For years we lived in a world aspiring to a glorious future. Today the world seems simply to be seeking salvation.
From the carnival-like referendum in Catalonia (like a scene straight out of Verdi’s Don Carlos) to the bloody clashes in Myanmar (hardly something out of the Bhagavad Gita, but still), recent events set in stark relief the striking change in the nature of modern conflicts compared even to the not-too-distant past. They are increasingly chaotic and localized, reflecting humanity’s fragmentation and loss of purpose rather than general progress.
But conflicts have long been thought to have creative potential.
Heraclitus said, “We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity.” This idea was further elaborated by Plato and later Hegel, whose philosophy of history is largely based on nature and how conflicts develop, as well as the clash of opposites.
However, far from all conflicts are endowed with a creative potential, as Hegel discovered. To be creative, conflicts must be understood and overcome by reason, with human reason growing as the world historical process unfolds.
Unfortunately, it is hard to claim with any certainly that current events are guided by reason any more than before. Quite the contrary, we are witnessing the fragmentation of conflicts and the confluence of the most extraneous opposites.
In fact, current political rhetoric is absolutely apocalyptic, and the key conflict in today’s world is quite possibly over where humanity should go from here, how it can improve itself, what it will turn into, so to speak. Essentially, the debate is centered on the current stage of anthropogenesis, if, of course, we assume that human development, even biological, depends on people themselves.
The events in Catalonia are not only about independence. Like Brexit, this is an attempt to radically revise European development goals, the role and status of identity, and universal forms of politics. For both the Catalans and Britons, their local identity proved more important than membership in global communities. United Europe has lost its appeal for the British. The Catalans have completely lost patience with the common Spanish identity. They believe they deserve a better fate and can operate independently in larger human universes. The question is whether their decision is guided by reason. Was it not prompted by the arrogance and egoism of politicians coupled with the fleeting instincts of the pampered masses? Ultimately, what’s at stake are centuries-old goals of human progress, which are now in doubt.
The question is not whether this or that nation has a right to so-called self-determination, but rather what a nation is and how the individual-nation-humanity hierarchy is organized, as well as the degree to which names have power over substance. And to what extent the long-standing values of community life are being tested.
The fight against ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation) is mostly a battle for the fundamental characteristics of the model of the future and the advancement of humanity, which will determine both the life of the individual and society as a whole. The current clash in the Middle East and elsewhere has been brought about by differing conceptions of the new world that is being built by mankind.
Civilizational conflicts, and conflicts over values, are nothing new. The postwar world was plunged into a fierce debate on what kind of world humankind wants to live in and human progress. The capitalist and socialist systems stood in opposition to each other. Debates occasionally turned into armed clashes. But strange though it may seem, both capitalism and socialism had similar objectives. Both systems rested on the belief that the goal of society should be to give people the opportunity to satisfy their material and intellectual needs, which themselves were interpreted in a very similar manner. In the material sense, people should have enough to eat, good clothes, decent housing, quality medical services, etc. There were no profound differences in how the systems understood the material needs, only diverging views on the level of material well-being. Even more interesting is the fact that NATO and Warsaw Pact countries regarded non-material needs, such as freedom, human rights, creativity, love, and so on, in an identical way. And it was the similarity of objectives that made it possible for them to compete. In fact, the debate was only about the methods of achieving these largely shared goals. The view of private property and its role is one such example. Neither in the capitalist nor in the socialist society did people believe that, say, owning a scooter was something unacceptable. Soviet science fiction authors took great pleasure in painting the socialist society as a society overwhelmed by all kinds of technology. People in the future were to get around in some kind of “rocketplanes,” like something Elon Musk might concoct, while helicopters at your door were to be as common as a bicycle.
We should not be surprised by these similarities because socialism is as much a brainchild of the West as Adam Smith’s theories. There was no doubt about the goals on either side, while the goals themselves seemed achievable and calculable, since both socialists and capitalists believed they could calculate every need, be it bread, sugar, foolscap, or steel. The grim outlook of the Rome Club and the resolution of the USSR Communist Party conventions were under the direct influence of the notion that the future was intelligible and calculable.
