Baha'i Library Online

See original version at

COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLETransition to a Global Society, by Suhail Bushrui: Review
AUTHOR 1Susan Lamb
TITLE_PARENTBahá'í Studies Review
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe
TAGSAge of transition; Globalization
CONTENT Transition to a Global Society
Editors: Suheil Bushrui, Iraj Ayman, and Ervin Laszlo
Publisher: Oneworld Publications Ltd, Oxford, 1993, 176 pages
Review by: Susan Lamb

    Transition to a Global Society is a collection of essays, the aim of which (as stated in an otherwise rather bland foreword by the editors) was to stimulate high-level interdisciplinary dialogue on a variety of themes relevant to the advance of a global society. The individual contributions, arranged in three parts, present diverse aspects of the difficulties inherent in this process of transformation. This book aimed to be interdisciplinary, yet to move beyond the superficial – an inevitably ambitious project. The varying attempts to live up to this considerable challenge meet with mixed success.

      A summary of some of the world's most pressing problems by Federico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, introduces the book's three major sections, the first of which is called, "The evolutionary context of the transition." Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize-winner in chemistry, assesses the social impact of evolutionary paradigms such as thermodynamics and Darwinian biology in "Science and our understanding of the world." He argues that a veritable "second Copernican revolution" has occurred due to new insights into the dynamics and implications of irregularity. The classical world picture – that truth is timeless and laws universal – has been shattered by recent discoveries in quantum mechanics and non-equilibrium physics, leading to a realisation of the inherent instability and unpredictability of nature. This chaotic quality, in turn, has ramifications for processes of human research and environmental change. The emerging scientific world-view that emphasises both complexity and interaction, and the growth of identity within the process of differentiation is much more congenial to egalitarian democracy than the classical world-view of science, which legitimated hierarchy and domination. This essay was illuminating. But to accomplish its stated aims, it needed to show that science's new insights have relevance for social change. However, Prigogine fails to convince the reader that the way physical laws are conceptualised has any discernible impact on the way society is transformed.

      Robert Artigiani's "Building a global society: progress and procedures," was more controversial. In a search for mechanisms which might organise a rapidly changing and increasingly complex society, he argues that the rules for change written into the American Constitution deserve close attention. The identity derived from the American Constitution, he claims, provides transitional societies with a built-in capacity for evolution. In his view, clear visions of the human future are both unnecessary and undesirable. Instead, there is a need to "constitute" the public arena in which future generations can solve their own problems (38). Rather than enacting a particular utopian vision, one should enact mechanisms whereby future society can define itself: constructing rules for making rules, laws of the game rather than its outcome.

      It is difficult to disagree with his basic premise that utopian blueprints, whenever imposed from above, are doomed. As for mechanisms of change, however, it is by no means clear that the American process of constitution-building is exportable to other municipal legal systems (let alone to the international legal system at large, although Artigiani does not explicitly advocate its extrapolation to this sphere). But, even if it were transferable in principle, the approach still begs many questions. In societies which lack consensus about outcomes, what guarantees that consensus will exist about appropriate procedures for defining them? Such a divide between substantive and procedural law (with the former dealing with issues of high controversy, whilst the latter is concerned only with non-contentious technicality) is overstated. Secondly, and even if such rules for change could be agreed upon and enacted, the process which follows (of allowing societies to "define themselves") is depicted as a value-free, neutral, and spontaneous outcome of even-handed factional contests, with the ensuing compromise reflecting an overall "greater good." Such a picture is undoubtedly idealised. A more cautious analysis might reflect the reality that an absence of formal barriers to the participation of multifarious interest-groups does not always translate into actual influence.

      Pentti Malaska's essay, "Threefold harmony and societal transformation," examines the interplay between the processes of diversification and integration within society and world order. Harmony occurs when optimal "cross-catalytic interaction" takes place between six basic dimensions: social, economic, spiritual, political, cultural, and material (45). This interplay may not be harmonious, and the challenge for any evolutionary model is to ensure that none of these dimensions is blocked or dominated by another; otherwise disequilibrium follows. This essay works on an extremely high level of abstraction. It is laudable in that it outlines graphically the complexity in finding models of evolution which are capable of pursuing several goals simultaneously. Positive evolution on all fronts is often elusive and cannot be taken for granted. However, dense jargon (e.g., "autocatalytic, replicative catalytic, interactive processes between those orders..." [43]) only obscures what is essentially quite a simple idea: that change in one sector may influence change in others, both positively and negatively.

