THE GLOBAL VILLAGE AND ITS DISCONTENTS. GLOBALIZATION AND NEED FOR DIFFERENCE (1998)Jul/31/2016
It is well known that modern Truth--that being, of course, scientific truth--speaks English. Sixty-two per cent of Nobel Prize winners in the hard sciences--physics, chemistry, medicine--are either from the United States or have carried out their research there, 14% are British. The bulk of prestigious scientific magazines, listed into the Citation Index of periodicals, the only ones that are important, are in English. The predominance of English in the sciences, engineering, economics, international institutions and the business world faces zero opposition. I too am giving this talk in English.
What I would call the Nobel Prize ideology on the one hand officially sanctions the predominance of Anglo-American science, but on the other hand it awards prizes in the fields of literature and peace more democratically across different countries. The writer of the Beautiful and the worker for the Good (the Nobel Peace Prize is the world’s ethical-political pinnacle) need not hail from the English-speaking world, an Asian or Latin American might qualify. The moral of the story: today a serious person—epitomized by a Nobel Prize jury member--believes that the Truth is English speaking, while the Beautiful or the Good can be more equally distributed among several languages or cultures. From this stems the Nobel Paradox: science's objective universalism thrives in a single swath (from San Francisco to London) while ethical and aesthetic particularisms are more widely distributed across the globe. On the one hand, we find the narrow homeland of universality where furor sciendi rules, on the other, the ethnic dissemination of the Beautiful and the Good. Yet many complain of the predominance of hard Truth over the softer dimensions of the Beautiful and the Good. The philosopher Michel Serres says, "we've got far too much truth! What we need today is more beauty." This could be paraphrased: we've got too much Anglo-American science and not enough local arts.
This Nobel Prize Ideology (where the arts and humanities save their pluralism) proves untenable: Anglo-American models dominate the ethical and aesthetic fields too. Overwhelming all competition, the USA today also sells to everybody the only Beauty which seduces the masses worldwide--to the vexation of local, usually "ethnic" or “nationalist”, intellectuals. (I get the impression that intellectuals from the so-called Third World are all followers of the Gramscian claim for a “nazional-popolare culture”). And the USA and UK promote the only political Good that possesses a hint of decency. Every country and culture has its own best-sellers and home-spun glory, but with only a few exceptions the only glories known on a world-wide scale are trademarked Anglo-American. We all know that the term on everyone's lips, globalization, today amounts to no more than a euphemism for the Americanization of the planet. A recent survey shows that Italian children first learn not only of Snow White and Cinderella but also our very own Pinocchio from Disney cartoons, and not from the pages of our Carlo Collodi. On our planet everyone rushed to see Titanic, all pursue a cult to American divinities like Naomi Campbell, Madonna or Di Caprio, and in every continent, in addition to local music, people listen to Anglo-American music. A Mexican friend visiting Europe let me in on his disappointment: "I thought you Europeans were mainly concerned with other European countries, but I realize that, just like us Mexicans, you're mainly concerned with the United States! You Italians don't know a thing about what's going on in, say, Portugal, Denmark or Austria, but are intimately familiar with Chelsea Clinton, Tyson and Giuliani."
Thirty years ago, an Italian visiting England or Russia encountered other worlds. Today in London or Moscow she immediately feels quite at home. Because England, Russia and Italy now all view themselves and one another in the American mirror. This is the only reason why the countries of the Euro currency afford a cultural unity surpassing that of thirty years ago.