But long before the collapse of the socialist system, it became clear that things were not as simple as they seemed. It was noticed that the idea of development for the sake of achieving an ideal was replaced by the certainty that development existed for the sake of development. Development became an end in itself.
The late 20th and the early 21st centuries proceeded by inertia under the banner of a carefree and somewhat naïve notion that development was needed for its own sake. This pointed to the loss of direction and brewing trouble.
This trouble is not yet looming large and, as is only natural, is not taken for what it is – a disaster. It has many manifestations but boils down to one simple thing: a huge number of people began to doubt the development goals that prevailed in the socialist-capitalist world. To some extent, the process was accelerated by the collapse of the USSR but the outcome would have been the same even without it.
The growing skepticism about development goals and the idea of progress itself went in parallel with incredible technological advances that immeasurably increased human might. Many people were scared by this progress because it became unclear how technologically interpreted development goals related to the development of mankind as such. Of course, no one would argue against treating diseases, seeking to make human life longer and healthier; it is great to enjoy a comfortable flight or the ability to communicate with millions of people. However, these indisputable goals evolve in a vacuum, while humanity fails to come up with a global understanding of what the future should look like.
People will live longer, but what will the world they live in look like? People will travel with more comfort, but from where and toward what destination? What information will they transmit? What is the purpose of all this? There are no clear answers, or rather too many answers.
The current growth of interest in futurology and forecasting is a consequence of the palpable concern over the increased uncertainty of the future. Of course, there are many models, from grim totalitarian anti-utopias to sweet, rosy pictures of a cloudless existence. What is more worrisome is that we are lacking a picture of a desired future shared by the majority of people. Even the grim images of a future as preached by ISIS supporters are marginal, and no more than alarming and agonizing nonsense, which the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not share.
Sometimes it seems that we – the elites and the masses alike – have lost touch with reality. We are witnessing the revival of old conflicts accompanied by the emergence of new and largely surreal differences that intoxicate people and become big as life. At any rate, it’s real blood that is being spilled.
All in all, there are many projections of what the future will look like, but they fail to create any kind of public consensus. Political elites in many countries are making plans based on their vision of a desirable future. But these plans are mostly situational and reactive or seek to avoid negative scenarios.
In all evidence, the modern world has developed too many fault lines as well as real or imagined reasons for disputes and mutual intolerance. They are quite haotic, which is attributable to the overall situation in today’s world. Actually it’s a case of bellum omnia contra omnias.
A huge number of people with vastly different levels of education and self-awareness, but skilled in using modern communication technologies, have joined the discussion on development goals and the trajectory of human progress. As a result the world is at the same time more united and less clear. The global information glut makes people form isolated communities where they feel more comfortable than in the open and tempestuous information ocean, which inevitably simplifies the complexity and contradictory nature of reality, occasionally for the worse. Too much skepticism and reflexive reactions can undermine these illusory associations.
People today are faced with an excess of identities rather than a shortage of them. The average person lives in a web of vastly different modes of existence, which creates a desire to choose something definite. But there is too much definiteness as well. Hence the growing fragmentation coupled with the loss of orientations and unity in understanding common development goals.
Sometimes I think postmodernism has played a fatal role in this situation by destroying all rational goals of development. Its renunciation of the so-called mega-narrative, to wit the perception of humanity as a single whole that pursues common goals, has divided people. The majorities would form relatively isolated groups generating a mini-totalitarianism of sorts, while the minorities confidently exploit the slowly decaying institutions of Western democracy.
The current stage in humankind’s evolution is obviously fraught with risk and danger. We clearly see the dispersion of rational development goals and the loss of bearings at the elite and lower levels. Strictly speaking, we lack the reason to control our own history, and there is nowhere to find it but within ourselves.
So the main conflict and the main question today is how rational our approach to our own development will be.