      The article by Miriam Campanella is called, "Global society, global problems and new formats of global decision-making." It provides a critique and evaluation of the overly-idealised notions of a global society which pervade much of the theoretical literature in international relations. The "interdependence" school has successfully factored in the roles of interdependence, co-operation, and co-ordination as a necessary corrective to the power politics model. But Campanella argues that certain of its other predictions (in particular, the assumption that this global society would be harmonious) have been challenged (54). As a result, the coming global society calls for skilful management and governance of resources in order to face the pressures of conflicting interests to which interdependence gives rise. This has entailed the recognition that the future of a global society is not necessarily that of a harmonious and self-realising design. Instead, a highly complex, unpredictable and dynamic state of world affairs exists, with its fair share of regressive and self-destructive trends. This makes for a multiplicity of conflicting goals. Priorities must compete.

      The most critical question, in her view, is how the nation-state is adapting to the new evolutionary environment (56). The problem presented by "globalisation" is how to manage a system which is not only highly unstable but which lacks a centre. The relevant question, in this context, is whether the nation-state is a useful tool for managing a global society, or an obstacle to it. At this juncture, the author highlights the persistence of the nation-state despite globalisation, arguing that it did not eliminate the nation-state as a significant actor but instead forced a change in the state's very nature, from a geopolitical to geoeconomic actor. This implies the changing nature of power into more discrete and diverse forms, distributed more evenly among actors. Sensitivity and vulnerability, in turn, create co-operation, discord or crisis, and a coalescence of the economic and political, local and global.

      The chapter's conclusion is nevertheless modest. No magic formula is proffered. Instead, it is merely emphasised that as it is often unclear how best to handle global problems: one should seek to identify certain pitfalls in policy prescriptions, enquiring whether short-term solutions will lead to long-term aggravation, and determining if the treatment of some symptoms in isolation leads to an exacerbation of others (64). As this chapter is probably the most sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the nature and implications of globalisation in this book, it is perhaps unfortunate that the author was not bold enough to make further-reaching prescriptions for more fundamental structural change. On the other hand, its restraint ensures that it avoids a glib treatment of complex issues.

      The book's second major section, "Management of the transition: the role of public and private sectors," also contains four essays. Volodymyr Vassilenko traces the development of the Soviet Union since 1917, describes the impact of its collapse, and the dangers posed by its "Balkanisation." This chapter is rather laboriously entitled, "Peaceful disintegration of the Soviet totalitarian empire as a necessary precondition for the transition to global society." Vassilenko argues that the systemic crisis in the Soviet Union, coming to a head in the mid-1980s under the rubric of perestroika and glasnost illustrates the danger of enforcing a social vision from above. The challenge, after disintegration, is to ensure a peaceful restructuring of the community of democratic, sovereign states, united on a voluntary basis. Whilst it is a useful survey of modern Soviet history, it seldom rises above a standard textbook account of recent developments.

      In his article called, "A new ethic for the public sector," Adamou Ndam Njoya argues, somewhat nebulously, for more universal attitudes and values to pervade the actions of the "public sector" (a term which he does not define) so that it can be a "catalyst for global society" (76). However, basic flaws detract from this overall analysis. First, the author claims that governments remain the "direct actors" in the international arena (75). Whilst this may still be the case, in general the rise of non-governmental actors deserved greater prominence. As it stands, Njoya's extension of the "state as primary actor" model to fields in which there is a high level of participation by mass movements and non-governmental organisations—such as environmental activism—renders his stance problematic. On the subject of environmental protection, he claims, further, that governments are "at the heart of all such developments, acting as they do on behalf of human beings" (76). Such a portrayal of governmental sensitivity to grassroots concerns is probably overly optimistic for even the most representative of democracies.