A few of you will grumble and say: why bore us with this familiar stuff? Commonly acknowledged, albeit with a tight mouth, is this Anglo-Americanization of the planet, but its real consequences are not fully appreciated. Perhaps this is because they seem so obvious. Recently Massimo Cacciari, one of Italy's best-known philosophers, as well as an influential politician and mayor of Venice, argued that the American Empire is not legitimate because it does not enjoy an undisputed moral and cultural authority. I pointed out that, according to many cultured Americans, their hegemony is not so much political, military or economic, as it is cultural. "Yes, the USA is an empire supplying a lot of entertainment!", Cacciari exclaimed. To him the American predominance of political, scientific and lifestyle models was of no consequence! He shares an idea that is widespread among European intellectuals: that America rules over mass culture, while high culture--which in our tradition is mainly humanistic, philosophical, historical and political—remains dominated by us Europeans, including the English. Disney introduces nearly all children to fairy tales, but Proust, Wittgenstein, Kundera, Fellini or Stockausen could not have been born anywhere but in the Old World. The manipulated masses and the lost youth of the world are drawn to Hollywood, rock, and MacWorld like nails to a magnet, but Europe's intellectual and creative gentry speaks German, French or Italian. Allow the Americans primacy over those who are poor in spirit, but allow us Europeans primacy over Spirit. Now, all this might have seemed plausible up until twenty or thirty years ago. But nowadays Americans are becoming leaders even in those fields--like philosophy and the humanities--in which Europeans traditionally excelled. For example, I have noticed that many of the brightest Italian philosophy students, trained of course on classic Greek and German texts, flirt mainly with American authors--Richard Rorty in particular. This is the same process that took place when Rome conquered Greece. At first the Romans imitated the Greeks, but later they produced their own grand culture: Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Lucretius, Terence and Augustine all wrote in "vulgar" Latin, not in noble Greek. Similarly, humanistic culture, in the next century, will most likely speak increasingly in English. And those Italian intellectuals who make angry, clearly racist, speeches against Americans, for whom "everything has a price and nothing has any value", don’t take this European fate into account.
But what about successes that are not Anglo-American? What about Borges and Garcia Marquez in Latin America, the Chinese films of Yi-mou and Gong Li, the Japanese Kurosawa, karaoke, tamagotchi and sushi, Italian fashion and design? Most of these artists, writers, or designers have succeeded in making a name for themselves because they were adopted, so to speak, by the Americans or British, and consequently incorporated into the Anglo-American publicity spiral. The most world famous living Italians—Eco, Pavarotti, Armani, Zeffirelli, Benigni, Piano, Fo and a few others—are, above all, celebrities in the U.S.
Some of my French friends, noted intellectuals in their own country, complain about being completely ignored in Italy, to which I respond: “Concentrate on making yourself known in the U.S.; once the Americans like you, they’ll take care of exporting you to Italy.”
I have followed with interest the painter Frida Kahlo’s rising popularity. Today her works are world-renowned. However, this fame was not kindled by the Mexicans, but by the New York Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition on Mexican art in 1990, after which historians, feminists, Marxists, cultural students and deconstructionists, obviously all American, descended on her. Kahlo was certainly anti-gringos. Many European Continental intellectuals, impoverished nobles full of contempt towards that “American race”, don’t realize that anti-Americanism was largely an American invention. The theoretical paradigm of anti-Americanism was invented during World War II by the American Ezra Pound during his Italian radio programs in support of Mussolini. It tormented anti-Americans like Marcuse, Chomsky and Lyotard that their fame stemmed from the very Anglo-American cultural system that they had torn apart. Marcuse—rather than his philosophically more solid Frankfurt colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer—became a cult figure in the 1960s because he lived in the U.S. and wrote in English.
So then, what remains of our native cultural traditions in a world dominated by Anglo-American Truth, Good and Beauty?
A Tourist Utopia
Shortly before he was killed in 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini complained, in the very “bourgeois newspapers” he despised, of an irresistible omologazione [homogenization] of the world, and of Italy in particular. Omologazione—an almost non-translatable, and thus non-omologabile, word—struck the Italians deeply. Pasolini, good popular-nationalistic Gramscian that he was, was disgusted by the loss of all specific cultural, geographical, ethnic and social-class physiognomies; even peoples’ faces, he suggested, were beginning to look all alike. At that time, the Americanization of the planet was not as overwhelming as it is today, and yet, he had already noted that differences were dissolving into one cultural watered-down soup served up by the media. Pasolini had always denounced the existence of poverty, but in the end he found it beautiful; he interpreted the decline of Italian-style poverty as the decline of (even male) beauty and sensuality.
In effect, even those who strongly praise globalization are offset by the accompanying, and disturbing, sense of loss of differences. In the West, we have inherited a popular, Romantic tradition, that tends to value cultural differences and peculiarities as humanity’s richness. Generally we poke fun at the exception française. But even in Italy over the last few decades, we have sought to protect our Italian uniqueness: we keep our historical centers intact, exploit our “gourmet mines”, resist international architectural functionalism by conserving our Renaissance style traits, encourage local dialects and the continuation of age-old celebrations such as the Palio in Siena or the Sarracino in Arezzo. Non-believers and Marxists alike, who up until recently abhorred Catholicism, now look with increasing sympathy upon it as a valuable local tradition, on a par with the art of tagliatelle preparation or gondola construction. Much of the Italian Left appreciates Pope John Paul II fundamentally for aesthetic reasons: he upholds ancient rites, feasts and medieval beliefs.
