In the previous letter I focused on the situation in which we now live and on certain tendencies visible in contemporary events. I also used the opportunity to discuss various proposals that defenders of market economics proclaim as if these were the inescapable preconditions for all social progress. I made note of the continuing decline in solidarity and the crisis of references now taking place. Finally, I outlined some positive characteristics that are beginning to appear in what I called a new sensibility, a new moral attitude, and a new tactical approach to facing life.
Some of my correspondents have expressed their disapproval of the tone of that letter, feeling it touched on subjects that are too grave to allow such irony. But let’s not be so melodramatic—the system of proofs presented to justify the ideology of neoliberalism, social market economics, and the New World Order is so riddled with inconsistencies that this is hardly something to get worked up about.
I would like to point out that while the foundations of that ideology have long been dead, soon that entire edifice of ideas will be overtaken by a crisis so evident that even those who confuse meaning with expression, content with form, and process with circumstance will finally perceive it. Just as the ideologies of fascism and real socialism died long before these systems collapsed in practice, so too will the right-thinking people of today be caught by surprise as they recognize the collapse of the present system only after the fact.
Doesn’t this all seem a bit ridiculous? It’s like sitting through the same bad movie time after time. As we watch it over and over we begin to scrutinize tiny details—imperfections in the walls of the movie sets, the camera angles used, and whether the actors have shaved carefully—while the lady sitting beside us is overcome with emotion at what she is seeing for the first time, and what, for her, is reality itself.
On my own behalf, then, I might point out that I have not mocked the enormous tragedy that stems from the imposition of the present system, but instead the monstrous pretensions and grotesque end of this system—an ending that we have already witnessed before on too many previous occasions.
I have also received correspondence requesting more precise definitions of the attitudes recommended for facing the present process of social change. Before making any recommendations of this kind, however, I believe it would first be useful to try to understand the principal positions now held by various groups as well as by isolated individuals. Here I will limit myself to presenting the most popular positions, giving my views in those cases that seem to be of greatest interest.
1. Some Positions Regarding the Present Process of Change
Throughout the long ascent of humanity progress has occurred in a slow process of accumulation up to the present time, when the pace of economic and technological change has begun to outstrip the speed of change in social structures and human behavior. Many factors in society are becoming more “out of phase” all the time, which is generating growing crises in today’s world.
This problem can be approached from various points of view. Some believe that the current disarticulation will automatically regulate itself, and they therefore recommend that we not attempt to direct this process, which would in any case be impossible to orient. This approach embodies an optimistic-mechanistic thesis. Still others believe we are heading toward an inevitable explosion—they hold a pessimistic-mechanistic thesis. Various moral currents are also making their appearance, attempting to stop change and, as far as possible, return to some original past where they assume that comfort is still to be found. They represent an anti-historical position. Meanwhile, all around us we hear a rising chorus of voices from contemporary cynics, stoics, and epicureans. The first deny that there is importance or meaning in any action at all. The second face events unflinchingly, even when everything goes badly. Those who adopt the third position seek personal benefit in every situation, thinking only of their own hypothetical well-being, which extends, at most, to their own children.
As in the final stages of past civilizations, many people today are opting for positions that pursue individual salvation, assuming that no task they might undertake with others could have any meaning or possibility of success—at most others have a useful role to play only insofar as they profit one within a speculation that is strictly personal. That is why aspiring business, cultural, and political leaders perfect and polish their public images, striving to seem credible so that people will believe they think of and act on behalf of others. This is, of course, a rather fruitless task, because by now everyone knows the tricks and no one believes in anyone else.
The old values—religious, patriotic, cultural, political, union, and so on—have all been subordinated to money in a landscape in which solidarity and, therefore, any collective opposition to the contemporary scheme of things has been eroded, even as the social fabric continues to unravel. Afterwards, another stage will follow in which this inordinate individualism will be outgrown—but that is a theme for later on.
With our landscape of formation weighing us down and our beliefs in crisis, we are not yet in any condition to admit that this new historical moment is approaching. Today, whether we wield some small measure of power or depend absolutely on the power of others, we all find ourselves touched by this individualism—a situation in which those who are better placed in the system have a clear advantage.
2. Individualism, Social Fragmentation, and the Concentration of Power in a Few
Individualism necessarily leads, however, to the struggle for the supremacy of the strongest and the pursuit of “success” at any price. This position began among a few who, relying on the acquiescence of the majority, respected certain rules of the game among themselves. In any event, this stage will soon exhaust itself and it will become “all against all,” because sooner or later the balance of power will tilt in favor of the strongest, and then the rest, either together or in alliances of various factions, will end up dismantling this fragile system.
In the meantime, however, as economies and technologies continue to develop, the powerful minorities continue to change along with them, perfecting their methods to such a degree that in some wealthy areas the majorities now effectively transfer their discontent to secondary aspects of the predicament in which they live. It appears that people generally no longer question the system as a whole but only certain urgent aspects when these strike close to home. Because of this, there are some who suggest that despite the overall rise in the world’s wealth and standard of living, the great masses of humanity who are left behind will simply be content to await a better life in some distant future.