      However, his next point – that governments can scarcely ignore large-scale shifts in consensus on core values – is probably less contentious. But his analysis of bureaucratic actors is also rather limited. Whilst he never defines "public sector," he appears to mean the totality of a state's bureaucracy. In his view, the public sector represents "a crystallisation of values" (76). However, such a conclusion is puzzling, as he himself recognises that the public sector "comprises human beings who are beset by their own values and beliefs" (76). As such, it is difficult to see how this organisational value-consensus is reached. Moreover, the "public sector," even in its institutional manifestations, can hardly be seen as a unified actor. A state's "public sector" comprises many distinct bureaucracies, of diverse outlooks and priorities (indeed, profound differences can often exist even between different divisions of the same bureaucracy). To attribute uniform values to the "public sector", as if it were a single entity, is an unfortunate anthropomorphism.

      Secondly, much of what passes for analysis is really a non sequitur. In the section dealing with the United Nations (which is included in an analysis of the "public sector" under the heading of "manifestations of a global society"). For instance, Njoya claims that "the League of Nations lacked an ethical basis. Once Woodrow Wilson had left office [sic], the Americans withdrew into themselves and ignored the League of Nations" (79). Whilst the League may have lacked vital political support, this is not identical with a claim that it also lacked a principled foundation. Other inaccuracies follow: "With the United Nations we enter the era of rejection of and resistance to all forms of violence" (79). However, even the most cursory reading of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (dealing with enforcement measures) contradicts this assertion. The UN Charter is not a pacifist document: it defines and regulates the conditions in which force may be legitimately employed (i.e., to maintain or restore international peace and security). In fact, the enforcement powers of the UN Security Council are extensive, and it was only a political contingency (the Cold War) which led to their dormancy for much of the last four decades. The recent post-Cold War activism of the Security Council has graphically illustrated the true extent of these powers, and if anything, the contemporary concern is defining limits to the powers of UN political organs so as to guard against potential abuses.

      In "A new approach to the world problematique," Bertrand Schneider identifies the inextricable interrelatedness of problems presently confronting the world. He identifies three particular problems: environmental degradation, underdevelopment and population, and global food security. These, in his view, lead to the "interdependence of nations" (94). As a solution, he suggests the need to restructure the UN (94), though no specific proposals for reform are offered. Finally, he returns to problems of governance, arguing that existing institutions are no longer able to govern adequately. Whilst showing an acute awareness of some of the world's problems, the analysis offered in this article never moves beyond the highest level of generality. In the final analysis, he calls for nothing more concrete than a "vision of a new world inspired by a global solidarity" (96).

      Dieter Tober tracks the origins of globalisation in commerce in "One world - one vision for world business." He assesses problem areas in trade between rich and poor nations, and provides a useful survey of recent trends in global economic integration, its patterns, prospects, and limitations. He concludes that "open borders and international engagement are necessary components of a global economic order supporting international equilibrium and reducing disparities and distortions..." (104). In spite of this, however, one is left wondering whether (and how) the same free market would also spontaneously generate a more equitable distribution of economic wealth between the nations or whether a degree of interventionism would remain necessary to ameliorate the harshest effects of liberalisation on the poorest nations who are the least able to compete. A free-marketeer might reply by saying that free trade is the best way to make more countries richer (richer countries can, in turn, afford to give more aid). However, even if generosity of aid donations is proportionate with increasing national wealth (and parsimony is seldom the sovereign preserve of the poor), aid is hardly an unambiguous method of international income redistribution. This is due, amongst other things, to the frequently conditional nature of aid, its skewed distribution, the types of projects favoured by aid donors and the fact that its benefits to the donor are often far in excess of those to the recipient.

      The third and final section is entitled "The role of technology and culture in the transition," although the book finishes with a summary of conference proceedings, which contain a cross-section of opinions (too numerous and diverse to review here). Ian Angell's article on information technology considers the impact of the telecommunications revolution. He first points out certain pitfalls inherent in information technology (e.g., difficulties of control, cultural biases, misplaced expenditure, and dependence), not as a denial of information technology but as a recognition of its limitations. Secondly, he argues that even amidst greater technological sophistication, there is still no substitute for human intuition, experience, and intelligence (118-9). In answer to whether information technology can help the transition to a new world order, he argues that nothing has really changed. The availability of good people is the age-old answer. As a tool in the hands of the right people, information technology can be an enormous advantage, though in the wrong hands, it can bring chaos and unmanageable change (124). This essay is informative and insightful, showing the clear advantages of abandoning a generalised sweep of the issue of "globalisation" in favour of a deeper analysis of one of its possible dimensions.