This conservative turn is not only Italian, it explains also the explosion of tourism. Is it not the hope of seeing something unique and local, something different, that drives millions of persons to Sri Lanka or Mauritius? Exotic mass tourism, including sex tourism, is only the visible surface of a new marketing of differences, in which difference is sold as a precious good, in so far as it appears ever more rare. However, this market tends perversely to self-destruction: local cultures, invaded by waves of tourists, tend to omologare (“homogenize”) themselves and dissolve. Hilton Hotels, Jacuzzis, and American films are ubiquitously to be enjoyed; waiters and shopkeepers speak English and accept dollars. Tourism, expressing the contemporary cult of difference, tends inexorably to kill the very difference that might slake our growing thirst for otherness.
This explains why we were impressed by Wim Wenders’s films: cities that appear initially alike, where one at first perceives a homogeneous coldness, reveal subtle, oblique dissimilarities that distinguish them, dissimilarities which are today the only things we can love. This is a cinema about a cosmopolitan world where only small differences matter—a “travel cinema” as opposed to tourism (or the beginning of a new kind of tourism?). Whereas the tourist industry sells showy, postcard differences, a “Wendersian” traveler appreciates the small but crucial differences, those that only lateral vision can glimpse.
The Philosophical Charm of the Cannibal
But the logic of Global Americanization is that these tourist differences are the only ones that we are really willing to tolerate. That is to say, aside from the dominant universalisms--those of scientific truth and multi-party democracy--we are willing to tolerate but one single kind of pluralism: an aesthetic, understood as superficial, pluralism. Can this aesthetic pluralism, if severed from ethics, politics and truth, be anything other than superficial? Cultural differences are tolerable for us only if they are reduced to differences that attract tourists: idiosyncrasies in architectural decoration, in ways of speaking, dressing, drinking or flirting. For the rest we want the many countries of the world to conform to the Popperian open society model; closed society crystals must melt into a “correct” cosmopolitan soup; a market economy and the methodological standards of Anglo-American scientific research are universally appropriate.
This project goes back to the three founding fathers of German Idealism--Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, who wrote in the Älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus that it would be possible to establish the kingdom of freedom through a sensitive religion characterized by "monotheism of reason and heart, polytheism of imagination and art". What is today a matter of fact could not have been said better: their idea was that on lifeboat earth, a “hundred flowers” of fantasy and decoration shall be permitted to bloom, provided that the monotheism of Euro-American rationalism and ethics remains firmly at the helm.
In fact, when different cultures behave or make knowledge claims not in line with our criteria, these behaviors and claims arouse our indignation. British governors in India, indignant about the local tradition of killing widows, banned this practice. They behaved as good imperialists, and today we are all good imperialists: we indignantly condemn the clitorectomy of African girls, tribal massacres and even bull fighting. Our intolerance of difference emerges--and rightly so, as the West is always Right--in all its fury. Take the Rushdie affair or the heated controversy in France and Germany over whether to allow Muslim schoolgirls to wear a colorful scarf on their heads.
Every time I read about Salman Rushdie's death sentence by the Shiites because of a book, my heart goes out to him. As a child of the Enlightenment, I view Rushdie as a victim of the theocratic rejection of secular values of free conscience and free press. But following an initial drunkenness of virtuous passion, when I allow myself to think coldly—should not a philosopher be appreciated for an almost inhuman ability to maintain a cold heart?--I see things as more complex.
For I am not only a child of Voltaire, Kant and Tocqueville, but also of Montaigne, Malinowski, Kuhn, and Foucault. The latter ancestry exalts difference, cultural difference above all, in human beings not just as something to tolerate, but rather as a human patrimony to be treasured. Islam's veiling of women, for example, represents a remarkable difference for us liberal Christians. Then is it a richness to keep alive? Western political thought, from Locke onwards, has pivoted on tolerance, as well as on toleration2 towards otherness. On the other hand, another Western idea, springing from Romanticism (including Romantic “science” which is cultural anthropology), pushes our fascination with the other just in so far as he is other. It drives us to exalt the other--Montaigne's cannibal, or even Musil’s serial killer Moosbrugger, or Foucault's Pierre Rivière who killed his father and his family—as the actualization of human potential, the stupefying realization of a dream or nightmare of possible humankind. Indeed, even post-romanticism, which today dominates the Euro-American world, wants to preserve and to safe-keep the diversity of cultures in a world threatened by uniformity.