All of this demonstrates an important shift in social behavior. And if this has occurred, activism for social change will continue to weaken as traditional political and social forces are left devoid of proposals. With the emptiness of individual isolation only partially filled by those structures that produce goods and leisure activities, the fragmentation of personal and collective life will continue to increase.
In this paradoxical world, all centralization and bureaucracy will be swept aside, breaking with the former structures of management and decision-making. Yet at the same time, this deregulation, decentralizing, and liberalizing of markets and procedures will leave the field wide open for the concentration of wealth and power to flourish on a scale unknown in any previous era, as international finance capital continues to flow into the hands of an ever more powerful banking system.
The political class will experience a similar paradox in that they will have to champion these new values, which in eroding the power of the State will simultaneously undermine their own leadership role. It is little wonder then that for some time they have been replacing words such as “government” with other words such as “administration,” trying to lead “the public” (no longer “the people”) to understand that a country is now a business.
In any event, and until the consolidation of a global imperial power, conflicts between regions could well occur as previously they occurred among countries. Whether such confrontations will be limited to the economic sphere or spill over into the arena of limited warfare, whether massive and incoherent unrest will as a consequence erupt, whether governments will fall pulling down countries and whole regions, will not in the least deter the process of concentration toward which this historical moment is heading. Local grievances, inter-ethnic fighting, migrations, refugees, sustained crises—none of these will alter the general picture of the increasing concentration of power.
And when the recession and unemployment become chronic among the populations of the wealthy countries, the stage of liquidating any remaining liberalism will have finished, ushering in the politics of control, coercion, and emergency in the finest imperial style—and who then will be able to speak of a free market economy, and what importance will it have to maintain positions based on an uncompromising individualism?
In this letter I will also respond to other concerns that my correspondents have raised concerning how to characterize the current crisis and its associated tendencies.
3. Characteristics of the Crisis
Let us turn now to the crisis of the nation state, the crisis of regionalization and globalization, and the crisis facing society, the group, and the individual.
In the context of the process of globalization, the flow of information is accelerating as the movement of both people and goods continues to increase. Technology and growing economic power are becoming concentrated in businesses that are ever more powerful. And this phenomenon of accelerating interchange is now encountering the limitations and slowed pace that are produced by traditional structures such as the nation state.
The result is that within each region national borders are becoming blurred. This means that countries are having to make their legislation more homogeneous, not only in matters of trade regulations, duties and tariffs, and personal documentation, but also in adapting their systems of production. Changes in labor and social security laws cannot be far behind. Ongoing accords among these countries will show that a common legislature, judicial system, and executive will provide improved effectiveness and quicker response time in managing the region. Primitive national currencies will give way to some type of regional medium of exchange that will avoid the losses and delays of previous exchange operations.
The crisis of the nation state is a readily observable fact, not only in those countries that are joining to form regional markets but also in those whose battered economies have fallen significantly behind. Everywhere voices are being raised against entrenched bureaucracies, demanding the reform of established schemes. Old resentments as well as local, ethnic, and religious rivalries are resurfacing in regions where countries have recently been formed as a result of partitions, annexations, or artificial federations. And the traditional State is having to face this centrifugal tendency at just the time that growing economic difficulties are calling into question its effectiveness and legitimacy.
Phenomena of this type are growing in the areas of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. These problems will also deepen in the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and Asia Minor. In a number of countries of Africa whose borders have been artificially drawn we are beginning to see such symptoms as well. Accompanying these breakdowns are large-scale migrations of refugees toward borders, which can threaten the equilibrium of an entire region. With any significant imbalance in China, this phenomenon could spill directly into more than one other area, especially in light of the present instability in the former Soviet Union and the countries of continental Asia.
In the meantime, the regional centers of economic and technological power have become configured: the Far East, led by Japan; Europe; and the United States. While the rise and influence of these regions exhibits an apparent polycentrism, events demonstrate that the United States with its military might in addition to its technological, economic, and political power is now in a position to control the world’s key lines and areas of supply.
In the process of increasing globalization, this lone remaining superpower is emerging as the governing force in present events, whether the other regional powers like it or not. This is the ultimate meaning of the New World Order.
It seems that we have yet to reach a time of peace, although the threat of world war has receded for now. Local, ethnic, and religious upheavals, social unrest, mass migrations, and limited wars still appear to threaten the supposed present stability. As the less wealthy areas fall still further behind the growth of the technologically and economically accelerated areas, they become more “out of phase,” which only compounds their problems. Latin America is a case in point, for even as the economies of various countries experience important growth in coming years, their dependence on the centers of power will be increasingly evident.
As the regional and world power of multinational companies continues to grow, as international finance capital continues to concentrate, political systems lose autonomy and their legislation must adapt to the dictates of these new powers.
