who chose to place their lives at the service of a cause they believed was just. And, of course, one cannot take their measure solely by cataloguing their errors or by classifying them as the exponents of a particular political philosophy. Today it is imperative to redeem human courage, inspiring people’s ideals in a new and possible direction.
In reading over the first part of this letter, I must apologize to those who, not having participated in those movements and activities, may feel removed from such themes. At the same time I would point out to them the importance of keeping these matters in mind—matters that bear so directly on the values and ideals of human actions. These, then, are the themes with which today’s letter deals, perhaps a bit firmly, but with the intention of shaking off the defeatism that seems to have taken such deep hold in the militant soul.
1. The Most Important Issue: To Know If One
Wants to Live, and in What Conditions
Today, millions of people struggle simply to subsist, not knowing whether tomorrow they will be able to surmount hunger, disease, and neglect. Their needs are so dire that whatever they undertake to escape their problems only further complicates their lives. Are they to do nothing then, and remain in a state that is really only one of postponed suicide? Are they to attempt desperate measures? What sort of activity, what risk, what prospect are they prepared to face? What are those, who for economic, societal, or simply personal reasons find themselves in extreme situations, supposed to do? Always, the most important question is to know if one wants to live, and to decide in what conditions to do so.
2. Human Liberty: Source of All Meaning
Even those who do not find themselves in extreme situations are today questioning whether their present circumstances can form a way of life in the future. Even those who prefer not to think about their situation, or who turn this responsibility over to others, are still choosing a way of life. Thus, freedom of choice is a reality from the moment we question our lives and reflect on the conditions in which we want to live. Whether we then struggle for that future or not, this freedom of choice still exists. And it is only this fact of human life that can justify the existence of values, of morality, of law, and of obligation, just as it also allows us to refute all politics, all forms of social organization, and every way of life that is imposed without justifying its meaning, without substantiating just how it is at the service of the concrete human being in today’s world. Any morality, any law, or any social constitution that begins from principles supposedly superior to human life places that life in a situation of contingency, denying its essential meaning of liberty.
3. Intention: Orientor of Action
We are born into conditions that we have not chosen. We have not chosen our body, our natural environment, our society, or the space and time we have either the luck or the misfortune to occupy. Subsequently, there is a point at which we acquire the liberty to commit suicide or to go on living and to reflect on the conditions in which we want to live. We can rebel against a tyranny and be victorious or die in the attempt; we can struggle for a cause or facilitate oppression; we can accept a model of life or try to change it. And we can also make a mistake in our choice.
We may believe that by accepting everything that is established in a society, no matter how perverse those things are, we are becoming more perfectly adapted, and this is the path to better conditions in our lives. Or instead, we may think that by questioning everything, without distinguishing between what is of primary importance and what is secondary, we will expand the range of our liberty—when in reality our power to change things diminishes in a phenomenon in which we become increasingly less adapted. Finally, we can give priority to actions that extend our influence in a new direction, one that is possible for us, one that gives meaning to our existence. In every case, we will have to choose among conditions, among needs, and we will do so according to our intention and the vision of life that we propose for ourselves. Of course, our intention itself can continue to change along this path that is so subject to accidents.
4. What Should We Do with Our Lives?
We cannot ask ourselves this question in the abstract, but only in relation to the concrete situation in which we live and the conditions in which we wish to live. For now, we exist in a particular society and in relationship with other people, and our destinies are interwoven with their destinies. If we believe that at present everything is fine and what we can glimpse of the future seems satisfactory for us as individuals and for society, then we need only forge ahead, perhaps with some minor reforms, but certainly in the same direction. If, on the contrary, we think that we live in a violent, unjust society that is filled with inequity and assailed by unremitting crises related to the dizzying changes in the world, then we will reflect at once on the need for profound personal and social transformations.
Affected by the global crisis now sweeping us along, we lose stable references, and planning our futures becomes ever more difficult. More serious still is our inability to carry out coherent action to change this situation, both because the familiar forms of struggle have failed and also because the unraveling of the social fabric makes it increasingly difficult to mobilize significant numbers of people.
Of course, the same thing happens to us that happens to everyone who is experiencing the present difficulties and intuitively grasps just how much conditions are deteriorating. No one can or would want to undertake actions that are destined to fail, and yet no one can simply let things go on this way.
And the worst of it is that by our inaction we open the door to even greater inequity and injustice. Forms of discrimination and abuse long thought overcome are resurfacing with greater virulence than ever. Given such disorientation and crisis, what is to prevent new monstrosities from acting as social references, forms whose representatives will not only state but also enforce what each and every one of us is to do? Such primitive occurrences are becoming more possible than ever because today their simplistic message spreads so easily, reaching those who find themselves in extreme situations.
More and more people, whether well or poorly informed, have come to recognize that by now we are in a situation of crisis that can be characterized in approximately the terms used here. Nevertheless, the option they are following with increasing single-mindedness is to focus only on their own lives, ignoring the difficulties of others and everything that is taking place in the social context around them.
Many times, while we applaud the objections that others make against the prevailing system, we ourselves are very far from trying to do anything that could actually change those conditions. We know that today democracy is merely formal, responding as it does to the dictates of the economic interests. Yet, subject to the blackmail of either supporting that system or facilitating the rise of dictatorships, we salve our consciences with ridiculous votes for major parties.