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One world


The Universe: a Thousand Billion Galaxies (1980-1990), a photomontage (100 x 100 cm) by the Russian painter George Kuzmin.

By Alain Touraine

The idea that the predominant trend is towards progress and universalism, with counter-currents running back towards religion and the irrational, is one that often seems to be taken for granted.  This view is far removed from reality. As concerns the West, there is another way of looking at things that seems to me much closer to the mark. The idea of progress was uppermost in the minds of certain intellectuals and statesmen for a century, but from 1870 onwards it was no longer discussed. The history of the West has been something quite different. Pushing paradox to its limits, I would even go so far as to say that if ever there was a time when people believed in progress, it was in the Middle Ages.

Modernity dismisses the idea of a general movement embracing nature, society and the individual. These are becoming separate, distinct areas, and I think that political and cultural life in the West has been a matter of managing the relationships between them. On the one hand, the idea of progress has been shattered and supplanted by that of economic growth, and, on the other, an idea which is completely foreign to the very concept of progress has emerged, the idea of democracy, linked to that of individualism. None of the great eighteenth-century exponents of progress, including Rousseau as well as Voltaire, came out officially and openly in favour of democracy, quite the reverse. In fact, the concept of the nation, which first appeared in Germany, is the dominant concept of the twentieth century.

In other words, the history of the West does not chronicle the universal triumph of reason but the process of learning how to manage the relationship between economic growth what we may call practical reason and the ideas of nation and freedom.

This great current, previously moving in the direction of integration, is now moving, worldwide, in that of disintegration. We have the impression of living at a time when, to use expressions that are almost slogans, markets, tribes and individual consciousnesses are living in separate worlds. Society as such no longer exists. This is important. Any solution that calls for the world to be rebuilt around the individual, around the economy or around cultures, is destined to fail and can only end in disaster. In the world of today, the objectivity of markets is completely dissociated from the plurality of individual consciousnesses and cultures.

The West, and many other parts of the world, must now think how to live in accordance with several principles at the same time. The distinguishing feature of Western modernity is, I repeat, not the universalism of progress, but the combination of the universalism of reason, the particularity of nations stronger, of course, in more recently-built nations such as Italy and Germany - and the universality of human rights, in other words, the combination of individualism and democracy.

I believe that this is the heart of the matter: not, above all, to argue the case for the universal against that of the particular, but to argue in favour of the need for a society, a country, a group of countries or the entire world to combine several principles. The desire to make societies one-dimensional -  ethnically pure, dedicated to the rationale of the market or even entirely devoted to individual interests is the fundamental danger today. In every part of the world, learning how to combine several principles is essential.

In my view it is crucial that these problems should be discussed in the context of one single world. I believe it has become dangerous to talk about "the third world", "the first world" and "the second world". It is dangerous to think even that a North-South divide exists. This is a misrepresentation. Today the same issues arise in both in differing proportions. Instead of saying that reason resides in the North, with all its flaws, while particularism reigns in the countries of the South, we should, I think, be stating this problem of combinations in the same terms for every part of the world; otherwise, there will be a head-on confrontation between those who argue that reason should be given priority and those who maintain that priority should be given to plurality and cultural diversity.

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Alain Touraine in the UNESCO Courier.

Alain Touraine

French sociologist, Alain Touraine is director of studies and director of the Centre for Sociological Analysis and Intervention (CADIS) at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris. Among his works published in English are Return of the Actor (1985) and The Voice and the Eye: The Analysis of Social Movements (1981).