Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century: An Introduction

No issue seems to be as important as the following at the beginning of the 21st Century: Will it be possible to learn from the past, distilling from it those guides which will enable humanity to live with itself and nature in peace and with dignity, well-being, and freedom? Will it be possible to devise inquiries and methods to help humanity in this quest? And are the literally thousands of local projects and social inventions around the world the basis of a global life affirming transformation in attitudes and purposes or will these humane impulses remain on the margins without much effect on dominant world trends that hurtle toward mutual disaster of contending forces?

It is the purpose of the Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century project to help answer these questions. To find answers, it will be necessary to review both the good and horrendous that gripped humanity since the beginning of the 20th Century. For some, this dichotomy will appear to be simplistic. No doubt there are both gradations and extremes to human institutions and the actions of humanity itself. Our intention will be to present those gradations as a basis for understanding what the next stage of social institutions should be–and why.

Before we begin our exploration it is necessary to confess the project’s limits. Our answers to the questions to be raised, questions which have bedeviled many generations, can never be more than tentative, for history and our own actions are full of surprises as well as consequences. Projects that are successful in one context may be failures in another. There is, of course, one requirement that we must demand of ourselves. We must be in the right frame of reference. As the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli disparagingly said about another physicist’s theory, “He is not even wrong.” At the very least, we will be wrong, in Pauli’s use of the word, but we will have provided for others the beginnings of a dialogue and practical action, knowing that future generations will build on and correct what we have done.

The 20th Century was one of unprecedented devastation, genocide, broken ideals, and foolish promises, collapsing into organized institutional evil and individual evil. Yet, the last century was fed by various strands of socialism, communism, democracy, anarchism, populism and enlightened capitalism that promised a better tomorrow, a world of dignity linked to universal justice. At the beginning of a new century, confused political struggles are waged around deepened meanings of freedom, democracy, and human equality, even as the specter of authoritarianism, religious intolerance, imperial wars for resources and domination, and economic suffering haunts humankind. How else are we to understand the bloodletting that continues to grip the world from Africa to the Middle East? Our human predicament leaves us with the question of whether social intelligence, will, transnational law, judgment, and passion can be brought together and linked in such a manner that they will have positive consequences, abetting in an affirmative way the cultural and political transformations that can be gained from ideas, intellectual sustenance and communication. For example, can projects and social inventions that have been successful according to reconstructive values and objectives be brought together and serve an important illuminating aspect of what we think to be valuable and positive for the future? Can we establish and use a communications system that will put knowledge workers and action groups online to learn of ideas, social inventions, and projects that are being tried in different parts of the world? Can we hold conferences of intellectuals and activists that will press forward the idea of an emerging world civilization of plural cultures?

Obviously, these questions go way beyond simply the establishment of a communications network. They concern the fact that in social, political, and economic terms people live in different centuries. We know that there is no cookbook or map for all circumstances and every problem. But we also know that unmasking is not enough, whether of economic, scientific, or psychological “realities.” Yet technology increasingly pushes humanity to closed and controlled realities, whether they are in the form of computers, transportation, airplanes, television or amusement parks and games that all of us live within. Ironically, the nexus between technology, communications, and economic power closes, rather than opens thought, perception, and possibility. Indeed, western economic institutions, especially those of the United States, act as if they can control the future, conquer it, and even bottle life itself. In the United States, war preparations of all kinds continue, including nuclear war as scientists and capitalists talk of patenting the eradication of disease and the perfection of eugenics. But these attempts at controlling and conquering the future are merely new forms of Orwellian nightmares that will distort the possibilities of human dignity.

Paths project participants will comment on the fundamental aspects of human existence in order to ascertain how the institutions, social attitudes, and knowledge systems might be changed or reshaped if and when they contradict the possibilities for lives of dignity for humankind. In the context of this commentary, we will be especially critical of our own proposals and analyses in order to empty them of doctrinal certitude. In this regard, we will examine the dominant ideologies of the time to ascertain their validity for the future according to the standard of dignity and decency that to deny is to deny the person herself or himself. These standards may be found in the history of laws and also that empathic feature which is central to human survival. We will explore the idea of reconstruction as an important tool for positive social change.

Why Reconstruction and Reconstructive Knowledge?

Reconstructive inquiry accepts certain principles as the determining framework in which activists and scholars conduct their activities. They are an end of exploitation of one group over another, as in-whites over non-whites, men over women, the destruction of Nature, defeat of war and authoritarianism in favor of new forms of democratic participation and the deepening of ideas of shared responsibility and caring, and empathy of the neighbor and stranger over an armed Hobbesian security. Obviously, these categories of exploitation may not reflect every situation, but they do represent an important approximation of what needs to be changed.