This conviction, moreover, derives not only from the Romantic revival of origins, traditions and “superstitions”, but also from "scientific liberalism". From two Englishmen in particular: Darwin and Mill. According to the new Darwinian bible, the evolution of the species occurs through the continuous production of mutation and recombination. Nature's fancy multiplies the mutants, from which Nature goes on to select the optimal replicants, so few among a wide range of variants. Accordingly, it has always been thought, from Mill (read On Liberty) all the way to Feyerabend, that scientific progress too is ensured by making Darwinian room for any type of idea, no matter how over-the-top and eccentric. Pluralism and thus competition are the prerequisite ingredients for progress in scientific and artistic life, as in biological evolution.
The Anglo-Americans themselves, more than anyone else, have convinced us--against the totalizing and totalitarian temptations of much Euro-Continental thought--of the need for a variety of forms of life. They merged the romantic and historicist traditions with the Enlightenment and positivism to arrive at the conclusion that cultural pluralism is an essential condition for progress, just as political pluralism enables democracies to progress. We now identify the very concept of democracy, "power to the people", with the pluralism of competing political parties. Monoculture, the hegemony of a single theory, and one-party systems are all disdained as enemies of progress. The paradox is that this culture which celebrates pluralism is becoming the planet's dominating monoculture. The culture of competition no longer competes simply because it has no more rivals. If one rival arise, beware! Today’s pluralism will not tolerate what is not pluralistic.
Tolerance for the Irrelevant
Let us take a closer look at this hellish double bind, which bothers the conscience of our wealthy, dominant, good Americanized civilization. In Italy, the winning combination of scientific rationalism, democratic liberalism, human rights proclamations, and market economics is called SLT (Sole Liberal Thought) by its opponents. SLT presumes to defend cultural plurality, but it allows only for an aesthetic diversity between cultures. Deep down, we Westerners are convinced that there is a single set of morals and policies appropriate for all human beings: universal human rights (as the heritage of Christianity) and liberal democracy. A presumption that erupts into indignation every time we encounter cases like that of Rushdie or of veiled Muslim girls.
What we would like to see prevail everywhere, even in Iraq, Vietnam or Afghanistan, is "tolerance for all churches in a lay state". This is a corollary of the British philosophy, Hume’s in particular: facts and values, reason and faith, science and sentiment, state and church, are matching couplets. Values, faith, sentiment and church shall not interfere with facts, reason, science and state. The public, political sphere is regulated by the computational acts of the democratic State and by the providential balancing of the multitude of utilitarian selfish interests. Religions and worship--our most intimate values and life meanings--belong, on the other hand, to the private life, to an emotional heritage of ancestral traditions, however idiosyncratic or eccentric. Great Britain, inventor of the Invisible Hand (public virtue automatically results from the interaction of private egocentricities), in fact cultivates the eccentrics, the Bernard Shaws, Oscar Wildes and John Lennons. But what remains of religious faith that has been reduced to private emotion? What sense is there to ideals, values and commitment if these are limited to one’s hearth? Can anyone be privately Communist or Muslim, Mormon or Environmentalist? The view on television of Muslim multitudes bowing down towards Mecca exclaiming Allah Akhbar does not disturb us--it is colorful; what is intolerable for us is the imposition of the veil or the genital mutilation of his daughter by a Muslim. The other religion is fine for us, as long as it amounts to quaint folklore or to a private fantasy.
The same fate is prescribed to marginal, “fringe” knowledge and practices that deviate from recognized scientific methods and results. Astrology, magic and belief in miracles are tolerated, but not if parents, like in the Addams Family, insist on treating their sick child with astrology and magic. We treat Jehovah's Witnesses as criminals because they do not allow blood transfusions. In these cases, our universality of rights trumps diversity: it is mandatory that everyone be cured according to the models of our science, because access to our medicine is their right as human beings, even if they are the Addams Family. For us, ethical principles and science must be universal, that is, ours; only aesthetics can be particular, that is, also the other’s.
The Failure of Alternatives to Anglo-Americanization
This accusation against the false tolerance of Euro-American universalism stems mainly from two seeming opposites: the post-modern Left and the New Right--those two wings constrained from flapping by Anglo-American liberalism and rationalism. Both oppose the value of difference to the universal rights of SLT. Post-communists and post-fascists agree in pointing out the double bind of scientific and liberal universalism. Everything I have said so far appears to locate me close to their criticism--although I could not be further from both. I confess that in the ideological geography of my time, I am homeless.