      Sonya Licht's article on European obstacles to global transition is, by contrast, superficial. Using the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia as a backdrop to a survey of the challenges confronting contemporary Europe, she speaks only in the most general terms of the positive features of non-European immigration to Western Europe, the sharpening economic divide between Eastern and Western Europe, and the dangers posed by nationalist and separatist movements. It is thin on analysis and offers no prescriptions.

      Allan Williams' "Tourism, culture and globalisation: European perspectives," highlights the cultural implications for the growth of mass tourism in Western Europe. He argues that its impact on tourists and host countries alike is often only skin-deep: custom-made resorts, for example, offer little scope for interaction with local people. Mass tourism is often culturally bland; it is unlikely to provide opportunities to learn about the similarities and differences in national cultures. Despite these reservations, Williams argues that tourism offers great opportunities to advance the process of globalisation. Whilst mass tourism might be a closed cultural channel, other forms of tourism (e.g., business tourism, backpackers and individual travel) which offer more insightful experiences. He concludes that tourism provides an increasingly important means of raising awareness about global challenges, particularly in a world where there is little serious reading and where people are becoming immune to the images presented on their television screens (140). Whilst this article is perceptive, William's analysis might have been further enhanced by a consideration of the role of tourism in relation to other global concerns, such as its impact on the environment and the "globalisation" of disease, such as AIDS.

      John Huddleston's article, "Perspectives, purposes and brotherhood: a spiritual framework for a global society," explores the historical role of religion in helping to define a sense of global vision. Noting religion's replacement by secular philosophies (such as socialism and democratic capitalism) in modern times, Huddleston, an ex-Marxist and practising Bahá'í, concedes that there are many positive aspects to democratic capitalism. He argues first that democracies rarely instigate wars, and, secondly, that moves toward a federal world government are much more likely when a majority of nations are democratic. Both of these statements are debatable and need elaboration. For instance, even if democracies are less likely to "instigate wars" (which is not clear from the historical record), this may be due, in part, to the declining fashionability of declared warfare (instances of hostility during the Cold War, for instance, relied on more subtle probes, such as guerilla insurgency). Furthermore, such conflicts are often proxy wars, conducted in remote territories but funded and supported by the superpowers, demonstrating that even if democracies (such as America) are less likely to "instigate" wars, they are often willing to sustain them.

      Nevertheless, Huddleston's main argument is that democratic capitalism, whatever its merits, is essentially hollow at the centre, a "system without a soul" (144). It is a materialist worldview that is, at worst, environmentally unsustainable, and, at best, unable to deliver the "greatest happiness" predicted by the utilitarian philosophers. If materialist dreams of socialism and democratic capitalism are inadequate, he then asks whether we should take another look at the religious experience as a source of vision and ethical values. In this regard, he identifies several vital precepts which underpin most religious traditions: an awareness of the spiritual (in contrast to the simply material) dimensions of life, humility, responsibility, honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, and essential human solidarity (146). In recognition of this common core of religious teachings, he calls for unity among religious leaders. More interestingly, Huddleston argues that religion, in its modern manifestations, also presents a framework or superstructure around which humanity can build a new global society of peace and justice. He advocates, in this regard, institutional changes incorporating grassroots participation and an infusion of public life and government with spiritual qualities and collaborative, consultative processes (148).

