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Preface: The transformation of the world - The gearbox of priorities

The United Nations University's project on Socio-cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World (SCA) was launched in mid-1978, within the framework of the Human and Social Development Program of the University, with a view to repositing the problematique of alternatives in human and social evolution as of the wide array of visions of our world, through its interwoven circles of civilisational moulds, geo-cultural areas, formations and nations.

Quite naturally, each of these interlinked circles comprises the socio-economic and political-ideological system as they obtain in the real concrete world of our times. However, the SCA Project is oriented towards a deeper level of analysis, deeper and more compelling too - i.e. the combination of the civilisational and geostrategic levels. Only by combining these two levels - the more obvious, traditional, level of the social sciences and the wider and deeper level of civilization and geostrategy - does it appear possible to reach for the hidden part of the iceberg, for the very roots of the formative alternative schools of thought and action, deep at work. Only thus, and then, do we appear to be able therefore to mobilise their potentials towards a more humane, fraternal approach to the transformation of the world: to be precise, the non-antagonistic dialectical treatment of contradictions leading towards complementarily.

This First International Seminar of the series on The Transformation of the World deals with the dimension of Science and Technology in the Transformation of the World. It is thus the first of the series of six international seminars devoted to the implementation of the sub-project on The Transformation of the World (TW), itself part of the UNU Project on Socio-Cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World (SCA), within the framework of the United Nations University's Human and Social Development Program, directed by Vice-Rector Dr Kinhide Mushakoji. A parallel series is devoted to the theme of the other sub-project Endogenous Intellectual Creativity, starting with the First Asian Regional Symposium, held at the University of Kyoto (13-17 November 1978), followed by the Latin American Regional Symposium at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (23-29 April 1979), the Arab Regional Symposium at Kuwait University (1981), etc. The series of five international seminars dealing with The Transformation of the World will comprise, after this first Seminar devoted to Science and Technology, the dimensions of: Economy and Society; Culture and Thought; Philosophy and Religion; the Making of the New International Order.

This First International Seminar was organised 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, our host and Chairman, and Dr Kinhide Mushakoji, Vice-Rector of the United Nations University for Human and Social Development Program.

In launching this series on the Sub-Project of The Transformation of the World, our SCA Project is aware that it thus fulfils an important part of the moral and scientific obligations of the international scientific community and of the United Nations University proper, at the very heart of our joint quest for a new international order, according to the fundamental decisions of the United Nations Organization and the Charter of the United Nations University, which coincide with the aspirations and decisions of the group of developing and non-aligned countries. The systematic, comparative and critical study of the different dimensions of The Transformation of the World is conceived of as the all-encompassing general frame and mould of the scientific and theoretical workshop now being developed, towards 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, this series of international seminars devoted to The Transformation of the World wishes to implement 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, coexistence 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 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, resides 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 by all quarters and groups all over the world, is neither unilinear nor synchronic. At the first level, we are witnesses to major differences in the quality, quantity - and more so, 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; civilisational projects; political ideologies; religions; philosophies; myths, etc. - 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, e.g. 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 civilisational, cultural and national specificity, we encounter major, more resilient and protracted, sets of differences.

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

(1) The resurgence of the three continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America to contemporaneity, both in the socio-political and civilisational-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 from the years following 1917 and especially in the period 1945-1973.

This vast transformation has been seen by Western specialists as a sociopolitical process within the traditional conception of the world's history (as consisting of one centre - Europe, later Europe and North America, i.e. the Western World - and its periphery, the Orient, i.e. Asia, Africa, 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 of the river, especially in the Orient - Asia, Africa and the Arab-Islamic world - this process of emergence was seen essentially as a process of renaissance of either culture or civilization, as in the Arab and Islamic Nahdah and Meiji Japan, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and in the upsurge of Africanism, while Latin America's quest for identity has brought to light the hitherto hidden Indian and Indo-African elements of the culture.

(2) 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 bourgeoisies in power was suddenly faced with the eruption of the labouring people into power, coupled with a populist Weltanschauung geared towards a persistently more humane life for the have-nots. Sixty years later, nearly half of mankind lives under socialism - four-fifths of whom belong to Asia and Africa.