The social framework and consciousness attached to reconstruction are present throughout the world in inchoate forms. They appear in the increasing yearning for a new rootedness, in the growing realization of the importance of the small scale, in mutual aid among people, in the search for communities with or as part of nature, and the need for transforming the very character of inquiry itself. These values continue to be struggled for throughout the world in very practical terms. Where successful, they can lead to new social structures and movements. Where they do not take root or turn sour, we are “back to the future.” But what does occur depends on what we think about, how we communicate it, and how we serve as a catalyst for others. It requires that we discipline ourselves so that we will into existence the morally possible and necessary ways of being and acting, which humanity has tended to avoid or downplay in its politics. The result is that opportunities are lost, which might otherwise advance humanity forward.

For example, the war system may be a curable disease if we set about transforming the state, developing new modes of transnational and international organization while replacing present genocidal notions of “defense.” War and its preparation, tended by cruelty and military technology, are central issues with respect to what will happen to humanity in the 21st Century.

Furthermore, a world economy for the benefit and dignity of all people is an achievable objective that could assist the birth of a world civilization (not a world economy) once conceptions of equity and justice are introduced into the study and practice of political economy. The very character of economics would have to change so that the discipline is more than the distribution of scarcity for the have-nots. Built into economic considerations must be value considerations that reflect the protection and preservation of resources and communities. Production, protection of the environment, and aesthetics need not have to mean a metastasized consumer good system for the relative few, debasement of artistic creativity, or ecological destruction.

The 21st Century could become the era of democracy and authentic participation. But what will or should democracy mean in this century? How will democracies function? Can democracy become a worldwide process, touching all areas of life? If this process does touch all aspects of life, should it? And what about the wrenching and breaking apart of nation-states?

Obviously, the failures of one set of institutions and its knowledge system do not mean the automatic success of a more humane set of institutions. However, the Paths project is an intellectual bellwether to help such inquiries and institutions start and eventually succeed. As well, it is the means to help people within established institutions see them as connectable, changeable, or even explainable. We will attempt to avoid the pitfalls of past utopian attempts, reforms, and revolutions. The positive aspects of the 1960s foundered because many within the “civilizing” movements mistook passionate emotions for structural transformation, rhetorical statements for strategy, and idealistic purposes for knowledge. And too often they viewed what may be invariant and inviolable about people as a function of constructed class and culture.

Through books, articles, commentaries, a blog and conferences that link thought and action, Paths will establish a “network clearing house” of reconstruction that will further develop and evolve as we learn more and as it becomes clear that different questions must be considered. Our knowledge of what reconstruction could be will vary with the subject matter and should be judged accordingly. To some extent, our vision will be impaired, but not so blurred that we will be unable to describe the outlines of new ideas, the new connections of a newly investigated conception of a moral nature that must be made, and the need to understand, as a matter of human survival, the organic and interdependent nature of life with nature and human beings.

In the knowledge worker and public policy network we establish, in the study of discussion groups we and others will form, and in our practical projects, we do not lose sight of the material, but we shall celebrate the human spirit, fanning the spark that is within human beings, which reaches towards a community between ourselves and others, and between what we know, what should be discarded, and what we want to know. These empathic vectorings are part of a complex moral task of dialogue that attempts to clarify what humanity should seek/choose collectively and what it refuses to seek, between what we do and what no power on earth can force us to do. Even though such choices may appear to be situational, it is also clear that people come to such choices with a suitcase of ideas and moral precepts. It is these notions that require critical examination and then reconstruction. In many cases, we will see that the outline for new institutions and ideas is to be found in the negation of the practices of the dominant institutions and the capacity of those institutions to keep innovation at the margins. The 21st Century will show that profound change can no longer be imprisoned or ignored. Why?

The devastating costs of permanent war have made clear that the betterment of the human condition cannot be predicated on pharoahistic enterprises, nuclear arms and the preparation for war, mad experiments, or the imperative of economic and political domination by the few over the many. It has become increasingly obvious that these qualities are pathological and destructive of the human spirit. Indeed, they have been “unmasked” and “deconstructed.”

In philosophy, there is a Socratic tradition that led people to believe that it was enough to ask questions and cause the pupil, filled with certitude, to be shaken in his views through the dialectic. But this is no longer enough. Even with Socrates, the unwillingness to examine and set forth an agenda of action and thought meant that his work would not have to be judged. It is no longer enough to unmask. What people are waiting for is an alternative way of understanding the world and putting in place frameworks of decency and liberation. But these frameworks must always be questioned as to their validity and their consequences. In other words, new frameworks must be tested against a new liberalism and a democratic reconstruction.