I don't believe in a political action promoting a right to difference, because difference is not a question of rights: it is an “unnatural” need, a transverse necessity. And I am critical of all those who, in taking sides—either with SLT or in favor of difference--think they are resolving the tragic split of our age. The blessings we bestow upon difference contradict our proclamations of universal individual rights, and our ethical universalism constantly contradicts our repudiation of customs that infringe our universalism. A simple political-cultural formula to close this cleavage does not exist. Nostalgic renovation of a Communist Party provides an answer no better than Alain de Benoist’s nouvelle droite. Nor is an answer to be found in the hagiographic philosophers who attend the court of SLT, like the poets who made ends meet by singing the praises of their prince. Surely philosophical arguments cannot solve this split—this is, our lacerating drama at the turn of the century. It is a contradiction we must live within, finding opportunistic compromises here and there.
Radical intellectuals from prestigious American and British universities have built Cultural Studies to help us out there. They try to square the circle, as Foucault tried to do: supporting the struggle for emancipation by all those who are "different" not on the basis of scientific rationality and universal humanistic values—legitimized by the utilitarian criteria of Bentham and Mill--but against that universalistic humanism. A paradox? In effect the nebula of post-modern culture drives the paradox by promoting a universal struggle on behalf of particularistic identities (sexual, ethnic, cultural, and ethical). Thus those who are not "different" are ready to accept diversity, only on the basis of humanist universalistic criteria. I don't sympathize a great deal with this culture of "different identities", as it covers over the contradiction in which it prospers. A political "gaffe" made by Foucault is emblematic: his campaign in favor of the Khomeinist revolution of 1978-9. A revolution that would have lined homosexuals and post-modernists like Foucault himself up against the wall. Cultural Studies, Women Studies, Queer Theory, Ethnic Studies, Gay Studies, etc., ignore the double bind that reproduces blunders such as Foucault's.
Noam Chomsky, an eminent linguist who is in opposition to SLT, considers the United States a "terrorist super-power". Yet what does the United States do--apart from defending its interests like any other country—but impose on other countries, however much they prize their difference, the universalistic principles to which Chomsky himself fully adheres? Does he not believe in human rights, scientific rationalism, democracy and universal suffrage? All things in which Saddam Hussein, for example, does not believe, and for which reason he was bombed by the "terrorist super-power". Socialism is widely considered today a failure because it shares too much the universalistic principles of which "American imperialism" is the police force. Not by chance Marx chose to live in London, then the capital of world capitalism—today, I think, he would have lived in New York, not in Havana. The socialist historical variation has belatedly joined the SLT mainstream. Hence the major opposition to SLT these days originates from unacceptable types of otherness, which we call "barbaric" (when we deem it politically correct to do so): religious fundamentalism, totalitarian governments, ethnic cleansing, populist demagoguery.
The enemies of SLT should resign themselves to the evidence that we have no better alternative model to the Anglo-American one (just as we have no alternative model to the predominant techno-science—I feel sorry for romantic scientists like Prigogine, Latour, Capra, Sheldrake and Kauffman). Until a few years ago continental European countries were host to local tendencies, distinct from communism, diverging from the American model. Until recently Italy enjoyed proportional representation, thanks to which small parties—expressing often quite interesting viewpoints--survived. Italy deployed what is today referred to with contempt as assistenzialismo [“welfarism”], a variety of modernist Catholic charity, consisting in the employment of many Southern Italians in unproductive jobs, simply to allow them to survive. Today Italy too is racing toward a first-past-the-post system like that of the UK and the US, as a remedy against the country's political instability. An Italian cartoon caption reads: "Italy really is an extraordinary country! I'd just like it to be normal". We Italians too are tired of being exceptional; we long to become normal—that is, Americanized--like everyone else.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s the so-called Asian Tiger countries counter-posed their Asian values to the Anglo-American model. In actual fact these consisted in a denial of political pluralism, censorship of the press, subjugation of the courts to political power--values that were very European until not so long ago. For decades the economic triumphalism of Japan frightened America, because it was based on values diametrically opposed to the American way of life—Japan’s successes were based on conservatism, conformism, industrial paternalism, a solid family, gradualism and “slowness”. The ‘90s saw the collapse of the Asian model. Now the only plausible model left, even in economy, is Anglo-American: individualism, flexibility, fast mobility, low taxes, disallowance of protectionism. Italy, which might have felt more comfortable with a conservative Asian-style model, must simply adapt.
