Tenth Letter to My Friends
Toward what destiny are present-day events heading? Optimists feel that we will soon find ourselves in a worldwide society of abundance in which society’s problems will be solved—a sort of paradise on Earth. Pessimists believe that current symptoms indicate a growing sickness of both institutions and human groups—the entire population and ecological system—a sort of hell on Earth. In contrast, those who view historical mechanisms as relative feel that everything rests on our present behavior—that heaven or hell depend on our actions. Of course, there are others not in the least interested in what happens to anyone other than themselves. Among these varied opinions, the important one to us is that the future depends on what we do today. Yet even within this position there are differences of approach.
Some say that, since this crisis has been brought on by the voracity of the banking system and the multinational companies, when these problems reach the point of endangering their interests they will set mechanisms of recovery in motion, just as they have done on previous occasions. In regard to action, such people favor gradually adapting to the reform processes they claim are converting capitalism to the benefit of the majorities.
Others argue that we cannot let everything depend solely on the good will of the few, and what is required therefore is to demonstrate the will of the majority through political action and by educating the people, who now live in a situation of extortion under the dominant scheme of things. According to them, a moment of general crisis for the system will come, and it will be important to take advantage of this for the cause of the revolution.
Finally, there are those who maintain that capital as well as labor, all cultures, nations, and organizational forms, all artistic and religious expressions, all human groups and individuals are caught up in a process of technological acceleration and destructuring that is beyond their control. Flowing out of a long historical process, things today have reached a point of worldwide crisis that is affecting every political and economic scheme. And both the general process of disorganization and the general recovery will proceed independently of any such schemes.
Those who uphold this structural point of view stress that it is necessary to forge a global understanding of these phenomena at the same time that one acts locally in societal, group, and personal areas of some minimum specificity.
Given how interconnected the world is, they do not believe that any step-by-step gradualism society will supposedly adopt over time can be successful—instead they strive to generate a series of demonstration effects sufficiently energetic to produce a general inflection in the process.
They therefore champion the constructive capacity of human beings to unite and transform economic relationships, to change institutions, and to struggle tirelessly in dismantling all of the factors that are bringing about a regressive involution with no way out. As contemporary humanists we hold this last position. Clearly, of course, this as well as the previous descriptions have been simplified, omitting the multiplicity of variants that can be derived from each of them.
1. Destructuring and Its Limits
It is pertinent here to point out the limits of political destructuring, which will not stop until this process reaches down to the base of society and every individual.
Let us consider some examples. The weakening of centralized political power is more evident in some countries than in others. As they take advantage of the growing strength of autonomous regions or the pressure of secessionist movements, certain interest groups or simple opportunists wish to stop the process of destructuring at exactly the point that will leave control of the situation in their hands. According to their aspirations, once a canton has seceded, a new republic has separated from the former nation, or an autonomous region has been freed from the central power, it ought now to continue as the new organizational structure.
What happens instead is that these new powers are in turn challenged by the micro-regions, counties, cities, and towns that lie within them. None of these constituent units can see why an autonomous region that has been freed from a former central power should now centralize power over its component areas, no matter how vigorously the new region may offer as rationales the sharing of language, a common folklore, or even some ineffable “historical and cultural collectivity.” This is because when it comes to paying taxes and allocating budgets, the relevance of folklore extends only as far as tourism and record companies. And were the cities to be freed from the newly independent region, the neighborhoods would apply this same logic, and so on down the scale until this reaches even the neighbors who live on opposite sides of the street.
Then someone may say, “Why should those of us who live on this side of the street have to pay the same taxes as those on the other side? We have a higher standard of living, and our taxes are only going to solve the problems of those other people who don’t even try to get ahead through their own efforts. It’s better for each to take care of their own.” And so on down the scale until one hears the same concerns expressed even in the individual houses in the neighborhood—and no one will be able to stop this mechanical process at precisely the stage that interests them. That is, things will not come to a stop in a simple process of medieval-style feudalization, a situation that corresponded to small, thinly scattered populations whose sporadic contact and interchange took place through means of communication controlled by quarreling feudal lords or bands of toll and tax collectors. Today’s situation does not at all resemble that of previous eras in terms of production, consumption, technology, communications, population density, and many other factors.
At the same time, economic blocs and common markets will increasingly absorb the decision-making power that nations formerly held. In a given area, newly autonomous regions will be able to escape from their former national entity, but at the same time cities or groups of cities within them will bypass the old administrative levels, seeking inclusion as full members in the new regional superstructure. And the regional economic entities will give serious consideration to those independent regions, cities, or groups of cities that possess strong economic potential.