One criticism of this essay is that its analysis of the family unit is not well-meshed with its overall vision. Huddleston's veneration of the family is odd in light of another priority (perhaps his most interesting and radical); namely, the need for the equality of men and women within the family and in society in general as a vital prerequisite to the emergence of a peaceful and equitable global society (149). Given this stated aim, it is puzzling why he does not address the historical interface between female non-participation in the public sphere and their traditional role within the family, which led to their being ensconced in the home and family unit. Elsewhere, his views on the subject are simply alarmist. The following passage, for example, could have been in Britain's Conservative government's ill-fated "back to basics" campaign, "...the devastation of the family [has led to] routine divorce for all and the abandonment of children; the result is good money for the psychiatrist and a culture of alcohol, drugs, guns, violence, racism [sic] and crime" (145). Whilst divorce is undoubtedly traumatic, it is unfair and misplaced to find a scapegoat in solo parenthood for a list of social evils which have, in reality, a complex array of causes (his linkage between divorce and racism is especially peculiar).

      In the book's final chapter, Kathleen Raine analyses the arts as a sphere in which there is no need for a "transition" to a global society. Such a society is already here, as the world of the arts and the imagination is already a global society. It is a kingdom in which there are no frontiers, no competitive struggle for possession because there is no property,

each one [owns]...the whole undiminished by no matter how many other participants.... Because the imagination is universal, the vision of thereby becomes the 'house of the soul' (153).

      There is, further, no limit to how many can dwell in such a house. "The universe of the imagination, for those who participate in it, remains a living unity in an ageless, deathless world with no frontiers, embracing past and future alike in the only universal reality, our shared vision of eternity" (156). This approach to the unifying quality of the arts is fresh, original and interesting. It advocates nothing concrete, but scores high on the "feel-good factor."

      In general terms, it is difficult to assemble a variety of essays of sufficient diversity to be interesting but with a unifying theme sufficient to give the work an overall coherence. To some extent, this book falls somewhere between these cracks. It is a bit of a mish-mash of essays on a bewildering variety of themes and whilst this makes for a wide-ranging and interesting compilation, it is at times difficult to see how it all hangs together. There is, for instance, no clear linkage between the various essays, and it is often difficult even to see what justifies their organisation under particular section headings. In this regard, there was room for more judicious editing. More direction from the editors might have imposed a greater degree of coherence on the project as a whole. Indeed, so unobtrusive is the editing that it is almost as if the editors did little more than assemble the contributions of various conference participants and place them (in original and unadulterated form) under a few random headings.

      This apparent lack of editorial intervention manifests itself, most crucially, in a high level of conceptual confusion. Most of the essays are permitted to bandy around phrases like "globalisation" and the "advance of a global society" without providing clear indicators of what this entails (beyond the truism that certain issues transcend national borders). The exact nature of the "global society" (often used interchangeably with the equally-nebulous "new world order") is never delineated. Instead, it is usually assumed that these phrases convey automatic meaning. They don't. The effect of this conceptual void at the heart of the book is to inject uncertainty into the very core of the enterprise. Is the global society, for instance, simply an interdependent one? If so, then a "global society" already exists, in certain sectors at least. Does the "transition to a global society" mean only the question of how we are to confront the pressing global challenges of the day, or do further questions arise? For instance, does interdependence imply a need to restructure the existing international legal/political framework by way of supplanting the present structure of (formally) equal nation-states, or should we aim merely to ameliorate the operation of the state system? These broader meta-questions, whilst occasionally hinted at, are seldom analysed in any depth.

      What the focus of the book appears to be, first and foremost, is a survey of global problems and an outline of the difficulties in surmounting them. If the desired focus of the book is indeed solely upon discrete problem-solving, it accomplishes this task better, but tends to work only at a great level of abstraction. While it is good as an exposition of fundamental problems, it operates on such a macro-level of analysis that seldom are specific policy prescriptions put forward. This, in many cases, was avoidable. As there was consensus between the various chapters (and the introduction) about what the most pressing global problems were, it may have been more efficient for each author to have focused on one small aspect of the problem and to examine potential solutions in greater depth, rather than repeating the same tired lists.

      Whatever the defects in such an approach, the book's reluctance to offer concrete solutions was to a large extent intentional. The very complexity of the issues discussed are by and large incapable of resolution by way of simplified formulations. As such, complexity, dissonance, and caution against over-simplification became the major watchwords. It is perhaps only in this mindfulness of the sheer difficulty of the challenges which lie ahead that the book's much-vaunted "unity in diversity" is to be found.

VIEWS10345 views since 1998 (last edit UTC)
Home Site Map Links Tags Chronology About Contact RSS