How I came to understand the present world's plight after reading a 1957 essay (followed by some frivolously dubious notes)

Yep, trust me to find illumination about current affairs in a 1957 essay.

The fifties! Of all decades the one that seems to be the most self-delusionary…
Just think of the sheer innocent bliss of those fifties images …. those pictures of happy healthy families (man woman boy girl) driving gaily in a Chevrolet to a promising future. Or those magazine-illustrations presenting the spoils of technology (from plane to fridge) in cozy techno-colors. Yes, the fifties …. home to a wholesome society without worries. Well, I suppose the world needed a cheerier self-image, after the horrors of the preceding decades ….

So, at first sight, not the epoch where one would go looking for thoughts relevant to the present perplexities of a globalizing world. But then again, the fifties were also the decade that had to come to terms with the globally destructive potential of the atomic bomb, the decade that massively succumbed to the global reach of television.
So after all, perhaps I should not have been that surprised to find this uncannily prescient analysis of globalization in a 1957 essay by Hannah Arendt on the existential thinker Karl Jaspers (1).

“for the first time in history all peoples on earth have a common present” she writes. But “this common factual present is not based on a common past” – it is the result of the evolution in technology and communications and it is accompanied by a negative solidarity only, due to the common vulnerability to ‘weapons of mass destruction’. So how can all those peoples, condemned to a common present, but without a common past and without shared traditions, build a common future? What could possibly be a positive, shared project?

Here it is worth noting that Arendt , for all her 'worldliness' and political savvy , has a huge blind spot for all things economic. (2) Unless of course it is this blogger who, in the spirit of the times, is brainwashed by economic doctrine. But anyway – the point I want to make is that enlightened economic self-interest has proven to be a more powerful common project for people of the most different backgrounds and persuasions (3) than any ideology.

And while globalization is still often associated with big bad western multinationals imposing their ways & wares all over the world, there’s no denying that many non-western countries now have firmly taken the economic initiative themselves , not only producing strong domestic growth but also massively investing their surplus savings abroad, in the best global-capitalist tradition. Just think of those Chinese and Indian companies taking over Westerns companies. Or take the topical example of the filthily rich sovereign wealth funds (Asian and Middle Eastern) that are now bailing out icons of western capitalism such as Citigroup and Merril Lynch by injecting billions of dollars in them.

So yes, economic gain does seem to be a common denominator and an inspirational project for many countries who – irrespective of faith, cultural traditions or political system, seem to want to acquire their stake in global capitalism. (4)

But let’s get back to Arendt’s more humanist ruminations about globalization (5). She writes: “the present realities […] insofar as they have brought us a global present without a common past, threaten to render irrelevant all traditions and all particular past histories". Then she goes on to wonder how peoples without a common past could ever forge a common positive project, could ever hope to understand each other?

And so she gets to the main point of Jaspers’ analysis of the possible further course of world history:
“the prerequisite for this mutual understanding would be the renunciation, […]of the binding authority and universal validity which tradition and past have always claimed”
All those particular traditions and values of the different regions have to be put into play in the present, have to be confronted in “a limitless communication” in their full diversity (6) .
But such free communication is only possible when “the great philosophical systems [are stripped ] of their dogmatic metaphysical claims, dissolved into trains of thought which meet and cross each other, communicate with each other and eventually retain only what is universally communicative”

So this destructive process (destruction of the absolute validity of a particular tradition, destruction of a single minded concentration on the own traditions) can even be “considered a necessary prerequisite for ultimate understanding between men of all cultures, civilizations, races, and nations. Its result would be a [horrid] shallowness […]”

"a horrid shallowness" ... Yes, here is the full ambivalence of our global epoch exposed: we (the world’s peoples) are condemned to find a common ground if we do not want to go under in ethnic strife or in great cultural clashes. And this common ground can only be found through free communication where no party would impose its particular traditions as absolutely valid.

But the price for this all-inclusiveness, for this worldwide communication would be shallowness, the loss of the dimension of depth. And this does indeed seem to happen : the current nascent global culture takes a bit from all traditions but is on the whole frightfully frivolously fragmented. The internet does foster global communication and, hopefully, more mutual understanding amongst all peoples. But it is not because a European chats to a Chinese that the former will fathom the depths of Confucianism or that the latter will appreciate the refinements of the Italian Renaissance…

But perhaps the world needs periods of “shallowness”, periods of forgetting and unburdening to let free rein to spontaneous creativity and communication? Ah, a moot point …. isn’t it?

Footnotes dedicated to 1 or 2 facts and quite a few more dubious opinions

(1) Hannah Arendt (yes, she again) – in a 1957 essay on Karl Jaspers’s thinking about world history. “Karl Jaspers: citizen of the world?”
(2) I suppose she saw economic affairs as too determined by sheer necessity and by our base metabolic needs to deserve a place in her conception of the World. The World as a realm of freedom where men and women appear as autonomous citizens, freely acting and exchanging opinions.
(3) Take the US for instance – the project all immigrants share: the hope to realize their American dream. And it seems that the US is more successful in integrating its immigrants, united as citizens in a common quest to make money, than some European countries, who naively seem to hope that newcomers would partake in a citizenship based on shared cultural values and traditions. (my stance in this matter? Ambivalence ….. of course)
(4) My (ever wavering) opinion on this? The human being has (alas…) evolved as a competitive, aggressive animal that can’t sit still. So: better to direct those competitive urges into gung ho entrepreneurship than to dispense the animal energies in wars and bloodshed. Better to have aggressive CEO’s than blood-thirsty warlords. Provided of course there are laws and institutions to guarantee some minimal respect for the whole set of human rights (personal, labor and cultural). Also, I have nothing against “modern comforts” for all here on earth – if only people would still every once in a while sit quietly with a book, if only people would not wantonly squander all of the earth’s resources….
(5) Um, a phrase that may give me away – would I myself find then that economic preoccupations are not worthy of the humanist ideal?
(6) This concept of diversity of and communication between cultures (none of which can claim universal, dogmatic validity), is so eminently contemporary and post-modern, that I cannot understand why Karl Jaspers should be such a neglected thinker. Perhaps his writings were too hermetic? (and maybe it takes a luminous mind as Arendt’s to shed light on his thinking)


Unknown said...

Really enjoyed reading this - nicely thought provoking without any frivolity whatsoever.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

thanks, "unknown"!

Swann Ffflaneur said...

ah .... a casual comment from krystina perhaps? :-)