In the economic warfare among the various regional blocs, there is nothing to prevent certain member countries from beginning to establish “bilateral” or “multilateral” relations with other areas, thus escaping the orbit of the regional market of which they form a part. Why couldn’t the United Kingdom, for example, establish closer ties with the NAFTA, beginning at first with a few exceptions to existing European arrangements. Later on, depending on the progress of the relationship, what would stop it from eventually abandoning its former market to join the North American regional market? Or if Quebec were to secede from Canada, what would keep it from opening negotiations outside the region of the NAFTA? In Latin America it is clear that organizations such as the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC) or the Andean Pact (Pacto Andino) are no longer viable, as already we see Columbia and Chile beginning to integrate their economies with an eye to inclusion in the NAFTA, even as the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) is affected by possible regional secessions within Brazil.
Moreover, if Turkey, Algeria, and countries south of the Mediterranean begin to join the European Common Market, other countries that are excluded could tend to strengthen their mutual ties and negotiate as a group with regional markets of other geographical areas. And while powers such as China and Russia as well as the countries of Eastern Europe continue to undergo rapid centrifugal transformations, what effects will this have on the regional blocs as they are now visualized?
While it is unlikely that things will turn out exactly as described in these examples, the tendency toward regionalization may well take unexpected turns, resulting in arrangements quite different from those schemes now proposed based on geographical contiguity, and therefore relying on conventional geopolitical prejudices. So it is that fresh disturbances may befall today’s newly laid schemes and strategies, whose objectives go beyond simple economic union and include the intention to form political and military blocs.
Since in the end it will be the forces of big capital that decide things based on what is most favorable for the evolution of their businesses, no one should imagine with too much certainty regional maps drawn as in the past in accordance with geographical contiguity, in which highway and rail links radiating from central points play the principal role. The trend today is toward arrangements redesigned around high-volume air and ship traffic supported by worldwide satellite communications.
Even by colonial times, geographical proximity had already been replaced by the far-flung overseas checkerboard of the great powers, which with the two world wars entered decline. For some, the present rearrangements take the problem back to pre-colonial stages, and they imagine that an economic bloc must be organized in a spatial continuum, through which they project their own particular nationalism into a sort of regional “nationalism.”
In short, the limits of destructuring are not given in particular by those countries or autonomous regions newly freed from a central power or in general by economic regions organized according to geographical contiguity. The lower limits of destructuring reach right down to each neighbor and individual, while the upper limits reach the world community as a whole.
2. Some Important Areas of the Phenomenon
Among many possible areas in the process of destructuring, I would like to focus on three areas in particular: the political, the religious, and the generational.
It is clear that, in general, various political parties, arising from time to time as “right,” “center,” and “left,” will alternate holding the now-reduced power of the State. Already we are seeing many “surprises,” and still others are in store as forces long supposed to have disappeared emerge once more, and coalitions and alignments enthroned for decades dissolve amid widespread scandal. While this is nothing new in the game of politics, what is genuinely original is that ostensibly opposed political factions are succeeding each other without altering in the slightest the process of destructuring, which of course affects them, too. And in regard to the proposals, language, and style of politics, we will witness a general syncretism in which ideological profiles fuse, growing more blurred with each passing day.
Faced with this battle of slogans and empty forms, average citizens will continue to distance themselves from any kind of participation, to concentrate only on what is most immediate and perceptual. But social discontent will continue to intensify, making itself felt through spontaneous protests, civil disobedience, outbursts of unrest, and the appearance of psycho-social phenomena with explosive growth. In these circumstances, new forms of irrationalism are emerging and, with various forms of intolerance as their rallying cries, growing dangerously close to gaining ascendancy.
In light of this, it is clear that if a central power wishes to stifle demands for independence, it will feel moved to adopt increasingly radical positions in order to draw other political groups into its sphere. What party will be able to remain uninvolved—at the risk of losing its influence—if violence sparked by territorial, ethnic, religious, or cultural disputes explodes in a given point?
Political factions will have to take positions on such issues, as we see today in various parts of Africa (where there are 18 points in conflict); the Americas (4 points in conflict—Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, without including the claims of indigenous peoples in Ecuador and other countries of the Americas, or the deteriorating racial situation in the United States); Asia (10 points in conflict, counting the Chinese-Tibetan conflict, but without considering the inter-canton differences arising throughout China); south and Pacific Asia (12 points, including the protests of the indigenous peoples of Australia); Western Europe (16 points); Eastern Europe (4 points, counting the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, and the former Soviet Union as only one point each; there are over 30 points in conflict if we include the many countries of the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, which has inter-ethnic and border problems in more than 20 republics stretching well beyond Eastern Europe); and the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (9 points in conflict).
