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The gear-box of priorities

Anouar Abdel-Malek

Anouar Abdel-Malek

We are honoured and delighted today to inaugurate the first international seminar of the series devoted to examining the prospects for The Transformation of the World, in the capital city of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, at a time when Belgrade vigorously proceeds along the path of constructive mediation between the different spheres in the worlds of power and culture at work in our times.

This first international seminar of the series on The Transformation of the World, deals with Science and Technology in the Transformation of the World. It is thus the first of a series of six international seminars devoted to implementing a sub-project on The Transformation of the World (TW). TW itself is part of a United Nations University Project on Socio-cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World (SCA). This project is within the framework of the United Nations University's Human and Social Development Programme, directed by Vice-Rector Dr. Kinhide Mushakoji. A parallel series is devoted to the theme of another sub-project on Endogenous Intellectual Creativity. This series began with the First Asian Regional Symposium held at the University of Kyoto (13 to 17 November 1978) and was followed by the Latin American Regional Symposium at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (23 to 29 April 1979) and other seminars. The seminars dealing with The Transformation of the World, after this first seminar devoted to science and technology, cover: economy and society; culture and thought; philosophy and religion; history and international relations; civilizational prospective.

The first international seminar is organized jointly by the United Nations University and the University of Belgrade, thanks to the perceptive help and deep commitment of Dr. Miroslav Pecujlic, Rector of the University of Belgrade and our host and chairman this week, and Dr. Kinhide Mushakoji, Vice-Rector of the United Nations University's Human and Social Development Programme.

In launching this series, the SCA project members are aware that it thus fulfills an important part of the moral and scientific obligations of the international scientific community, of the United Nations University proper, and of our joint quest for a New International Order, according to fundamental decisions by the United Nations Organization and the charter of the United Nations University. These decisions reflect the aspirations and decisions of the Group of Developing and Non-Aligned Countries. This systematic, comparative, and critical study of the different dimensions of the transformation of the world is conceived as the all-encompassing general frame and mould of the scientific and theoretical workshop now being developed toward providing the international community with a deeper and more genuine understanding of linkages and differences, of our differing priorities, through their complex dialectical paths from contradictions to convergence. As such, our wish is that this series of international seminars devoted to The Transformation of the World implements the aims and ideals of the United Nations University, as defined in its charter:

The University shall devote its work to research into the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations and its agencies, with due attention to the social sciences and the humanities as well as natural sciences, pure and applied (Article 1, point 2, UNU Charter);

The research programme of the institutions of the University shall include, among other subjects, co-existence between peoples having different cultures, languages and social systems; peaceful relations between States and the maintenance of peace and security; human rights; economic and social change and development; the environment and the proper use of resources; basic scientific research and the application of the results of science and technology in the interests of development; and universal human values related to the improvement of the quality of life (Article 1, point 3, UNU Charter).

The central character of our times, of the real world in our times, is in the transformation - not evolution or transition (all historical periods are periods of transition) - of all dimensions of the life of human societies. To be sure, this transformation, acknowledged all over the world, is neither unilinear nor synchronic. At the first level, we see major differences in the quality, quantity, and, especially, the tempo and impact of processes of transformation in different sectors of social life and activity - economic production, patterns of power, societal cohesiveness, cultural identity, civilizational projects, political ideologies, religions, philosophies, myths, and so on - in short, all sectors of what is usually termed the infrastructure and superstructure of society.

At a second, more visible, and forceful level, we do acknowledge distinctions between different types of societies, for example, in the different types of socio-economic formations and the accompanying political ideologies (basically capitalism, liberal capitalism, and monopoly capitalism, and socialism, national progressive socialism, and communism). And even more so, in the hitherto neglected dimension of civilizational, cultural, and national specificity, we encounter major, more resilient, and protracted sets of differences.

This transformation of the world can be recognized in the following three sets of factors, which lend themselves to being recorded according to different conceptions of priorities.

(a) The first is the resurgence of the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to contemporaneity, in both socio-political and civilizational-cultural fields. The historical processes of national liberation and independence, coupled with national and social revolutions, have gathered momentum since their inception in modern times, during the early part of the nineteenth century, until they became the dominant factor of contemporary history beginning in 1917, especially in the period from 1945 to 1973.

