One World, Two Civilizations
Kapuscinski's most recent books include THE EMPEROR an account of the fall of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1974 and SHAH OF SHAHS, an account of the Iranian revolution and the collapse of Shah Reza Pahlavi's regime.
These observations are adapted from a conversation with Mr. Kapuscinski in January.
In times of crisis the importance of the individual is minimized because of the tension caused by big forces. Big forces involve the interests of the whole. Big forces mean a big mass and a big mass means the removal of the individual. It means the neglect, the non-importance, of the individual. Through manipulation and mass organization the individual becomes only an element of the big social forces, without a name and without hope. This has been the danger of the 20th Century.
In a country with internal calm, in a stable society, there is a feeling that the space ahead is open. There is hope. One can pronounce his hopes and express himself because he's an individual. That's not true in a situation of crisis and instability.
In a large demonstration, or in a large crowd, a person sees that he doesn't count. He is lost completely. He sees that his spirit has no meaning. He is a machine to march, to move, to fight.
There is a fantastic description of a crowd scene by one of the Russian journalists of the 19th Century. The Czar had a military parade outside of Moscow in a large open field. As a big crowd gathered there the army started to hand out some free bread. There was such pressue when the huge mass of people moved that many individuals were crushed. But the crowd was so big the dead people were moved along together with the living. In this crowd, it was of no importance if you were dead or alive.
Crisis is always represented by crowds. In a crisis there are such important things involved that no one pays attention to the individual. History is always bigger and more important than individuals. History is the master, but not as Marx said, "created according to man's will." Rather, people are always faced with a situation where they don't know what they're creating. This is the paradox of history.
Recently, I was in the hospital in Warsaw. I was lying in one room with a man who had been a construction worker for forty years. He was a hard working man, working for low wages and in a very difficult situation. He said to me, "How is it possible that I dedicated all my life to working, day and night, with a very small salary, working on holidays, and as a result we in Poland have this crisis today? We have debt. We have no houses. How is it possible?" He couldn't understand. History was a force not only foreign to him, but working against him! - even though this man, a Polish worker, was creating the history of his time in his small way.
Crisis means everyone is dissatisfied - that's why there is tension. Everybody's unhappy. And if we are unhappy as a social force, then our private unhappiness is dissolved in this big social unhappiness. Our personal unhappiness exists, but becomes unimportant. Nobody pays attention.
In the martial law period in Poland, this has troubled me. I have felt myself living the crisis, thinking, "how unimportant are my own problems when facing the big drama of history." I feel that it is unworthy to voice my own questions, my own troubles. It seems inappropriate.
The more space history takes for itself, the less there is for the individual. This anonymous situation is the reality for the great masses of the Third World. There are millions of people dying of hunger but we are unable to mention a single name. We are tracing the tragedy of mass anonymous death.
I once wrote a poem about the problem of "about," 'called "About Man."
In Warsaw, during the Nazi occupation, many executions took place on the streets. Today, these places are marked by plaques. The commemorative plaques say, for example, I on the fourth of September, in this place, the Nazis executed about 4,000 people." The poem says that #3,024 or #3,068 is something that can be identified at least by number, but what about people? In this about situation, a person doesn't count; he's of no importance. This is the destructive force of history that surrounds us.
The great problem of the advanced Western societies - what New Perspectives has called the problem of the self-absorbed individual, not the absorption of the individual by history - doesn't have this destructive force. These modem problems don't kill the creative capacities of a society. The crisis created by history, however, is very destructive. It paralyzes society. The society doesn't create anything except hatred and violence. And death.
This difference is resulting in the creation of two different civilizations in the world. The question is not just one of quantity in terms of living standards, but of quality - of imagination, creativity and dynamism. That is the tremendous difference.
If a person travels in the world today, he sees that he not only goes from a less developed country to a more developed country, or a poor region to a more prosperous one, but from one civilization to another! The contact between these civilizations is not growing. Rather, the gap is becoming more pronounced.
Despite forty years of decolonization and attempts at development we remain unable to find a way to shrink this division, to make the North and South more equal. The gap will be greater at the beginning of the next century than at the beginning of this century.
For example, the ecological tragedy of the Third World countries has become such a big problem that their food exports - in some cases the only thing they can export will not be accepted in the Western market because it is so poisoned by pesticides. This ecological difference will influence the great gap between civilizations.
When I first went to Africa thirty years ago, I could find some modern agriculture, infrastructure and medicine. There was more or less a parallel with the Europe that had been destroyed by war and was then undeveloped.
When one travels now, the difference is absolutely incredible. A lot of what was left from colonialism in Africa has deteriorated. Not many new things have been built. In the meantime, Europe has developed to an enormous level, not to speak of America. Instead of becoming more equal, everything has become more unequal.
History has caused this paralysis in the Third World. Only big anonymous forces move things. It is a heavy burden that handicaps development. Everything has been decided in the past.