Politicians will also be moved to echo the increasing radicalization that the traditional religions are experiencing, such as that between Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan, between Muslims and Christians in the former Yugoslavia and Lebanon, and between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka. They will have to respond to the fighting between sects within a given religion such as that between Sunnis and Shiites in the sphere of influence of Islam, and between Catholics and Protestants in the sphere of influence of Christianity. They will be drawn to participate in the religious persecution that has begun, first in the West, through the press and the passing of laws restricting freedom of religion and conscience.
It is clear that the traditional religions will try to impede the newer religious forms that are now awakening all over the world. According to the “experts” and pundits, who are normally atheists but objectively allied with the dominant sect of their area, the harassment of the new religious groups “does not constitute a limitation on freedom of thought, but rather a protection for the freedom of belief that now finds itself under attack by the brainwashing of the new cults, which, furthermore, are undermining our civilization’s traditional values, culture, and way of life.”
In this way, politicians usually far removed from the theme of religion are beginning to take part in this witch-hunt because, among other things, they note the massive popularity that these new expressions of faith—which also carry an undercurrent of revolution—are beginning to achieve. No longer will they be able to claim as in the nineteenth century that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” No longer can they speak of the slumbering isolation of the masses and the individual, when Muslim populations are proclaiming the establishment of Islamic republics, when in Japan (with the collapse of the national religion of Shintoism following World War II) Buddhism formed the motor that carried the Komeito to power, when the Catholic Church is launching new political ventures in the wake of the exhaustion of Christian Socialism and Third Worldism in Latin America and Africa. In any event, the atheist philosophers of the new times will have to change the terms of their discourse, replacing the phrase “opiate of the masses” with the phrase “amphetamine of the masses.”
Leaders will also have to take positions regarding youth, increasingly characterized as constituting a “threat to society,” with dangerous tendencies toward drugs, violence, and lack of communication. Those leaders who persist in ignoring the profound roots of these problems will be in no position to give satisfactory answers simply by inviting young people to participate in conventional politics or the traditional cults, or to enjoy the offerings of a decadent civilization controlled by money. Meanwhile, such leaders are contributing to the psychic destruction of an entire generation and the rise of despicable new economic powers that grow rich by preying on the anguish and psychological alienation of millions of human beings.
Many leaders now ask in surprise where this growing violence among young people is coming from—as if it were not these leaders themselves, the former or current generations to hold power, who have overseen the perfecting of a systematic violence, exploiting even the advances in science and technology to make their manipulations ever more efficient.
Some point to a supposed “autism” among youth and, based on this view, attempt to establish relationships between the increasing lifespans of adults and the longer period of education and training required before young people are allowed to enter full participation. This explanation, while not without basis, is certainly not sufficient to understand these more ample processes. What we can observe is that the generational dialectic, the motor of history, has become temporarily stalled, and with this a dangerous abyss has opened between two worlds.
Here it is interesting to recall that over two decades ago, when a certain thinker warned of these incipient tendencies that today we find expressed in substantive problems, those fine Mandarins, flanked by their “experts” and formers of opinion, succeeded only in tearing their vestments in frenzied accusations that it was just such discourse that was, in addressing these problems, somehow causing the war between the generations.
In those times, a powerful force of youth that should have heralded the advent of a new phenomenon as well as the creative extension of the historical process, was diverted by the diffuse exigencies of the decade of the sixties and pushed into a dead-end guerrilla struggle in various parts of the world.
Further problems are sure to befall those who now expect the new generations simply to channel all their desperation into tumultuous music or the sports stadium, limiting their protests to t-shirts and posters bearing innocent slogans. The situation of asphyxia for young people creates irrational and cathartic conditions that are ripe to be channeled by fascists, authoritarians, and the violent of all types. Nor is sowing seeds of mistrust and viewing every young person as a potential criminal the way to reestablish a dialogue between the generations. No one, moreover, is showing any enthusiasm for allowing the new generations access to society’s communications media, nor are those in control inclined toward public discussion of these issues unless they are dealing with “model youth” who, accompanied by rock music, simply parrot the established political wisdom or venture forth in the spirit of Boy Scouts to clean seabirds covered with oil—but without questioning the forces of big capital, which continue to produce these ever-widening ecological disasters!
