One World

By Touraine, Alain | UNESCO Courier, December 1993 | Go to article overview

One World


Touraine, Alain, UNESCO Courier


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 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 consciousness 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 consciousness and cultures. …

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