As for the various types of communism and fascism that in the past proposed themselves as an alternative to SLT--who would honestly propose them as alternatives anywhere in the world today? Some people can privately sympathize with hold-out havens of resistance to SLT: Castro or the Afghan Talibans, the Iranian ayatollahs or North Korea's red monarchy, Gheddafi or Milosevich. But how many of us would wish to live under any of these regimes? (A friend tells me that a few Americans are living in Cuba and like it; and Cuba is now a major Italian tourist destination. Yes, it is all very well when one has dollars and can enjoy not being “under” the regime, but rather a kind of colonial guest, a leftist supporter of the regime thanks to one’s spending power.)
Is there no alternative then to Western, and particularly Anglo-American, ethics, politics and science? Is the winning combination assembled over the past three centuries by British philosophers--free trade + scientific rationalism + universal suffrage--the only formula that the whole of humankind must now follow? Is this denouement as irreversible as the Neolithic revolution or the invention of the written word? Writing enabled the creation of the great autocratic and hierarchical regimes--ranging from the Egyptian and Roman to the Russian empires. The 20th-century technological revolution has apparently imposed on everyone an Anglo-American-style democracy based on scientific rationalism and free trade. Popper's religion rules the world supported by opulent apostles, like George Soros. Of course, backwater societies that ignore writing still survive today. Similarly, it is likely that pockets of resistance to SLT and scientific rationalism shall remain for a few centuries to come: forms of fundamentalism, descamisados’ populism, chauvinist nationalism and tropical communism. These pockets may sometimes frighten the West, they may set off bombs or rickety missiles within the Western empire of Reason, but they will never count as a serious threat. Even Saddam Hussein counts less than Monica Lewinsky. History will be made by those countries that conform, albeit uncomfortably sometimes, to the ethical, political and scientific standards of the Anglo-American model. It is probably an irreversible omologazione, “homogenization”. Yet, my task is to remain open to what is other, however unacceptable that other may be—to challenge uniformity.
We, especially Euro-Continental, intellectuals, who resist the monopoly of Anglo-American models, if only through a touch of irony, are tolerated and at times molly-coddled like fools and dwarves in Renaissance courts. We incarnate an amusing difference, a harmless deviance, an adornment allowing the stately beauty and normality of sovereign SLT to shine all the more brilliantly. Chomsky, the American Communitarians and post-modern deconstructionists bring to my mind those freaks painted by Velasquez in the gloomy splendor of the Escurial.
Can we argue rationally against this growing cultural “homogenization”? Certainly not. And the enraged anathema of communists, fascists and fundamentalists is certainly not rational. Our need is at once ethical, aesthetic, and visceral: to save possibility. We do not wish humanity to march single file along a single “only reasonable” path. It is important for us "romantics" that human kind still have fundamental choices, even if these may be wrong. We do not want to be prisoners within Popper's Open Society. If all believe in the same things and act in the same way, then humankind will have surrendered to necessity's dictate. The plausible response to SLT is not the proposal of rational alternatives to rationalism, but the discovery and encouragement of possible differences. Plurality and difference pose also a metaphysical challenge; they testify to the conjecture, not yet defeated, that human beings are not just governed by necessity.
The Smile of the Unhappy
But why do we insist so much on the need for difference, for possibility? Is it only because these are conditions of progress?
A perverse effect of the triumph of Progress is that while it flattens difference, dismissing it as obscurantist, it also prepares a future without progress--because progress, as we have said, feeds on differences. But, after all, does progress really interest us? Having invented computers, we can’t live without them, but could we not have lived well without them? A jet takes us across the globe in a few hours, while it took Goethe weeks just to get to Rome; today we would probably need to land on Mars to find a genuine otherness such as Goethe found in Italy.