In the Preliminary Discourse d’Alembert believed that “…only the freedom to act and to think it capable of producing great works, and freedom needs only enlightenment to protect itself from excess.” Because we have come to learn that, through knowledge, human beings are capable of almost any act in their institutional role, we must delineate carefully what great work is and we must create a dialogue, inquiries, and institutions to determine those ways of knowing and understanding that will teach us what the process of a new enlightenment is to be during the 21st Century. Otherwise, great works will be understood as missiles and eugenics, and enlightened government will merely mean a clever way to manage oppression, domination, and the personal behavior of the unsuspecting.

Over the course of the last generation there has been much talk about the social construction of reality. We have come to learn that social reality is not a given and that the advancement of knowledge is not a natural force over which humanity has no control. Scientific discoveries, new inventions, new products, markets, computer systems, and prisons do not just pour forth from on high. Rather, some take it upon themselves to construct living realities that may turn out to be living hells. In principle, while social and natural inquiry can advance in any direction, the reason for the Paths project is that the dominant direction of inquiry and knowledge has led to less freedom and greater domination by the few and, indeed, more misery. And yet, it would be mistaken to conclude that the enlightenment hopes of the 18th Century have been entirely dashed for there are profound and many changes in attitude and understanding that remain a powerful theme of the human endeavor.

Why Reconstruction Now?

There need be no mystery to the kind of knowledge we should generate. It is not predetermined or fixed, nor is it meant to be restrictive or colonizing knowledge, which is intended to control the many for the benefit of the very few. Too many of the knowledges and inquiries of the 20th Century served to make a few people well-instructed in the methods of colonizing others, a few people trained in specializations and alienating functions, disconnecting most people further away from any humane purpose. The formally educated classes have not escaped alienation and the deadening hand of propaganda.

In the Bush 2 era we witnessed the replacement of 19th Century state socialism, laced with totalitarianism, with 18th Century market capitalism distorted by unaccountable corporations, a burgeoning national security state and leadership by whim. The failure of this system will bring forward attempts at rationalizing the pyramidal mega-machines as a way of keeping order and stability. The Fortune 500 companies, multilateral institutions, the great universities, and multinational churches of different faiths, including Islam, working alongside the richest nation-states, will seek coalitions among themselves to substitute order for freedom and mass sacrifice for human decency, all on an international scale.

The icon of consumer market ideology masks the dangerous environmental and social conditions caused by human action that now grips large segments of the world. People are shuffled between purposes not their own and faiths that crush hope replaced by symbolic violent murder suicides. Ironically, the condition of suffering and broken practical hope is then described by the powerful and their intellectual clerks and seers as tragedy which people have brought upon themselves because of their multiple weaknesses, greed, laziness, and willingness to follow false gods. When such malignant qualities are used to justify and rationalize the failure of the upper classes, it is the rulers, managers, and state bureaucrats who solve their problems through war preparations and war itself or through the control of inflation by creating a permanently unemployed working class and an overarching sense of fear and insecurity. People are reduced to beastly roles and bureaucratic institutions “live” the lives of individuals in a monstrous reversal of purpose and function. The rich and powerful lose their own humanity and become lost souls.

Some say that the human spirit of the modern age was betrayed by false claims of technology, ideology, and political administration. But it would be wrong to say that this spirit was crushed. Indeed, this spirit seems to have been present in the early stages of transformation, as, for example, in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1991, only to be derailed there by crony capitalism. This same spirit could be seen in the early stages of the civil rights and women’s movements in the United States. The problem is that no one has found a means of protecting and systematizing freedom before it is overtaken by authoritarian, bureaucratic tendencies or free market picaros once ensconced as communist apparatchiks. Nevertheless, the human spirit persists

  • In the desperate efforts to define political participation and equality, both of which demand the practical articulation of human responsibility through the recognition of caring and empathy;
  • In the attempts to find a common good that all institutions are part of and which includes the distribution of wealth and income so that all might benefit, thereby recognizing that the human endeavor is more than the production of things and information for the few but is also the fashioning of humane freedom for all;
  • In the attempts to recast knowledge inquiries so that conceptions of science and development of world civilization become mutually reinforcing;
  • In the attempts to struggle for justice and a measure of happiness through vibrant democracy;
  • In the attempts to find means of taking the most humane from each culture and using those values as a basis for American society and then as one path to world civilization;
  • In the struggle to find the means of developing local communities and economies of scale;
  • And in the search for nonviolent and just solutions on all levels of human existence, from the interpersonal and family to the state.

