First Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends,

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,

Silo

February 21, 1991

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