Today we see the functions of increasing numbers of institutions being directly or indirectly supplanted by various departments or foundations of the Company, which in some areas has developed the means to oversee everything from cradle to grave for both employees and their children: birth, education, career placement, news and information, marriage, recreation, social security, retirement, death, and burial.
there are already places where citizens can avoid old-fashioned bureaucratic paperwork and get by with only a credit card and, increasingly, with just electronic money. And when people use electronic money, a record is made of not only their expenditures and deposits, but also of a wealth of other pertinent information on their background, habits, movements, present status, and so forth, all duly computerized. Of course, while this does free some people from a few minor delays and concerns, these personal conveniences also serve a disguised system of control. Along with the growth in technology and the accelerating rhythm of life, political participation diminishes and decision-making power becomes ever more remote and intermediated.
The family is shrinking and flying apart into the minimum unit of increasingly mobile and changeable couples. As interpersonal communication becomes blocked, friendship disappears, and competition poisons all human relationships to the point that no one trusts anyone else. The sensation of insecurity that people are feeling is no longer rooted in the objective fact of rising crime and violence, but stems above all from their state of mind. It must be added that social, group, and interpersonal solidarity are rapidly disappearing, that drug addiction and alcoholism are continuing to spread devastation, and that suicide and mental illness are spiraling dangerously upward. Of course, everywhere there is still a healthy and reasonable majority, but the symptoms of such advanced disarticulation no longer allow us to speak of a healthy society.
The landscape of formation in which the new generations have grown up contains all the elements of crisis previously cited, and these elements form part of their lives just as much as their technical and career training, as much as elements like soap operas, the advice of celebrity experts in the mass media, affirmations about what a perfect world we live in and, for more privileged youth, the diversions of motorcycles, travel, clothes, sports, music, and electronic gadgets. The problem of this landscape of formation in the new generations threatens to widen the already enormous gap between sectors of different ages, bringing to the fore a virulent generational dialectic of both great depth and vast geographical extension.
It is clear that the myth of money has long since been incorporated at the pinnacle of the scale of values, with everything else increasingly subordinated to it. A large segment of society does not want to hear about anything that could remind them of old age or death, shunning any theme related to the meaning and direction of life. And we must recognize that this is not altogether unreasonable, since reflection on these subjects in no way coincides with the scale of values established in the present system.
The symptoms of the crisis are by now too serious to disregard, yet some will maintain that this is simply the price we must pay in order to exist at the close of the twentieth century. Others affirm that we are entering the best of all possible worlds. The background for both of these affirmations comes from this particular historical moment, when the whole scheme of things has not yet entered crisis, although particular crises are proliferating rapidly. People’s appreciation of events will change, however, as the symptoms of disintegration accelerate and they feel the growing need to establish new priorities and new projects in life.
4. Positive Factors of Change
One cannot question the entire development of science and technology simply because some advances have been or are being employed against life and the well-being of all. In any questioning of science and technology one must first reflect on the characteristics of the prevailing system, which all too often applies advances in knowledge toward spurious ends. Progress in medicine, communications, robotics, genetic engineering, and myriad other fields can of course be applied in a destructive direction. The same holds true of employing technology in the irrational exploitation of natural resources and the generation of industrial pollution, with attendant widespread contamination and deterioration of the physical environment. All such misuse of technology constitutes a grave indictment of the negative character that now commands both the economy and social systems.
Today it is clear that society has the capacity to solve the problems entailed in feeding all of humanity, and yet every day we see starvation, malnutrition, and inhuman suffering increase around us. In short, the established system is not disposed to face these problems and relinquish its fabulous profits in exchange for an overall improvement in the human condition and standard of living.
It must also be pointed out that the process carrying us toward regionalization and finally globalization is being manipulated by special interests to the detriment of humanity as a whole. It is clear, however, that even burdened with such distortions this process is opening the way toward a universal human nation. The accelerated change taking place in today’s world is leading to a global crisis for the system and a consequent reordering of many factors. And all of this will be the necessary condition to reach a reasonable stability and harmonious development of the planet.
Accordingly, despite the tragedies that can be anticipated as the present global system deteriorates, the human species will prevail over all particular interests. This faith in the future is rooted in an understanding of the direction of history that began with our hominid ancestors. This species, which has worked and struggled over the course of millions of years to surmount pain and suffering, is not now going to yield to the absurd. This is why we need to understand processes that are more ample than simple immediate circumstance, and to support, even if we do not see immediate results, everything that goes in the direction of evolution.
When courageous human beings who are moved by a spirit of solidarity become disheartened, this slows the march of history. But it is difficult to grasp this broader meaning if one does not also organize and orient one’s personal life in a positive direction. What is at work here is not the interplay of mechanical factors or historical determinism—it is human intention, which tends to make its way through all difficulties.
I hope, my friends, to move on in the next letter to other more reassuring topics, leaving aside observations concerning such negative factors in order to outline proposals that correspond to our faith in a better future for all.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 5, 1991