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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic appropriateness: Questionable answers

Global Strategies Project

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1. Monopolarization

The many initiatives in response to the global problematique are in most cases stimulated by a need to determine guidelines for action. The question to which an answer is sought at all levels is some variant of "what can be usefully done?" The answers to this question have taken a range of wellknown forms which include the following:

  • Policy recommendations to appropriate institutions;
  • Publication and distribution of research conclusions to academic communities;
  • Public information programmes to adapt and disseminate conclusions;
  • Formulation of educational programmes for schools and universities;
  • Implementation of community dialogue programmes to encourage participation;
  • Implementation of field programmes acting directly on societal problems;
  • Design of new organizations and institutions capable of responding more adequately to the societal condition;
  • Elaboration and dissemination of visions of alternatives and future action modes;
  • Design of new information systems;
  • Organization of (a series of) meetings on problems and action;
  • Proposals for further research on problems whether involving practical applications or fundamental reassessment of methodology;
  • Elaboration of innovative audiovisual presentations of the nature of problems and the action possibilities;
  • Elaboration and dissemination of new sets of values through which consensus can be obtained;
  • Elaboration and dissemination of declarations concerning action to be taken;
  • Elaboration of multilateral treaties concerning action to be taken;
  • Elaboration of interaction processes (including computer conferencing) whereby the problematique can be approached in a new light.

These are all "classical" options to ensure an integrated response to any societal condition. They have been extensively applied since the origin of the International Development Decades and in response to every type of problem, including: energy, population, food, refugees, discrimination, health, youth, drugs or environment. It is fair to conclude that these answers have been successful to the extent that the problem was either a narrow technical one involving little controversy (e.g. smallpox) or did not call for immediate action (e.g. creating environmental awareness). The answers have however been of limited effectiveness in containing the problematique in its essential globality.

The point has been reached at which predictions by the highest authority of the cumulative consequences of inaction are met with increasing indifference and a sense of helplessness. It is possible to take any one of such answers and show why it is inadequate as a response and why in fact it may merely aggravate or displace the problem. This too is increasingly recognized. And yet such answerscontinue to be formulated in desperation because of the need to respond to constituencies who want to believe that something effective is being done which will alleviate the problem and avert disaster.

Protests that such answers have proven to be of limited effectiveness in the past, meet with responses of the type: "these things take time", "we must do what we can", "we must concentrate on what we can handle effectively", and "it is participation in the process which is significant, not the results". Is it possible to move beyond the unimodal answer and recognize that because each form of action has both strengths and weaknesses, the key to a more effectively multimodal answer lies in finding how to interrelate the various unimodal answers so that they correct for each others weaknesses and counteract each others excesses. There are some efforts in this direction but they run up against another constraint, namely whether integrated action of any type is feasible at this time.

2. Assumptions concerning appropriate answers

What then is the nature of the answer that would prove appropriate ? What are its "properties" ? What would be the response to the formulation of such an answer ? Are there more fruitful ways of formulating such an answer ? Assumptions such as the following are too easily made:

  • The appropriate answer can be made in the same conceptual framework or "language" as the question "what can be usefully done ?";
  • The answer will not challenge the status and self-image of the questioner or potential "doer";
  • The answer can be rendered in a comprehensible form to the questioners or to those from whom they have received their mandate;
  • The answer would simply involve a reshuffling of existing organizational resources and priorities, but would not imply any radical transformation of their status and mode of working.
  • It might well be interpreted by many to take the form of the
  • "N+1" th UN World Action Plan and therefore to conform to standard UN administrative procedures;
  • The answer would not engender valid opposition and resistance, except by reactionary segments of society whose views are irrelevant;
  • The promulgation of the kind of answer sought would not deprive the future period (during which it is implemented) of the ability to initiate alternative responses;
  • The answer cannot be conceived as competing with other answers, which if they are advanced must necessarily be subsumed, opposed, or preferably suppressed;
  • The psychological and institutional systems could adjust satisfactorily to the complete elimination of the problematique by the ideal answer.