Societies with in historical mentality are directed toward the past. All their energies, their feelings, their passions are dedicated to the discussion of history, to the meaning of history. They Eve in the realm of legends and founding lineages. They are unable to speak about the future because the future doesn't arouse the same passion in them as their history. They arc all historical people, born. and living in the history of great fights, divisions and conflicts. They are like a war veteran. All he wants to talk about when he gets older is living that big experience of the war which carried such a deep emotion that he was never able to forget about it.
So, this is the problem of historical societies, which all Third World nations are. They must live deeply in history; this is how they identify themselves. If they lose their history, they lose their identity. Then they will cease to exist. It is a question of survival.
The historical societies are trapped in a tragedy. To forget about history would mean to forget about themselves a biological and psychological impossibility. Yet, to create a new value, a society has to have a clean mind that will enable it to concentrate on doing something directed at the future.
America, by contrast, is a lucky nation. It has no problem with history. The American mentality is open to the future. As a young society it can be creative with no burden of history keeping it down, holding its leg, tying its hands, and, especially, pressing in on its mind.
The danger for America, and the danger for the whole world, is that American development is so dynamic and creative that, by the beginning of the next century, it will be a completely different world on this same planet. Everyday, America is producing more and more elements of a completely new civilization which is further and further from the civilization of the rest of the world. The civilization of the computer is untransferrable to the Third World where it can't be absorbed.
The position and rule of dynamic America and the paralysis of historical societies - this is the big problem for the future of mankind. Unlike the vision we all held twenty years ago, the world is not converging, but spreading apart like the galaxies. This is the world we will have at the end of the 20th Century.
After the second World War there was a great awakening of consciousness in the Third World countries. For Africa and Asia particularly, the war proved that the master countries, like Britain or France, could be beaten. Also, the centers of power in the world shifted from Germany, Japan and the French and British empires to the United States and the Soviet Union - countries that were not traditional colonial powers. These developments convinced the young nationalists in the Third World that they could achieve independence.
The fight for independence had three stages. First came the national liberation movements, especially in the largest Asian countries. India obtained independence in 1947 and China in 1949. This period ended with the Bandung Conference in 1955, where the first political philosophy of the Third World, "nonalignment," was born. This philosophy was promoted by the great and colorful figures of the 1950s - Nehru Of India, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia. The second stage, in the 1960s, was characterized by great optimism. It was the period when decolonization spread rapidly with the nonalignment philosophy as its guide. In 1964, fourteen African countries achieved independence.
In the third stage, from the decade of the 1970s into the present, the great optimism which had accompanied the birth of nations began to be dashed. The belief that national independence automatically meant economic independence and cultural independence proved to be a utopian and completely unrealistic conception.
The present situation is rather pessimistic for the Third World countries, and there are no visible signs of improvement. For any of these nations to gain economic independence, given the general condition of the world market and level of technological development, is practically impossible.
Having spent many decades in the Third World, I am coming to the fatalistic conclusion that the structure of the world - the economic division of the world between developed and undeveloped nations - was already decided in the 18th and 19th centuries. With very few exceptions - Japan most notably - it is difficult to find a country that was undeveloped in the 19th Century that is developed today.
"Colonialism" was not only a label used in propaganda, but a very real system which created lasting structures which are seemingly impossible to surpass. The tempo of change is very, very slow. It is always centuries before a society advances.
As we enter the 21st Century with the globe divided into the two great blocs of a developed and underdeveloped world, we see a fourth stage, opened by the Iranian revolution, which has emerged as a consequence of the optimistic efforts for development.
The technocratic character of modern values and the industrial plans of the optimistic period ignored the crucial dimension of historical societies - the ethical and religious values of tradition.
For example, the rapid importation of technology into Iran was perceived by Iranians as a humiliation for a people with such a long, traditional culture. Because they were not able to learn the technology, they felt ashamed. This humiliation caused a very strong reaction. The Iranians nearly destroyed the sugar factories built by European specialists because they felt such fury at not being able to understand the technology. Because it was something foreign, they felt the technology was built-in to dominate them.
The change was so rapid that they were unable to accept it in such a short period of time. They refused because they felt it threatened the most elemental part of their society.
The great Iranian masses that followed Khomeini found the grand economic plans, inefficient in terms of leading them to Heaven, to Paradise. As a result, even more emphasis was placed on older values. People defended themselves by hiding in these old values. The old traditions and the old religion were the only shelter available to them.
The emotional and religious movements we see in reaction today are only the beginning. The Iranian Revolution opened a new period in Third World countries - the period of cultural decolonization and cultural revolution.
New forces are trying to find their way in the contemporary world. They are trying to define their own ideologies, their own way of expression.