Western specialists have seen this vast transformation as a socio-political process within the traditional conception of the world's history (as consisting of one centre - Europe, later Europe and North America: that is, the western world - and its periphery, the Orient, which includes Asia, Africa, and the Arab-Islamic world, later joined by Latin America). The three continents were emerging but what was/is emerging is seen in socio-political terms.

On the other side, especially in the Orient - Asia, Africa, and the Arab-Islamic world - this emergence was seen essentially as a renaissance of either culture or civilization, as in the Arab and Islamic "Nadah," Meiji Japan, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the upsurge of Africanism, while Latin America's quest for identity has brought to light the hitherto hidden Indian and Indian-African elements of the culture.

(b) A parallel, major set of formative factors in this transformation appears to have developed between 1848 and 1973, and especially from October 1917, the date of the first socialist revolution in history. The hitherto equanimous front of the bourgeois in power was suddenly faced with the eruption of the labouring people into power, coupled with a populist Weltanschaunng geared toward a persistently more humane life for the have-nots. Sixty years later, nearly half of mankind lives under socialism - four-fifths of them in Asia and Africa.

(c) More recently, a third set of factors has become more visible, centring upon the immense progress in science and technology. Here again, while certain advanced western countries opted for such denominations or descriptions as the "scientific and technological revolution" or "post-industrial society," on the other side the vision remained paradoxically nearer to more realistic approaches, using the more traditional concepts of "revolution," "development," and "social transformation" within the implacable parameters of geopolitics. Yet none would deny the message and ever-growing influence of the application of modern technology in our world, in the very fabric of our individual life through the complexity of societal processes.

The transformation of the world: how can it be related to the social and human sciences, to political and social theories, to the philosophical quest? And, proceeding from there, how can this lead towards a more comprehensive study of human and social development?

To be sure, the prevailing position of the problématique of transforming the world in our times starts with this third set of factors, around the visible impact and deep penetration of science and technology in all nations in our times - a redoubtable instrument for universalization and reductionism that has compelled analysts, policy makers, and international organizations to devote recent efforts to studying this area. And, while both the priority in the presentation of the three sets of formative factors and the tone of this presentation are widely different according to national-cultural and socio-political groupings in the world, nobody hesitates to acknowledge that perhaps science and technology have both assumed primacy over the more restrictive level of economic production, being deeply at work as determining factors in armaments and geopolitics, culture and societal behaviour. In August 1979, the United Nations Organization Conference on Science and Technology for Development served as a focal point for deepening international discussions in this area. Allow me to quote excerpts from Dr. Kinhide Mushakoji's keynote address on "Sociological Implications of Tradition and Change in Developing Countries":

It is the whole international system of science and technology which is in crisis, and this crisis is not only economic; it is part of a crisis of civilization.

If science and technology have to serve effectively the cause of the survival, development, and welfare of humankind within the outer and inner boundaries limiting the growth of world economy, if science and technology are to be developed in accordance with the basic principles of equity, national autonomy, and interdependence of a New International Economic Order, the present system of science and technology is quite inappropriate. New goals - e.g., meeting human needs and guaranteeing national self-reliance - should replace the present ones - e.g., power and profit. New incentives for innovation and production should be institutionalized. (Should technological invention continue to be an object of property right? lf so, is there no alternative legal approach facilitating a freer flow of technology?) Public and private R & D activities should be effectively controlled and oriented toward the new goals through technological assessment with effective power enforcement. R & D for human and social development, oriented toward the satisfaction of human needs, should be given priority over R & D for profit and power. New labour and research ethics should become the basis of a new scientific and technological awareness of the people who should participate actively in the scientific and technological development process. Scientific and technological planning must adopt a new methodology more decentralized, more location-specific, more sensitive to socio-cultural specificities, and more responsive to the people's demands and expectations...

The specificity of the first joint international seminar of the United Nations University's SCA project and the University of Belgrade lies in its focus. While development was quite rightly at the centre of the UN Vienna Conference, this international seminar is intended to be but a part of a whole series devoted to studying structural modifications, to in-depth remodeling of the world we know today - science and technology being, for reasons of feasibility, the first to be tackled, This concept of science and technology as one, albeit the first, step and stage in the series devoted to exploring the prospects for transforming the world means that the stress and tone of the sub-project is more concerned with the differences, contradictions, and tensions in this, our real world, than with more strictly ethical or developmental variables. The persistent coupling of science and technology, of culture with power, in the belief that the primacy of the political - the prince as philosopher - always at work in the history of men ought to become the meeting point of scholars and policy makers, of science and technology specialists on the one hand with analysts and theoreticians of the human and social sciences on the other hand. This is a step, therefore, in an unfolding process, in interrelation with the parallel series of endogenous intellectual creativity. And what we have in mind is more of an intellectual and theoretical workshop than a meeting of experts.

