Building peace in the minds of men and women

A North-South debate: the meaning of progress

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ideological polarization in which intellectual life had been mired during much of this century came to an end. Ideologies are dead; they have been replaced by a globalism that brings with it new hopes but also new dangers. More diffuse polarities are emerging and spreading along ethnic, religious, racial and regional fault lines. Above all there is the great divide that tragically isolates the privileged inhabitants of the prosperous, powerful North from the rejected masses of the South.

Intellectuals of every standpoint are well placed to join forces and reflect upon these promises and dangers as long as they can find a minimum of common ground from which to expose the delusions of nationalism on the one hand and the snares of totalitarianism on the other. In short, as long as they speak a common language.

Earlier this year forty writers and artists from all over the world gathered at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris to discuss these issues. The meeting was organized on the initiative of the French journalist Jean Daniel, the French political theorist Régis Debray, UNESCO Courier Director Bahgat Elnadi and Editor-in-Chief Adel Rifaat. It was sponsored by La Repubblica (Italy), O Estado de Säo Paulo (Brazil), The Los Angeles Times (United States), Le Nouvel Observateur (France), ElPais (Spain) and the UNESCO Courier. The event was envisaged as the first of a series of "Meetings of Intellectuals and Creators for a Single World" which will take place annually to discuss a given topic free from all political and commercial pressures. This year's theme was, "Can North and South share the same idea of progress?".

On the following pages we publish excerpts from some of the oral and written contributions to the meeting, which gave rise to a fruitful exchange of ideas not least on a fundamental question of terminology, the meaning and implications of the ambivalent concept of progress.

Progress can be seen as a myth of industrial modernity, an emanation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which has since the Enlightenment been treated almost as though it were a secular version of the concept of Providence. During the nineteenth century it spread in the wake of Western expansion. In all cultures and in all parts of the world, progress could be clearly measured in the fields of science and technology but had little or no meaning in art, religion and politics. Those who believed it would bring about international peace, social harmony, the end of religious superstitions and ethnic conflict, not to mention the standardization of cultures, have continually seen their predictions come to nothing.

For forty years the myth of progress has survived in its modern version, development, and has contributed to the establishment, under the rule of market forces, of a world economic system encompassing part of the peoples of the South, but excluding the vast majority. It has also had destructive and possibly irreversible effects on the environment.

Perhaps the very perception of a North-South dichotomy is itself an offshoot of the myth of modernity. The geographical and chronological divisions between North and South have become blurred now that poverty and destitution have become part of the urban landscape north of the equator, and in all countries, rich and poor, new classes are living like their counterparts in London, Paris and New York.

The French writer Julien Benda defined intellectuals as a group which should be concerned with universal issues. Their role in the face of today's chaotic, divisive realities should be to free themselves from manichaean, reductionist thinking in order to identify the values common to people everywhere.

Their task is not to promise a paradise on Earth, but to encourage respect for others and for their beliefs. It is not to impose an ideal world, but to help exorcize what is worst in the present one xenophobia, intolerance and exclusion.

Discover this issue. Download the PDF. 

Read also our online articles:

A defence of the intellect, by Aldous Huxley

Michel Serres talks to François-Bernard Huyghe

One world, by Alain Touraine

December 1993

Read More