Freedom is one of the most important words in human history. People fight for it and even die. But the concept of freedom changes over time. Therefore, in addition to the actual struggle for freedom, there is a struggle to understand freedom, as well as its limits and applicability. It is impossible to completely distinguish between these forms of struggle, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy.
Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. Indeed, times they are a-changing, and we change with them. We can only hope that it’s for the better. However, the first days of the third decade of the 21st century lead one to doubt that the world, at least, has not rushed into the abyss.
The feeling of growing disorder throughout the world is intensifying, primarily because humanity, as a whole, is faced with a serious crisis of values. This crisis has totally affected all spheres of human life, and fragmented humanity into groups that not only do not understand each other, but even seem to be unable to find at least some compromise. Of course, something similar happened before, but an important feature of the current situation is that the boundaries of these groups are rather difficult to define.
So, there are attempts to present the case as a conflict between countries. On the one hand, they say, you have the so-called democracies: for example, the USA or Western Europe, and on the other hand, there are the supposedly non-free countries like China or Iran. It is clear that such a distinction is gravely impaired. Where in this arbitrary normative spectrum do we place Turkey, Hungary or Poland, not to mention the many other countries to be found in Africa or Latin America? But the point is not in the flawed simplicity of the approach.
However, what is happening today is much sharper in terms of its order of magnitude, again, due to the incredible power of modern communications. These communications managed to create the illusion of a new type of human association, ideas about the exclusivity of communities emerging on the Internet.
If you will, billions of people are now given the opportunity to feel like members of the Masonic lodge, self-chosen and among their peers. And it doesn’t matter that the number of these “chosen ones” can reach hundreds of millions, if not billions. The champagne may be replaced with beer, but the intoxicating effect remains. The social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are like slaveholders, whose slaves include a significant part of the population of the United States, and, alas, the whole world. Their power is such that the owners of these networks have the idea (right or not?) that they are able to manipulate everyone and, moreover, to generate ruling elites. In any case, they speak about this openly: they say, the consolidation of millions of the most successful and active users of networks can give rise to a new global system of human governance. There is nothing new here, the age-old dream of consolidating the best of the best to manage everyone else, including the worst, has existed forever. And, it must be noted, to consider this completely wrong is a mistake. The progress of mankind is undoubtedly primarily the result of the efforts of few individuals. The question, as always, is one of balance and sense of proportion. The line between an embittered sect and the “gathering of the selected” is extremely thin.
The recent development in the United States are a rather vivid illustration of all this. It’s funny that the elite itself got confused about where and between whom the borders lie inside the country, as it constantly mixes external forces into the consistency of internal conflicts. Perhaps the elderly Democrats and undergraduate leftists from American universities do this in a comical, albeit terribly dangerous way. But in essence, the development in the United States reflect global fault lines, a global crisis of values and a lack of understanding of the desired future.
The nature of the clashes in the United States and, accordingly, the reasons of disorder in the world can be interpreted in different ways. But, in my opinion, the main problem today — both for the United States and for the world — is the problem of freedom, its understanding, and its interpretation.
Freedom is one of the most important words in human history. People fight for it and even die. But the concept of freedom changes over time. Therefore, in addition to the actual struggle for freedom, there is a struggle to understand freedom, as well as its limits and applicability. It is impossible to completely distinguish between these forms of struggle.
The United States has always been considered a fairly free country. Take at least the right to bear arms: a universal limiter of the power of others to impinge upon one’s personal freedom. But how, then, do hundreds of millions of Americans get along with each other? It is obvious that freedom cannot exist without mutually agreed-to self-restraint and sobering fear: this, in many respects, is the gist of the Second Amendment. If everyone has the right to a weapon (and at the same time to an uprising), then every person, even those with great power, will think twice as to whether the risk is justified when impinging upon others.
It is clear that fear alone is not enough. Freedom requires consent, that is, the internal acceptance of a certain order, in which everyone has a space, in the context of given circumstances. All of us (at least before Covid) had the right to fly for money on an airplane wherever we wanted. Everyone (well, almost) agreed that the money one was willing to spend determined whether they had the ability to fly, whether in first class, business class, or economy class. But imagine that this consent disappeared. Then, and almost immediately, the air travel system have would collapsed. In any case, in its current form. By the way, we have seen with our own eyes how a rebellion of all against all affects airports and train stations, more than once.
Something similar has happened in the United States. It turns out that different groups of Americans see justice and, accordingly, their freedom and rights so differently that each group has formed its own elite. These elites have entered into a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Its depth has not yet been realised by us, because methuselahs like Biden, Trump and Nancy Pelosi are beating each other on the surface. But who is supporting them from below?
Samuel Huntington rightly wrote about the plurality of civilisations and the conflicts between them. And in general, there are no serious doubts about the correctness of his approach. However it seems that civilisations have penetrated each other, enriched each other in many respects, but at the same time produced something resembling mutual intoxication. Along with a wonderful and exciting sense of human, cultural diversity, they have intensified levels of mutual intolerance that until recently were considered exceptional. The concept of genocide, at one time, reflected a terrifying hatred, primarily on ethnic grounds, of course. But today it is worth thinking about how we understand genocide in a modern, multicultural society? Together with the repeated mantra of tolerance, real hatred is incited between different social, cultural, religious and ethnic groups.
The United States, for example, is an excellent example of the aggravation of all types of conflicts that are going on before our eyes, and the degree of intolerance is not so far from the intensity typical of genocide.
Even more alarming is its intersection with other confrontational lines. In the US, for example, with racial and religious conflicts, and in Europe — to a greater extent, with religion and migration. No part of the world, no country is free from these problems.
In general, the coming decade will not be easy, and that is an understatement.
This is connected, I repeat, first of all with the crisis of values, which, despite any technological advances, is capable of destroying the life of mankind. I would even assert that these technological tools only add risk, and amplify the consequences of this crisis.
The most important problem is the problem of freedom and its understanding. That is: how and what human freedoms are realised by humanity in its billions amid the conditions of our growing interdependence? How can we all regulate our lives so that everyone can do what they see fit, and some common good is maintained at a worthwhile level?
Here, for example, are the issues of climate change and preservation of the natural environment. They cannot be solved without introducing certain restrictions. Some of these limitations can probably be overcome due to technological progress. But only partly. The rest cannot be resolved without some kind of regulation. And regulation means using not only persuasion but also coercion.
Who will convince and coerce and how? The UN? The G20? Will all countries sign binding agreements with each other and create an international security body? This looks extremely doubtful. Moreover, countries are more likely to isolate themselves, trying to maintain maximum sovereignty, that is, freedom in decision-making. So, the dichotomy between freedom and control remains unresolved.
In general, the main question for the near future is how we all will coexist together, how we’ll achieve at least a relative agreement to see eye to eye on the most difficult issues.
Social media provide us with a vivid example of what is happening throughout the world. They are already a form of communication for most of humanity. But the more we immerse ourselves there, the more we understand that while they’re an excellent tool of communication freedom, the joy of communication turns into a means of manipulation, the suppression of dissent, inciting base passions and the fragmentation of humanity. Of course, these media emerged as a result of the entrepreneurial initiative of individuals. But too much in people’s lives has become dependent on them. Therefore, regulation is needed. What kind of regulation remains an unanswered question. But without it, this wonderful freedom of communication will reverse gears and facilitate unprecedented attempts at thought control.
This, I repeat, is only one of the spheres of human life that needs radical rethinking. There are many others: the climate, biotechnology, weapons, etc. etc.
The world civilization, at least for survival, not to mention development, must answer an intellectual and moral question, formulate the rules of living together. And the answer is required immediately.