Assumptions such as these result from thinking similar to that associated with modern medicine. Illnesses are diagnosed and then surgery and/or a course of treatment is recommended based on specific drugs and diet. It is assumed that if the world problematique could be accurately "diagnosed" and mapped, malignant growth could be excised and appropriate "pills" could be designed and "prescribed". Some further treatment may also be advocated in the form of various therapies or re-educational exercises, with "stimulants", "tranquillizers" and "vitamins" as necessary. This pill psychology approach takes no account of the questionable role of medicine in society, as explored by Illich (1976) and Attali (1979). It does not take into account issuesanalogous to those raised by such currently debated phenomena as conflict between specialists, malpractice, iatrogenic diseases, placebo effects, commercialization and institutionalization of medicine, drug cost as a perceived indicator of remedial power, folk medicine, euthanasia, hospital vs home environment, and problems of psychosomatic origin.

The approach to providing "the answer" must therefore be examined very carefully. Advocating a particular model or course of action is tantamount to advocating a particular type of pill. It raises the question of how this might conflict with treatment advocated by other "health centres" from which the "patient" is seeking advice. On the other hand, presenting a range of conflicting opinions by eminent specialists on possible alternative courses of treatment would be of little value to the patient, as would recommendations for remedies for an aspect of the problem (a "micro-answer"). And pointing to directions for "further research" would be simply abandoning the patient to his own resources for the meantime. In each case, it is not the treatment which is necessarily the main problem, but rather the framework within which the patient's relationship to the possible treatments is defined. The question is therefore whether this situation can be seen in a new light and whether a new kind of response can be made to the question "what can be usefully done ?".

3. Forms of truth: uniformity versus aesthetics

The exploration of the nature of an appropriate answer must take into account a most important phenomenon. That is that few groups, projects, or schools of thought have difficulty in discovering and promulgating an answer. The difficulty for society as a whole arises from the conflictual relationship between such answers, or their denial of each other as irrelevant, out-of-date, erroneous, or unworthy of consideration.

In the words of Jacques Attali concerning remedial ideas about the current crisis: "Au-delà des problèmes que pose toute sélection d'idées... voici l'essentiel: si tout ce savoir n'est encore aujourd'hui ni synthetise, ni assimile, s'il reste un lieu d'affrontement et d'anathèmes, c'est parce qu'il charrie une image du monde d'une intolérable fixite; et que tout groupe social trouve intérêt à en occulter certains fragments pour tenter d'asseoir sa domination". (1981, p.1011)

Perhaps the most important feature of this phenomenon is that every effort is necessarily made to ignore it, to deny its significance, but especially to avoid exploring non-trivial routes beyond the barrier it constitutes to social development. As Attali continues: "Face à l'immensité de l'enjeu, faut-il alors cesser ce combat rudimentaire entre un vrai et un faux, mettre un terme à cette denonciation de la parole de l'autre ? Et avoir le courage d'admettre que plusieurs discours peuvent être simultanement vrais, c'est-à-dire peuvent valablement interpreter le monde ?" (1981, p.11) Attali notes in passing that the multiplicity of truth is also encountered in physics (form example the wave vs particle theory of light). Clearly, as he proceeds to demonstrate, the problem lies in the way truth is to be understood. He distinguishes three senses (1981, p.1114):

(a) A theory is true if it can be articulated according to the rules of formal logic, and if its consequences can be verified empirically by any observer. This is the most common scientific criterion of truth, and is that used by establishment institutions of every kind in every society. It gives rise to difficulties if some of the consequences it implies are contradicted by experience. The institutions are then obliged to construct a representation of the world which denies any possibility of its own negation.

(b) A discourse is true (and therefore scientific) if it provides a useful mode of communication for a group in its struggle for power. Unanimity is then forcefully imposed rather than emerging from agreement with a universal rational structure.