(3) More recently, a third set of factors has become more visible, centring upon the immense progress accomplished in the fields of 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 of the river the vision remained paradoxically nearer to more realistic approaches, using the more traditional concepts of 'revolution', 'development', 'social transformation', within the implacable parameters of geopolitics. Yet none would deny the message and ever-growing influence of the application of modern technologies in our world, in the very fabric of our individual lives through the complexity of societal processes.

A long way, indeed, from the ethos and tonality dominant in 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 towards productivism, consumerism, hedonism. Finally, the Golden Age of Man-as-demiurge had been reached, the very frontiers of the Promethean concept so persistently at the heart of the Western civilisational project, from the age of maritime discoveries and the European Renaissance to Yalta. And the instruments of this historic fulfilment were none other, precisely, 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 panoplia of 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 humane values of love and fraternity, equity and peace - let alone the civilisational project? In spite of the powerful waves making 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 every man 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 tonality have shifted decisively towards the rancourous penumbra of the 'Crisis'.

Which crisis?

In the North, leading epigones are busy mending fences. Oil, raw materials, the receding markets, non-competitive old industrial plants: such was the verdict, with some lonely exceptions. And this verdict was echoed by a large proportion of audible voices in the South, the good 'Westernised modernisers', busily engaged in reciprocating, even if now with more strident voices.

That the crisis could be that of Civilisation itself was here and there mentioned. But this Civilisation was conceived of as that of the still hegemonic 'centre', as against 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 civilisational project of the hegemonic West itself, much more so than its actual hegemony and precedence, in power terms, began to emerge, here and there, followed by intense reactions of either apocalyptic pre-visions - if the Western civilisational project 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 (as if history was indeed repetitive, its formative historical moulds and real concrete processes amenable to copying) plummetting towards limitless productivism, consumerism and hedonism, equating progress with profit, domination, the ghettos of individualism - the negative mind. As if nothing could be different from that very combination of factors eroding in depth 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'.

Hence the quest for alternatives.

In the field of science and technology, the quest is now towards 'alternative technologies' or 'appropriate technologies', with a sprinkle of 'radical technologies'. If a set of scientific applications, of technologies, is to be sought to escape the dilemnae of advanced Western industrialised societies, then they could only be - in the reductionist approach - an 'alternative' set of technologies, parallel to the advanced Western varieties. And this set could mercifully be located through the concept of 'appropriate' technologies. '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 develop gradually its modes of capital-intensive productivity. The humane uses of human resources, in the advanced nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, as of the socio-economic restructuring of the societal fabric, is now seen to be more beneficial than was hitherto imagined in bridging the gaps between rationality and fraternity, in giving a more humane vision of social dialectics than was hitherto prevalent.

Yet the temptations, traditions and fringe benefits of survival imitation, the reluctance to use vision as a tool for our futures, remain immense. 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 towards a growing ambiguity. For, although this impact, through hegemony, has had its negative and pernicious effects in the underdeveloped areas, in the 'three continents' of Asia, Africa and Latin America, to this day, whether through the direct domination of imperial powers or their more systematic pillaging by multinationals, the more recent mounting criticism has come from the developed areas, from the core of the West.

The tonality here is of alarm, and the contents ethical and normative. Industrialisation and urbanisation 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 industrialised societies of the West that the most ruthless indictments of science and technology are nowadays being launched.

On the other side of the river, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the 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 achieve contemporaneity, to modernise, as of the paths and potentials of its variegated national-cultural specificities grounded in the depths of the historical field. And the instruments and means to achieve this global legitimate 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 tricontinental area in our times, to be accompanied in the outer circle by careful prospecting of the realities of the balance of power, of the evolving patterns of dialectical inter-relations 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 independent national power of decision, only feasible on the basis of an advanced level of science and technology in the fields of economic production, State structuring and mass onslaught on illiteracy and backwardness, with a meaningful and equable share in policymaking at 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', what has gradually become the 'New International Order', at the time of the transformation of the world. A close scrutiny of major decisions and their philosophy in the series of major conferences from Bandoeng to Belgrade, Colombo and Havana, of the socio-political contents of the 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 the exceptions - isolated societies, or compradors fringes) bears witness to this reality.

