From an African Village to a Global Village or Is E Pluribus Unum Replacing Ex Uno Plures?


Globalisation with its homogenisation of the world and heterogenisation of individual societies is already creating problems that in their aggregate may soon become insurmountable even without artificial attempts to accelerate these processes, writes Valdai Club expert Rein Müllerson.

The American motto E Pluribus Unum, written on the dollar in Latin, should read in plain English: ‘out of many – one’. It symbolizes not only the union between thirteen states forming in 1776 a Federation, but also the melting pot idea of the American political system, aimed at making Americans out of various migrants of European, mostly Anglo-Saxon, extraction. 200 years later the Washington is in the vanguard of spreading American way of life, including the melting pot experience, all over the world. To understand what it means for the humanity and for various societies one needs to step back to see the whole picture.

Tens of thousands of years before anybody used Latin, or any other known language for that matter, the reverse process had begun –  one that could be called ‘out of one – many’ (Ex Uno Plures in Latin), when Homo Sapiens started their journey from an East African village to all over the world. During that journey, our forefathers and foremothers, who at the beginning of this migration did not differ much from each other in the colour of their skin, slant of their eyes or the ways in which they communicated between themselves, acquired visible physical and profound cultural differences, though remaining the same species of Homo Sapiens. This process of the colonization of the planet Earth, during which ‘out of one emerged many’, was slow; it took tens of thousands of years until foot-and finger-prints of Homo Sapiens could be found in all hospitable and even some inhospitable places on Earth. Being always genetically very similar, humans became visibly (superficially) rather different (some blue-eyed, others dark-eyed, some tall while others much shorter and so on). However, groups of Homo Sapiens, gradually forming tribes, ethnic groups, nations and civilizations, became profoundly different from each other in terms of their cultures, religions, mores and languages spoken. As American philosopher Michael Walzer once aptly put it: ‘Every human society is universal because it is human, particular because it is a society’.[1] Cultural differences between peoples, be they historical, religious or ethical, that may or may not be immediately visible, became huge over the millennia and they still remain profound. As physical or biological beings we are very similar, as social animals we may be worlds apart.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently persuasively demonstrated that in today’s world there coexist at least three different categories of societies: those with the ethics of autonomy, those with the ethics of community and those with the ethics of divinity. In the first category, the individual with her wants, needs and preferences runs prime; in the second, concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation and patriotism are predominant, while in the third prevails the idea that people are, first and foremost, only temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted.[2] Professor Haidt concludes his essay with a warning against moral monists: ‘Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places – particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation’. [3] However, notwithstanding such learned voices and warnings, there have been and still are those who in their provincial ignorance of the complexities and societal differences existing in the world try not only to unify the world but also make it uniform; for example, either communist or liberal democratic. Such worldviews have some of their roots in the Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment's belief in a universal history and in constant progress leading inexorably towards some specific goal where history ends. Those who don’t recognise this truth, it is argued, are ‘on the wrong side of history’. If the communist experiment of the realisation of universal history has, at least for the time being, miserably failed, then liberal democratic projects for the whole world are, notwithstanding all the red flags, still actively promoted. Even Islamists have joined the ranks of such ‘practical utopians’ by their attempts to Islamise the globe, beginning with the Middle East. In all of these movements there is a mixture of determinism and voluntarism; the belief in an unavoidable unilineal course of history and, the burning desire to accelerate the coming of some inevitable bright future.

One may, of course, reasonably argue that the process of global heterogenisation, expressed in Ex Uno Plures, has by now ended. Indeed, there are many signs of global homogenisation, as articulated in E Pluribus Unum. Within the general process of globalization, we can distinguish global homogenization combined with the heterogenization of individual societies. To an extent, these are natural processes. It is to be expected that the more than 7 billion inhabitants of our planet rub shoulders and borrow from one another much more than humans in the times when the continents were sparsely populated. It may indeed be that instead of Ex Uno Plures humankind has begun a reverse journey towards E Pluribus Unum. However, as such a reverse process is going on infinitely more quickly than the initial journey from Africa to all over the world, it has already started creating enormous problems. The heterogenisation that went on for tens of thousands of years simply cannot be undone within decades and probably even centuries, if ever. Even if individuals from different societies can cross the boundaries of their cultural and ethical communities, to step, so to say, outside of their ‘moral matrix’, or sometimes even straddle and enjoy more than one of them, communities themselves change much more slowly, and changes that are instigated and forced on them, either from above or from the outside, may have lasting negative effects. But yet, there are those who seek to artificially accelerate the processes of global homogenisation, using inter alia human rights discourse, exportation of democracy and liberal values, carrying out operations of regime change, often using military force for that purpose. Such ‘one size fits all’ policies foreseeably spread chaos and destruction instead of democracy and human rights. The much advertised and enthusiastically welcomed by the West ‘Arab spring’ led to the collapse of statehood in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen while in other Middle East nations the authorities, to avoid likely implosion, returned to authoritarian rule. Even admitting that the process of ‘out of one – many’ has ended, and the tendency of ‘out of many – one’ is manifesting itself in globalisation, it would be irresponsible to try to further accelerate this movement. Moreover, the end of history, be it either à la Karl Marx or à la Francis Fukuyama, would also be the end of social experimentation. The uniformity of social, economic or political systems would also mark the end of societal progress. Diversity here is no less important than bio-diversity, and certainly more vital than the active promotion of diversity in sexual orientations.

Globalisation with its homogenisation of the world and heterogenisation of individual societies is already creating problems that in their aggregate may soon become insurmountable even without artificial attempts to accelerate these processes. For example, immigrants have indeed brought about various, especially economic, benefits for quite a few countries. However, the uncontrolled massive and rapid migration of people, especially if their cultural, religious or ethical backgrounds considerably differ from those dominant in receiving countries, may lead to ghettoization, well exemplified by Molenbeek in the centre of Brussels. Two Belgian journalists Christophe Lamfalussy and Jean-Pierre Martin write in their recent book Jihad in Molenbeek: ‘Walk just two hundred meters from Grande Place in the centre of Brussels and you are in Saudi Arabia’. [4] In this district bruxellois of six square kilometres, there are 41 places of worship, of which 25 are mosques. Out of around 500 Belgian jihadists who have fought or are still fighting in Syria, 79 are of Molenbeek origin. Even if Molenbeek may be a rather extreme example of the difficulties on the road of integration, the parallel existence in one country of hugely differing societies is not an exception in many European cities.     

Attempts to support and promote diversity within societies have a  corollary of diminishing or even eliminating diversity between societies organised as states. While some societies, especially in the West, have become so diverse that the societal bonds holding them together are breaking down, in others, particularly in the East and South, the implantation of societal models that have worked in the West leads to the collapse of traditional societies. Melting pot policies could have worked within a society of immigrants, like that of the United States, where indigenous peoples were either eliminated or confined to reservations. Such policies are failing in Europe, where they are leading to the rise of populism and nationalism as a reaction to efforts to put into practice the idea of ‘the ever-closer union’. They are even less acceptable worldwide. The world is simply too big, too complex and too diverse for that. Its rich tapestry cannot be flattened into a carpet where one pattern, be it Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Confucian, Muslim or even secular liberal-democratic, is dominant.  

[1]   M. Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 8.

[2]   J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin, 2013), p. 116.

[3]   Ibid., p. 368.

[4]  C. Lamfalussy, J.-P. Martin, Molenbeek-sur-Djihad, Grasset (Paris), 2017.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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