A long way, verily, from the ethos and tone of 1945 - a long, long way.

Neither atomic clouds above the North Pacific, nor the hideous convulsions of traditional imperialism and colonialism in Asia and Africa, nor the liberation of the largest country in the world in 1949 could bring sense to the massive thrust in western advanced industrial societies toward productivism, consumerism, and hedonism. Finally the golden age of man-as-demiurgos had been reached, the very frontiers of the Promethean concept so persistently at the heart of western civilization, from the age of maritime discoveries and the European Renaissance till Yalta. And the instruments of this historic fulfillment were none other than science and technology as the driving forces in the second stage of the industrial Revolution.

If man was finally the master of nature, the conqueror of the universe, geared to achieve all the pleasures he could dream of, what, if any, would be the use in keeping such "archaic" concepts and moulds as nation and state, the family, working people, and the tools of exploitation, to say nothing of such "distant" objective superstructures as philosophy, religion, the human values of love and fraternity, equity and peace - let alone civilization? Despite powerful waves pushing for the transformation of the world, few, or at best a large minority, were listening to the "voices of silence," to Joseph Needham's favourite Confucian saying, "Behave to Everyman as One Receiving a Great Guest," to Chou En-lai's "don't Forget the Well-Digger When You Drink Water." Or was it because of them?

Yet, in less than ten years, ethos and tone have shifted decisively toward the penumbra of a "Crisis."

Which crisis?

In the North, leaders are busy mending fences. A lack of oil and raw materials, receding markets, non-competitive old industrial plants: such was the appraisal with some lonely exceptions. And this verdict was echoed by a large proportion of audible voices in the South, the good "westernized modernizes," busily engaged in reciprocating, even if now with more strident voices.

That the crisis could be that of civilization itself was now mentioned. But this civilization was conceived of as that of the still hegemonic "centre," as opposed to the underdeveloped or developing non-western "periphery," provoking a mixture of reluctant acceptance and anguished self-interrogation. That the crisis might be, perhaps, that of the path to civilization taken by the hegemonic West itself, much more so than its actual hegemony and precedence in power terms, began to emerge here and there. This was followed by intense reactions of either apocalyptic previsions - if western civilization was in crisis, how on earth could mankind seek alternatives? - or derisive comparisons and strictures facing the incoherence and lagging behind of the non-western world.

For it is true that major parts of the underdeveloped non-western societies are still caught in the mirage of reductionism, busily imitating the advanced industrial societies of the West. It is as if history were indeed repetitive, its formative historical moulds and real concrete processes amenable to copying, precisely, limitless productivism, consumerism and hedonism, progress equated to profit and domination, the ghettos of individualism and the negative mind. It is as if nothing could be different from that combination of factors which completely erode self-assurance, popular and national self-reliance, the feeling of security, the hope for a more fraternal and equable future for the majority of mankind - the taming of the "acquisitive society."

Wherefore the quest for alternatives.

In science and technology, the quest is now toward "alternative technology" or "appropriate technology," with a sprinkle of "radical technology." If a set of scientific applications of technology is to be sought to escape the dilemmas of advanced western industrialized societies, then this set could only be - in the reductionist approach - an "alternative" set of technologies, parallel to the advanced western varieties. And this set could be found in the concept of "appropriate technology." "Appropriate" to what? "Appropriate" to whom? "Appropriate" for which purposes? "Appropriate" according to which, and whose, criteria? To be sure, history has it that the great majority of the nations of the three continents can hardly echo the procedures which enabled the West, in five centuries, through the concentration of historical surplus value, to gradually develop its modes of capital-intensive productivity. The humane uses of human resources, in the advanced nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, like the socio-economic restructuring of the societal fabric, is now seen as more beneficial than previously imagined in bridging the gaps between rationality and fraternity, in giving a more humane vision of social dialectics than hitherto prevalent.

Yet numerous temptations, traditions, and fringe benefits of survival imitation lead to a reluctance to use vision as a tool for our future. For then the question would be: To which technology does vision belong?