This new ideology is not creative, but defensive. The classic expression, which is the slogan of the future of the Third World, was formulated by the Ayatollah Khomeini. His slogan is "Not East, or West, Only the Islamic Republic." In this slogan we have practically all philosophies of the nationalistic, religious leaders. It is neither East - in terms of the Soviet Union or West - in terms of America - but only the Islamic Republic. Islamic means religious and republic means bureaucracy. The combination of religious ideology and bureaucracy is a living force in the societies of the Third World today.
The US-Soviet conflict is likely to fade as the chief global antagonism as the intensity of this cultural revolution grows in the Third World. Already we see fundamentalists in Beirut attacking both Soviet and US personnel. The war between Iran and Iraq is a war which neither superpower is able to control or influence. Even the bargaining position of playing East against West has become less important in the Third World because neither of the Cold War blocs is able to cope with the impossible economic crisis there.
The historical societies of the Third World accept certain achievements of modernism which can somehow be coordinated with the old values - the wristwatch, the radio, the car.
But we can't find an example of what will pave the way from the traditional structure of historical and even tribal societies, to developed, democratic Western types of society. There is no country which has taken the road not just to America, but even to Dutch society or Swiss society. And, without this development, none of these societies is able to absorb modernization as something that will change their everyday lives.
Rather, the common man of the Third World countries will treat modernism, on the grand scale, as a threatening force for two reasons. First, since the state sees modernism as important in these countries, the government builds big projects which have nothing to do with the life of the common man. These projects only serve to strengthen local bureaucratic powers.
Second, modernism comes in the form of armaments which, in internal policy, are used by the government to suppress the society.
So, thinking in terms of credit and machines is a completely wrong idea of development, especially when the education level of many nations, especially in Africa, is lower now than twenty years ago. That route doesn't work. Only a change in the thinking, in the imagination of these societies will work. And for that there are no practical answers, only theoretical ones. Some say socialism. Some say democracy.
But, in the realities of these Third World societies, the theoretical answers have little meaning. Democracy or socialism are just words and intentions used demagogically. They produce no practical results. Whether of the left or the right, these ideologies have been unable, during this second half of the 20th Century, to surmount the blockades set in place by both colonialism and tradition. These limits were apparent in Iran with the Shah, then with Bani-Sadr, the first president of the revolution's original left-leaning stage. The limits are also clear in such places as Ethiopia, Somalia, Togo and elsewhere in Africa. These nations switch from left to right and back, but nothing changes except their foreign policy positions.
The need is to find an internal solution to change society, to make a revolution of the mind, of behavior, attitude and organization. These societies are so completely ignorant of organization that to change that alone would require an enormous revolution.
It is an inherent characteristic of an oligarchy that it creates a large class of bureaucrats, military and police who all stand to lose their vested interests in any transfer of power, democratic or otherwise. So, they stubbornly resist.
It is very difficult to change power in a democratic way in countries without democratic traditions. In the 1960s, Europe had many military dictatorships - Greece, Portugal, Spain. However, those countries had European democratic traditions, so they were able to return to democracy. But, when there is no democratic experience to return to, the mechanism of permanent authoritarian power tends to be re-established. The Iranian revolution was a clear example of this. It started out as a pro-democratic revolution and ended as a religious dictatorship.
Nigeria is another good example. Two years ago, it tried to return to civilian rule and failed. The military rules there once again.
These countries are moving in a vicious cycle set in motion a long, long time before us.
It is difficult to expect liberal democrats to maintain power in places like the Philippines even if they have attained it. They are unable to offer any immediate answers to the problems of a society like the Philippines. They cannot satisfy the revolution of growing expectations based in immediate everyday needs and the promises to satisfy them.
In a situation of poverty, there will always be confrontation and unrest. Even the few democratic societies of the Third World, like India which was born out of British liberal traditions, are forced to use the military to calm down situations instead of resolving the problems of society. That is beyond their reach.
If we look at it in perspective, the period of these oligarchies is coming to an end. There are very few now. The big names are gone - the Somozas, Papa Doc, Trujillo, Idi Amin and Marcos. And in each case, the rule is either directly in the hands of military groups without important leaders, or it is in the hands of bureaucrats representing the interest of their own group.
The democratic trend in Latin America is not very new. If we take into account the history of countries like Argentina, we see the characteristics of so many Latin regimes: periodic change between military and civilian rule. This change is something which, historically, has happened every four or eight years for more than one-hundred years with the exception of Chile, where there was civilian rule for a very long time and now military rule for a very long time.
With the swing toward civilian government, the military seems to have exhausted its possibilities at this stage of Latin American history. But this is temporary. None of these governments - civilian or military - are able to resolve the problems of the country. With the enormous debt problem now, they are in a very difficult economic situation, although things have always been difficult economically.
The debt problem will surely lead to a new stage of social unrest. Democratization is a temporary phenomenon since the economic difficulties are a growing phenomenon.
Maybe I'm wrong, but historical experience has to be the guide. In Latin America, the army is practically another political party dressed in uniform. They are never too far from power. They can't long resist the temptation to come back to power. And this has proved an easy road in Latin America.