Has progress made us happier? Few would say so. The Swedes and the Swiss are probably the "happiest" populations in the world: they have one of the highest per-capita net national incomes, have not been involved in wars or bloody forms of racism for centuries, enjoy political freedom and high levels of education, and are not afflicted by slums or poverty. Yet very few think of the Swedes or the Swiss as particularly happy individuals. Their data regarding depression, mental illness, suicide, divorce and drug abuse correspond to the averages of countries classified as unhappy by "quality-of-life" experts. While those who have spent some time among extremely poor populations suffering from famine—like Claude Lévi-Strauss when he lived with the Nambikwaras in Brazil--assure us that these people are often happy. They laugh and enjoy themselves as much as the Swiss and the Swedes do, often more. No, progress and happiness do not exactly coincide, they are incommensurable. This is, after all, the core of ancient, not to mention eastern, philosophies: it is not by rationally solving problems that one reaches happiness. Happiness consists in detaching oneself from problems, not in worrying how to solve them. We don't need progress, we are rather taken by its worldly charm and supremacy. Progress is an addictive bittersweet drug. Scientific progress is certainly more easily come by than happiness--and out of laziness we have chosen the easier path. Technical and scientific progress do little more than console us for our failure to find happiness.
But if it is not a love of progress to make us fond of differences, what else might account for this preference? Is it because a multi-colored world is happier? It would be silly to believe that. If we like the survival of difference--even if it may imply tears and blood--it is because we cannot give up our incurable romantic dream of being free to be different from what we are. This was put forward by the neurotic bigot Kierkegaard: what is important is saving the sense of possibility. A world resigned to necessary happiness could not be my world.
The Cruel Theatre of Difference
If our romantic need for difference is not justified by imperatives of progress or happiness, is it evidence of our cruelty? Is it cynical to wish that not all human beings conform to the boring but comfortable Anglo-American regime of tolerance? A world that preserves difference is one in which inferiority, pain, inequality, unfairness and exclusion may prosper. Does this stance for difference imply then, at the risk of pain and unhappiness, acceptance of the tragedy of the world? Nietzsche thought so: one must say yes to the tragic. But no one today--after Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot--can be decently Nietzschean in this sense. We cannot accept cruelty. The futurist Marinetti’s hymn to war as a "hygiene of humanity", or Che Guevara's horrendous wish "two, three... one hundred Vietnams", can no longer be taken seriously. In a world dominated by rationalist liberalism, intellectuals have lost the privilege of speaking exclusively to their peers: they also must defend their need for the tragic before the taxpayers. Can one uphold life’s and history’s tragic dimension while at the same time trying to diminish the cruelty which prospers in a world undoubtedly still (unfortunately?) full of differences?
Radically alternative experiments to the Anglo-American model--communisms, fascisms, theocracies, fundamentalisms--have produced cruelty. Liberal democracies have also been cruel, as in Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945, or later in Vietnam. But the fight against totalitarianism has always justified Anglo-American cruelty. At least liberal democracies have never waged war against each other, while totalitarian countries often have.
I am very grateful to the Russians, Chinese, Albanians, Cubans, Vietnamese etc., because they have been, willingly or not, historical guinea pigs. Someone had to experiment with socialism in order that humankind gather new evidence, that socialism is worse than capitalism. Before the experiment some economists and philosophers had argued that socialism could not work; but the arguments by Marxist economists and philosophers were convincing too. The idea had to be tested on the field of real history. Like science, history requires testing--the difference is that the latter involves experimenting with the lives of millions of human beings. That is why we Westerners thank the Almighty for having spared us this research.
Humanitarian identification with suffering comes into contradiction with both romantic and Darwinian demands for difference and pluralism. As Gore Vidal once said: "for someone to be successful, someone else must fail". A scientific theory, a political form or a religious belief is selected by history as fit to survive in an arena where their rivals are swept away. In many cases this means failed lives, sacrifices of whole generations, useless martyrs, bitter disillusions. Historical selection, like biological selection, is ruthless. The havoc wreaked by liberalism is not resonant with the liberal ideals of civil rights and the individual search for happiness.
Is there hope for difference? I suppose so. Difference is like an old mole digging under the ground of omologazione, “homogenization”, to suddenly break through the surface. Some important old differences vanish underground, while new ones emerge to the light, even if we might not recognize them yet. Difference's working-through is often silent and cunning—accessible to an agonizing irony even as we resign ourselves to omologazione (“homogenization”). Even my own reflections here, refraining from universal solutions, acknowledging a little ironically the disintegration of old differences, witness this endless toil.
This text developed from a talk given by the author during a debate on "Globalization = Loss of Identity?", held on October 10, 1998, at the Buchmesse in Frankfurt-am-Main.
2 The difference between toleration (as a simple endurance of diversity) and tolerance (understood as a profound attitude of acceptation of diversity) has been developed by Michael Walzer.