(c) A discourse is receivable, and thus true, the moment it produces an understanding of the world for those articulating it. Unanimity is achieved neither by pure logic, nor by force, but by the virtue of seduction. As with beauty, and because it is intimately related to it, truth is not in itself universal. Truth is aesthetic. Attali compares these three forms of truth in physics with mechanics, thermodynamics, and relativity theories. The equivalents he suggests in economics are regulatory theories,theories of value production, and theories of the organization or management of violence (especially of the non-physical variety), each with their appropriate modes of organization.

The first two may be equated with capitalist (most general sense) and marxist (theoretical) approaches. It is the third approach, or basis for world order, which needs to be defined. As Attali stresses, it is necessary to recognize that the reality of the world, whether in physical or psycho-social terms, is too complex to be encompassed by a single mode of discourse. The real cannot be separated from each necessarily partial view of it. It is in fact the multiplicity of views of the world, with all their differences and ambiguities, which renders the world tolerable to the majority, permitting each to develop his own understanding and to manage the violence done to it by others.

"Aujourd'hui cette multiplicité est difficile à preserver. C'est que les deux premiers mondes de la science ont proné, l'un l'universalité, le second la force: ni dans l'un, ni dans l'autre, il n'y a place pour la tolérance. Aussi, toute société qui accepte de se representer le monde selon une seule de ces deux classes de discours s'oblige à l'uniformité. Elle ne peut laisser vivre le troisième sens du vrai, et le voilà inévitablement contrainte au mensonge et à la dictature: tout ordre qui élimine l'esthétique comme langue et la séduction comme parole implique inévitablement la dictature". (1981, p.1516)

Just as in physics the three approaches continue to have their domains of validity, so it should prove to be in the realm of psycho-social organization. The human being has three brains, the third being essential to mediate between the conflicting functions of the other two (M D Waller, 1961). The key question is then what kind of organization is implied by this third order of truth such that it could be of any significance for social development? Failure to take account of this question can only result in an answer of essentially limited value.

4. Prevailing meta-answer: the gladiatorial arena

If "an answer" is sought for the current global condition, and it is repeatedly stressed that one is urgently needed, it would seem that great care is required to avoid falling into the trap of formulating answers whose nature forces them to complete in the unending, and essentially inhumane, "gladiatorial combats" of the answer arena, in an effort to attract the temporary support of fickle "spectators" answer only meaningful to those initiated into a particular elite group (cf world modellers) with its own limited information base. The answer must be of a different nature, but at the same time widely comprehensible. It should not attempt to accumulate glory by direct combat in the answer arena. It should rather redefine the significance of that arena and the answers which emerge temporarily victorious there.

In effect humanity already possesses a single, universal meta-answer. That is the one which defines the present nature of the answer arena. It is the mind-set which perceives that arena as the place on which differences should be settled and effectively legitimates the processes which currently occur therein. This legitimation is obviously neither fully conscious nor explicit. It is derived from the instinctually felt "appropriateness of similar "stamping ground" processes in the time of early man. These were shared with pack animals. This essentially instinctual meta-answer has, for specific and limited purposes, been partially modernized and given respectability. That is in the concept of the global "marketplace" for exchange of goods and services and the various "international assemblies" for exchange of views ("marketplaces for ideas"). But these are but a thin disguise for an arena which remains essentially primitive, in which most other differences are "settled", and as a result of which pack allegiances are redefined.

Everybody participates actively or passively in these processes whereby movements of opinion arise and "world opinion" is formed and modified. They appeal to the "fickle instinctual spectator" in everyone. The challenge would seem to be to find a way of placing this current meta-answer in a new light, not so much by combatting it on its own terms, but rather by offering a more "seductive" alternative in Attali's sense (1981). The difficulty is to avoid the temptation of defining this meta-answer as an answer and thus ending up in the current trap. But at the same time, if it is to be of any relevance, the meta-answer should do more than simply provide a context for the emergence of better answers.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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