The work of the Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century project is divided into nine overlapping components of the human endeavor where profound change occurred in the 20th Century and continues to occur in the 21st Century. This change continues to create new frameworks and meanings, new problems, and some new possibilities for humankind. By reasserting through dialogue, reconstructive inquiry, and projection of the web of practical hope–arising from empathy, dignity, decency, a deepened rationality, and cooperation–a social reconstruction for a modern enlightenment has a chance.

1. The Peace Process and the War System: Relations of Peoples and States

What are common themes of 20th Century and early 21st Century wars? From preparation of covert or nuclear wars, cold war, wars against terrorism, limited war and propaganda, is there a difference in purpose? What are the strategies for achieving disarmament and what can individuals and social movements do to organize disarmament without the permission of governments? How can wars be stopped short of military force? What means exist for cities and regions to formulate and implement their own foreign policies on major questions of war and use and stockpiling of weaponry? What causes the US to waste trillions on war preparations compared to other nations?

2. The Economics of Social Justice and Just International Economic Institutions

How can economic justice be guaranteed as a world human right and what are the social mechanisms, if any, to set and enforce such standards? How to reconfigure and revalue national budgets and taxation so that the problem of homelessness and poverty are eradicated? How to reconfigure budgets at the local level to ensure a society of decency and dignity? What modes of allocating collective wealth are there beyond government? In the US, what democratic modes of resource allocation should be tried? At what point is the market system inefficient? Where is it most efficient? What does the US and the West owe to the third and fourth world? How is it to be paid?

3. Democracy, Law, and the State

What kinds of democracy make no sense in the 21st Century? What changes will have to be made in capitalist democracy in order to attain democratic culture, democratic community and protection of creativity? How would the American Constitution change under circumstances of a democratic constitutional reconstruction? What are those rights that cannot be taken away from a person under any conditions? If the cooperative mode is to be central in the 21st Century, how are violence and conflict to be managed? What are the new institutions necessary for this purpose?

4. Cultures, Communities, and Communications

Do all cultures contain within them imperial and colonizing tendencies, and if so, how might this affect multiculturalism? Is the likely population distribution in the 21st Century going to result in a new system of city-states, thereby undercutting the idea of national states? Can modern communications, such as internet technology, ever be used for democratic reconstruction? Does modern democracy in its capitalist and social manifestation favor communications and information technology over community?

5. Environment and Production

Are there basic principles to follow to protect land, air and water? What entity enforces them? What are the policies and geopolitics of nation-states and international bodies concerning exploitation and trade of minerals and resources? Who and what should control production? What is to be produced, how should it be produced and who should decide? Is the market system the best means of distributing goods and services? Does it depend on the type of service? How can schools of art, architecture and craft unions be used to rehabilitate cities?

6. Changing Families and Gender Equality

How do human relationships meet our emotional needs for love, personal security, and intimacy? How are these affected by different lifestyles–group living, living in nuclear couples, living with or without members of the opposite sex, or living alone? What is the social function of the family? Is it more important than the community, the nation, or the individual? How, if at all, does the international global market affect families and their structures? Are there different reality principles for men and women? How is sexism used as a profit-making commodity, from advertising, to clothing, to baking?

7. Social Decency

Given present dominant ideas about human aggressiveness and current wars, how can social caring take precedence in public activity? What is the relation between social caring, conditions of decency, and a new social contract? Who draws it, where, and how is it enforced? What is a healthy life? How is health to be defined by the society and the profession of medicine? What are major ethical questions which the medical profession will continue to face around keeping patients alive and the spreading of scarce resources? How can the entire society with government aid be turned into a teaching and learning society? How would the role of educational institutions be changed? Can American society afford womb-to-tomb education?

8. Reconstructive Inquiry, Science, Technology, and the Spirit of Liberation

With Josh Frens-String.

Are there any limits to inquiry and, if so, who sets them? What are the different ways of knowing? By what process did technological information become associated with “neutral” super-rationalistic, value-free activity? How can that process be weaned from the technology of colonizing institutions to the pragmatic technology of individual and community survival, realization, and pleasure? Given intensely religious commitments and communities that reemerged at the end of the Christian millennium, how will the dreary history of religious wars be avoided? What is the role of liberation theology in finding paths that do not lead to religious wars?

9. The Practice of Hope: An Essay on a Research and Action Program for a Society of Decency and Dignity

With Josh Frens-String.

Does the Left have more than weak responses to destructive change? Does it need a new template on which to judge actions, policies and possibilities?

The full Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century Report is available for download April 30, 2008. We encourage your feedback. Please send comments to Marcus Raskin, at [email protected], or Farrah Hassen, at farrah@ips-dc.o[email protected].

Marcus Raskin, a former member of President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council staff, is the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, where he directs the Paths for the 21st Century project.