The growing criticism of the impact of science and technology on modern societies and human life, through its diversity and different motivations, gives an impression of leading toward a growing ambiguity. For although this impact, through hegemony, has had its negative and destructive effects in underdeveloped areas in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to this day, whether through direct domination by imperial powers or more systematic pillaging by multinationals, the recently mounting criticism has come from developed areas, from the core of the West.

The tone here is alarm, and the contents ethical and normative. Industrialization and urbanization have led to ecologism. Atomic armaments and nuclear energy, to the quest for pacifism. Consumerism and individualism, at the time of the energy crisis, to the pursuit of more humane, low-key participatory patterns of social interaction. And it is from the core of the more advanced industrialized societies of the West that the most ruthless indictments of science and technology are nowadays being launched.

On the other side, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, a mounting wave of national movements, often coupled with social transformation or revolution, has always clearly proclaimed its desire - in all countries, nations, and societies in the so-called "South" - to modernize its variegated national-cultural specificities grounded in the depths of history. The instruments and means to achieve this legitimate global desire have been defined simultaneously, in the inner circle, as the creation and reinforcement, or revival, of a stable centre of national social power, the independent national state of the tri-continental area in our times, to be accompanied in the outer circle by careful examination of the realities of the balance of power and of the evolving patterns of dialectical interrelations between major centres of power and influence in our times.

For here, more than ever before, more than anywhere else, more than in any other field at any other time in the history of mankind, the massive unanimous protracted consensus of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, of the Group of Developing and Non-Aligned Countries, lies in the coupling of national independent decision-making power - only feasible with an advanced level of science and technology in economic production and state organization and a mass onslaught on illiteracy and backwardness - with a meaningful and equable share in policy-making at the world level. Such are the roots, visible for all to see, of U Thant's call for what was then labelled the "New International Economic Order" and what has gradually become the "New International Order" at the time of the transformation of the world. Close scrutiny of the major decisions and the philosophy behind them in the series of major conferences from Bandung to Belgrade, Colombo to Havana, plus examination of the socio-political contents of politics put forth by all national independent states of these areas (four fifths of mankind), through the deep diversity of their socio-economic and political ideological regimes, with exceptions - isolated societies or compradore fringes - bear witness to this reality.

The call has been and remains for a realistic political approach to human society in our times, a deep desire to fully use the contributions of science and technology as means to secure a wider and greater share in world and regional decision-making power. Such an approach is more often than not attuned to civilizational visions, cultural traditions, and national parameters - but never evasive about the deep structural integrated interrelations between power and culture, at the heart of all problems of human and social development.

As a matter of course, both sectors of world societies - the so-called North and South - meet along the more general issues, such as nuclear disarmament and the acknowledgment of the need for more rational relations between the two sectors. But, short of the extreme parameters of annihilation, the rise to contemporaneity of Asia, Africa, and Latin America is seen, by the formative endogenous schools of thought and action in these continents, in terms altogether different from those of the dedicated minority groups in advanced industrialized societies who are justly rebelling against the dangers inherent in their societies and civilizational projects. At the same time, the power structures of modern advanced industrialized societies, with the broad support of the wide masses of the population, including the working people - industry, agriculture, and the services alike - are persistently taking action to reach an ever-growing level of scientific and technological sophistication in all fields of social life, with a view to ensure their continuous hegemony through coming generations and, with hope, centuries.

Here lies the principal contradiction between the two sides, between the hegemonic power centres of advanced industrialized societies on the one hand, and the national independent influence centres of the heretofore marginalized cultures and societies of the world. The secondary contradiction seems to lie at a much lesser degree of intensity, and, perhaps, a higher level of ambiguity, between the humanistic minorities of advanced industrial societies on one hand, and the tricontinental area on the other.

Clearly, this area of contradictions is of crucial importance toward defining the problématique of our joint investigation. It is here, so we feel, that the confrontation of analyses, the uses of meaningful comparisons, the perceptive understanding of different types and scales of priorities can genuinely benefit the international community, leading to deeper understanding of the transformation of the world in our time. It is here, so we feel, that the challenges and difficulties of the dialectics of tradition and modernity, specificity and universality, are calling upon us to search for the deepest roots, the hidden part of the iceberg, as it were.

This is a task of vital importance in our times and an imposing challenge on the international intellectual community. It also is the duty of all concerned citizens to their nations, peoples, and cultures to answer this challenge.

