Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Many cultures, one humanity

In a rapidly globalising world the challenge is to accept differences while admitting a shared destiny, writes Zygmunt Bauman*

Between these two extremes of our risky, often dangerous world, our lives and the lives of people around us are bound to be lived. The two realities are not of the same status. "Many cultures" is the reality bequeathed by our past; "one humanity" is a destination, purpose and task.

Whether we like it or not, we all -- in Leeds where I live as much as in Cairo where this journal is printed -- live in a "negatively globalising" world. "Negatively" -- because the growing density of our mutual dependency rebounds so far solely in sapping familiar boundaries and walls which promised secure protection of our lives and their prospects. "Negatively" -- because the only forces that have become so far really "global" are capitals, finance, trade, criminal mafias or terrorists; very asimilar, but united in their contempt for local boundaries and resentment to global regulation. That negative globalisation has not been as yet balanced off by a "positive" one: by a planet-wide jurisdiction and political supervision that could bring global forces under control and limit the damage they cause. Available instruments of effective political action are all locked inside the territories of single nation-states, but the fate of their inhabitants is decided far away from the places where they feel at home and struggle to control their lives...

The spectre of vulnerability hovers over the "negatively globalised" planet. We are all in danger, and we are all dangers to each other. There are but three roles to play: of perpetrators, victims, and "collateral casualties". For the first role there is no shortage of bidders, while the ranks of those cast in the second and the third grow unstoppably. Those of us already on the victims' side of globalisation are frantically seeking escape and breathe vengeance. Those spared such a lot are frightened that their turn may come.

Our world seems shrinking (distances no longer protect...) and drifting beyond control (whatever we do, things appear and disappear without warning and without asking our permission...) On a planet tightly wrapped in the web of human interdependence, of nothing which the others do or can do we may be sure that it won't affect our prospects, chances and dreams. Of nothing we do or neglect doing we may say with confidence that it won't affect the prospects, chances and dreams of some others whom we don't know or even know of. The gap between what happens to us and what we can do ourselves defies our imagination and makes our customary ways of acting seem ridiculously inadequate. The insult of impotence has been added to the injury of uncertainty. We all, with but few exceptions, feel lost -- and humiliated.

Amidst the deafening noise of crumbling certainties, it is only to be expected that many people, perhaps a majority, will frantically seek shelter and comfort in an easy to comprehend world-view that would make sense of our senseless sufferings, and allow us to see a logic behind the chaos and show the way to reclaim stolen power and recover the lost dignity. In an agonisingly complex world, simplicity and clarity of vision is a temptation few people can resist. Many will desire the confusion to be clarified, the complexity to be simplified. If only the world could be neatly divided into virtue and vice, truth and lies, right and wrong, evil- doers and their victims! If everything that makes us frightened and sleepless could be traced back to some malevolent carriers of lies, promoters of the wrong and evil-doers! And if the culprits of our misery could be pinpointed and named, and then disabled or destroyed...

As Frederic Barth, the great Norwegian anthropologist, found out -- people do not separate and draw boundaries because of the differences that divide them; on the contrary -- the differences that otherwise would perhaps stay unnoticed and certainly un-disturbing turn into major obstacles to cohabitation when for whatever reason people desire to separate and so need to justify their preoccupation with drawing and fortifying borders. It is then that they start to seek such features of those left at the other side of the border as would make them into evil and malevolent rogues impossible to live with; into enemies one can meet only on the battlefield, but not around the negotiating table. Depending on current fashions, those "others" may be named foreign tribes, inferior races, alien and incompatible civilisations or cultures, heathens or infidels; all such names amount to the same -- they all suggest that conversation is out of the question and any attempt at peaceful cohabitation is bound to fail.

Manichean visions of the world, the call to arms in a holy war against satanic forces threatening to overwhelm the universe, and reducing the Pandora-box of economic, political and social conflicts to an apocalyptic vision of the last, life-and death confrontation between good and evil, are common tendencies on our fast globalising planet. These tendencies recognise no differences between civilisations or faith systems... You will find them in the "West" as often as in the "East", and among the Muslims as easily as among Christians and Jews.

The dangers we fear most are immediate; understandably, we wish also the remedies to be immediate -- "quick fixes" in the likeness of the off-shelf painkillers. Though the roots of danger may be tangled, we wish our defences to be simple and ready-to-deploy here and now. To all such desires and resentments, fundamentalist varieties of monistic religions cater or pander better than any other systems of ideas (with the exception of the totalitarian faiths like communism or fascism). As if they have been tailor-made to satisfy the longings fed by a negative globalisation...

The misery which people suffers is real, as are the grievances which their suffering prompts. It is the explanation of misery that is often misleading, just as the remedies that it suggests are misconceived and ineffective. The causes of misery are complex and admit no simplification. They as well know not of the differences, genuine or putative, among civilisations or religions. As Richard Rorty points out, the central fact of globalisation is that the economic situation of the citizens of nation state has passed beyond the control of the laws of that state... We now have a global over-class which makes all the major economic decisions, and makes them in entire independence of the legislatures and a fortiori of the will of the voters of any given country... The absence of global polity means that the super-rich can operate without any thought of any interests save their own.

Power and politics tend to drift now in mutually opposite directions. The problem that the current century will have to confront as its paramount challenge, is the imperative to bring power and politics together again; whereas the task likely to dominate the current century agenda is finding the way to performing such enormous feat. In a negatively globalised planet, all the most fundamental problems -- the genuinely meta-problems which condition the chances and the ways of tackling all other problems -- are global, and because of being global they admit of no local solutions. The way out of shared misery, to be found and followed, requires shared humanity. And sharing humanity calls for the difficult, but rewarding art of living with difference.

* The writer is emeritus professor of sociology at Leeds University.

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