The call has been, and remains, for a realistic political approach of human society in our times, a deep desire to use fully the contributions of science and technology as a means to secure a wider and greater share in power of decision at world and regional levels - more often than not, attuned to civilisational visions, cultural traditions and national parameters -but never evasive about the deep structural integrated inter-relations 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 the so-called 'South' - meet along the more general issues, such as nuclear disarmament, or the acknowledgement 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 industrialised societies, who are justly rebelling against the dangers inherent in their societies and its civilisational project. At the same time, the power structures of modern advanced industrialised societies, with the broad support of the wide masses of the population, including the working people industry, agriculture, and the services alike, are, in fact, persistently taking action to reach an ever-growing level of scientific and technological sophistication in all fields of social life, with a view to ensuring their continuous hegemony through the coming generations and, hopefully, centuries.

Here lies the principal contradiction between 'the two sides of the river', between the hegemonic power centres of advanced industrialised societies, on the one hand, and the rising national independent influence centres of the heretofore marginalised cultures and societies of the world; while 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 the one hand, and the Tricontinental area, on the other hand.

Clearly this area of contradictions is of crucial importance in defining the problematique of our joint prospection. It is here, so we feel, that the confrontation of analyses, the uses of meaningful comparatism, the perceptive understanding of different types and scales of priorities, can be of genuine benefit for the international community, for deeper understanding of the transformation of the world in our times. 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: an imposing challenge to the international intellectual community: the duty of all concerned citizens towards their nations, peoples and cultures.

As Socrates, the master of interrogative dialectic, taught, many a century ago, 'everyone acts according to his knowledge'. And we now know that Louis Aragon is right in 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 stated in confidence that a better knowledge, a deeper understanding of the present, both as history and potential future, could chart the path towards more rational and humane endeavours?

To this task of paramount importance, the historic task of bridge building, our UNU Project Socio-Cultural Development Alternatives in a Changing World (SCA) is, above all, dedicated. For our's are the challenges and promise to construct jointly what we would propose to define as the gearbox of priorities: to bring together in meaningful interaction, towards complementarily, the widely different schools of thought and action in this, our world, rooted in civilisational, cultural, national specificities, socio-economic formations, political systems, philosophic, religious, ideological visions of the world, 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 programmatic 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 problematique?

(1) The first level of analysis will deal with the definition of categories of priorities:

(a) Some would incline 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 organisation; and collective and State patterns; etc.

(b) The political dimension proper vividly obtains inasmuch as priorities take their shape through political decisions by the concerned bodies and institutions of all societies. Usual distinctions between liberal and autocratic, democratic and dictatorial, populist and despotic, consensus and elitist, etc., are naturally obtained and are of direct relevance to the definition of priorities.

(c) A third category can be located in the realm of culture, thought, philosophy, ideology, religion, as of their formative historical moulds: this is where we find the greatest number of differences, echoing the differentiation of human societies in nations, cultural areas and the proliferating Weltanschauungs cutting across the different levels of this realm.

(2) We would then address ourselves to a second level of differentiation, i.e. the different types of priorities:

(a) A first general type in priorities is the static-conservative type, i.e. the type of priorities more concerned with the maintenance of societal cohesiveness, socio-economic and political-ideological systems, 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 the crystallisation into a viable new order. The different legitimisations of 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 towards 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 in the conservative type of priorities.

(3) Enough has been said, even 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 tempi. 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, i.e. the transition from choices 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 geohistorical 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) Hence 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 does forcefully make for contradictions, oppositions and frontal antagonisms. A central task of the SCA Project has therefore been seen as the gradual construction of the 'gearbox of priorities', a gearbox whose component parts are none other than the differentials representing the above-mentioned categories and dimensions of the dialectics of priorities.

As we set out 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 therefore join hands.

Paris and Cairo, January, 1982
Anouar Abdel-Malek,
Project Coordinator

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