I fear that any genuine youth organization (whether student, artistic, labor, or religious) will be suspected of the worst kinds of misdeeds simply because they are not sponsored by a union, political party, foundation, or church. Despite so much manipulation of young people, there are still those who ask why youth do not embrace the marvelous proposals proffered by the established powers, adding that it would be to the benefit of these future citizens to busy themselves with study, work, and sports. Were this to occur, no one would have to worry about any “lack of responsibility” among such busy young people.
However, if unemployment should continue to climb, if the recession should become chronic, if everywhere the phenomenon of marginalizing and neglecting young people should continue to grow, then we shall see what today’s lack of participation develops into. For various reasons—wars, hunger, unemployment, moral fatigue—the generational dialectic itself has become destructured, producing a silence that has lasted for two long decades, a silence now being shattered by heart-rending cries and acts of desperation that lead nowhere.
In light of all of the above, it seems abundantly clear that no one will be able to reasonably orient the processes of a world that is fast dissolving. While this dissolution is tragic, it is at the same time illuminating the birth of a new civilization—the world civilization. And if this is happening, then a certain type of collective mentality must also be disintegrating, as a new way of being conscious of the world emerges. Regarding this point, I would like to include here something said in the first letter:
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.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world affirm the ideas embodied in the “Statement of the Humanist Movement” [see Sixth Letter to My Friends, this volume]. They are Communist-Humanists, Socialist-Humanists, Liberal-Humanists, Environmentalist-Humanists, and a great many others, all of whom, without abandoning their own causes, take one step toward the future. They are people who struggle for peace, for human rights, and for an end to discrimination. Among them are, of course, both atheists and those who have faith in human beings and their transcendence. And all of them have in common a passion for social justice, an ideal of human brotherhood based on the convergence of diversity, a disposition to leap beyond all prejudice, and a coherent personality in which their personal lives are not separate from the struggle for a new world.
3. Targeted Action
There are still political militants who worry about who will be the next president, prime minister, senator, or representative. It is possible that they do not yet fully comprehend the real extent of the destructuring toward which everything is heading and how little any of these “hierarchs” will mean for the transformation of society. There will also be more than one case in which such anxiety is linked to the personal situation of these supposed militants, who are worried about their own position in the world of political deal-making.
The key question in any case is for people to focus on understanding how to establish priorities among the conflicts in the places where they carry out their daily lives and to know how to organize valid and effective action fronts based on such conflicts.
In each situation it is important to understand what characteristics are required to form grassroots committees on health, education, labor, student, and other issues, and what characteristics are necessary for centers for direct communication and networks of neighborhood councils. It needs to be clear how to give participation to even the smallest and least noticed of those organizations through which people express their work, culture, sports, and religiosity.
Here it is useful to explain that when we refer to people’s immediate environment of coworkers, family, and friends, we are emphasizing in particular the places in which these relationships occur.
Speaking in spatial terms, the minimum unit of action is the neighborhood, for it is here that people feel each conflict, even though the roots of that conflict may be far away. A center for direct communication forms a place in the neighborhood where people can directly discuss all economic and social problems, as well as all the problems of health care, education, and the quality of life in general.
The political focus is to give a higher priority to the neighborhoods than to the city, county, state, province, or even a newly independent region or the country as a whole. In truth, long before nations were formed, people congregated together in human communities where, as they put down roots, they became neighbors. Later on, administrative superstructures were set up that increasingly robbed the neighborhoods of their autonomy and power. Yet the legitimacy of any given order derives only from the inhabitants—from these neighbors—and it is from them that all representation in a real democracy must arise.
Every town and city should be in the hands of its neighborhoods and, if this is the case, no one can coherently propose the objective of setting up multiple layers of representatives or deputies, as occurs in leader-dominated hierarchical politics. Rather, all such arrangements can only be the result of the grassroots operation of the organized social base. The concept of neighborhood applies to populations that are spread out, as well as to those concentrated within a limited area or living in large apartment buildings or complexes.
It is important for the neighborhoods to decide among themselves, through the structures that connect them, the status of their district. And their decisions within this district should, of course, not depend on some faraway superstructure that simply dictates orders.
When several neighborhoods set a humanist district action plan in motion, and their district, town, or city proceeds to organize real democracy, this demonstration effect will make itself felt far beyond the boundaries of that bastion. And rather than proposing a gradualism through which this new approach will little by little gain territory until finally it has spread to every corner of a country, what is key is to demonstrate in practice that in at least one place a new system is working.
The detailed problems presented by all of the above are of course numerous, and it would be beyond the scope of this letter to attempt to treat them here.
With this final letter I send my warmest regards,
December 15, 1993