As Socrates, the master of interrogative dialectic, taught us many a century ago, "everyone acts according to his knowledge." And we now know that Louis Aragon is right when asserting that "the future has not already been lived." If knowledge, philosophical knowledge of the inner workings of societies in our time, is indispensable and worthy of continuous attention, could it be confidently stated that a better knowledge, a deeper understanding of the present, as both history and a potential future, could chart the path toward more rational and humane endeavours?

To this task of paramount importance, the historic task of bridge-building, our UNU project on Socio-cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World (SCA) is, above all, dedicated. For ours are the challenges and promises to jointly construct what we would propose to define as the "gear-box of priorities": to bring together in meaningful, complementary interaction the widely different schools of thought and action in this our world - rooted in civilizational, cultural, and national specificities; socio-economic formations, political systems; philosophic, religious, and ideological visions of the world, and scientific, theoretical, and methodological conceptions.

As we approach the practical aspects of our research, the more practical, policy oriented aspects of our endeavours, we are bound to face the basic dialectic between specificity and universality under the guise of what we would propose to call the dialectics of priorities. It is obvious that policy definition, differences in standpoints at theoretical and practical levels alike, relate directly to, and are grounded in, what appears at first sight to be a difference in priorities. Then, how can we come to grips with this contradictory aspect of our problématique?

1. The first level of analysis deals with the definition of categories of priorities:

(a) Some would tend to put the first category in the domain of production, economics, and their accompanying technological and scientific aspects. We would have here, inter alia, productivism and consumerism; low-key development and hedonism; individual patterns of economic organization; collective and state patterns; and so forth.

(b) The political dimension proper is such that priorities take shape through political decisions by concerned bodies and institutions of all societies. Usual distinctions between liberal and autocratic, democratic and dictatorial, populist and despotic, consensus and elitist, and so on are naturally considered and are directly relevant to defining priorities.

(c) A third category lies in the realm of culture, thought, philosophy, ideology, and religion as part of a society's formative historical mould: this is where we find the greatest number of differences, echoing the differentiation of human societies in nations and cultural areas, and the proliferating Weltanschauunge cutting across different levels of this sphere.

2. We would then address ourselves to a second level of differentiation, that is, the different types of priorities:

(a) A first general priority type is the static-conservative type, that is, priorities more concerned with maintaining societal cohesiveness, socio-economic and political ideological systems. This maintenance is performed either facing the mounting wave of new transformational and radical demands, or just as an expression of the necessity to preserve achievements and acquisitions which had been the results of lengthy processes of transformation before crystallizing into a viable new order. The different justifications for this conservative approach clearly mean that the contents of what is sought to be conserved can be, and are, profoundly different - yet appear for a certain time more static than their proclaimed aims and contents.

(b) A second general type in priorities is the radical type, oriented toward the transformation of societal moulds. Here, priorities will often appear in parallel, dual, contradictory patterns, and not just as different stages in the same type of priorities, as is often the case with conservative priorities.

3. Enough has been said, though sketchily at this stage, to give a sense of the immense complexity of defining priorities, let alone making sense of their differences.
Yet, the most disconcerting aspect in priorities appears to be the aspect/dimension of tempt. For while the difference in priorities - through their different categories and types - can be understood, and even accepted, as a rational discourse, the operational position of priorities through the time-dimension, that is the transition from choice to action, from decision to praxis, represents the hour of truth in the dialectics of priorities. And here again, it is important to note that different tempt are not derived only from the subjective moment of decision-making: they are rooted, objectively, in the objectivity of the geo-historical constraints defined in the outer and inner circles of social dialectics in different societies of our world, as well as the different visions obtaining within these societies of the alternatives ahead of them.

4. Thus the quest for a mediation which combines the distinctions in a way that can make them understandable, acceptable to a reasonable extent, or at least properly perceived within their own objective legitimacies. The intent here is not to solve the dialectics of priorities but rather to clarify the hidden part of the iceberg which forcefully makes for contradictions, opposition, and frontal antagonisms. A central task of the SCA project has therefore been seen as the gradual construction of the "gear-box of priorities," a gear-box whose component parts are none other than, precisely, the differentials representing the above-mentioned categories and dimensions of the dialectics of priorities.

As we sit today to initiate the series of international seminars on The Transformation of the World with the study of the domain of science and technology, let us remember the hope and urgency, the reality of our real concrete world, the vision of our converging futures.

In fraternal amity and realistic lucidity, let us join hands!

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