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Essential Matter: Follow-Up to the Social Summit and the Spirit of the Time

1 Jun 1999



The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action contains lofty goals—from the eradication of poverty to the fostering of safe and just societies, from full employment to respect for human dignity and human rights—that should not be derided. To mock ideals is to embrace cynicism and favour the status quo. In setting objectives, norms and standards for public policies and private undertakings, the United Nations plays an irreplaceable role that should be supported by all persons and institutions searching for the common good.

Progress in implementing the goals of the Social Summit requires, however, a favourable cultural environment. The prevalent ideas, the intellectual and political "reflexes" of those in power and the views disseminated by the media with a global reach—in short what might be called the "spirit of the time"—ought to give "the highest priority to the well being of all", and to "respond effectively to the material and spiritual needs of individuals, their families and the communities in which they live".1 This is not the case at present.

A central feature of the spirit of the time is the emphasis placed on monetary worth as the principal determinant of value for individuals and societies. The dominant modern culture has endowed money, in itself and as a source of consumption, possession and power, with all the virtues of a benevolent deity. Signs of this cult are everywhere: the status of economic indicators in the definition of a country's overall performance; the division of the world into "developed" and "developing" regions; the global spread of capitalism; the praise, in the contemporary ethos, of everything "private" and the contempt for everything "public"; the monetization of most social relations and spheres of life—including scientific research and sport; and, above all, the common reference to money when assessing the success and self-esteem of an individual.

This phenomenon, which has global influence but is rooted in Western culture—and which may also be called excessive materialism or the emergence of a world market society—renders impossible the fulfilment of the social objectives endorsed by most members of the international community: the elimination of poverty, the reduction of inequalities, and the construction or preservation of integrated and harmonious societies.

The dissemination of the basic principles of the market economy—within which the value placed on human initiative, and on the removal of any obstacles to its flourishing in the economic sphere, is perhaps more critical now than the right to private property—may provide a growing number of people with the minimum economic requisites of survival. Absolute poverty may thus decline worldwide in the coming decades. But this optimistic view assumes that environmental degradation will be halted, depletion of natural resources controlled, and human ingenuity mobilized to develop new techniques and products for sustaining a larger world population.

Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs—a notion which is bound to become more complex with the passage of time—the reduction of relative poverty is highly problematic. Poverty is lived as deprivation in comparison with the lifestyles of the middle and upper classes. The standards disseminated by global capitalism are increasingly high, while reflecting patterns of production and consumption that are likely to be unsustainable even in the medium term. Redistribution of income and resources among social groups and countries—a notion clearly at odds with the spirit of the time—is eminently desirable, but would, in all likelihood, be insufficient to make a dent in relative poverty. A drastic revision of what makes "a good life", toward more frugality and more spirituality—starting, obviously, in the affluent societies—would be a step in the right direction. Poverty is growing with materialism and egoism. The Social Summit was perhaps the last major conference in which it was considered legitimate to call for the elimination of poverty without changing the direction and meaning of development and progress.

The reduction of inequalities has virtually disappeared from public discourse during the last quarter of this century, with the notable exception of equality between women and men. Gender equality has gathered significant political and sociological momentum, in part because it may be seen as compatible with the basic tenets of the neo-liberal credo. At the same time, however, income inequalities are worsening, within and among countries. Other types of inequalities—access to knowledge, the capacity to control one's life, the ability to influence the functioning of private and public institutions—are also becoming more severe in a climate of political indifference and even intellectual justification. A crude form of Social Darwinism pervades the modern ethos. It suggests that those unable to "make" money have only themselves to blame and must bear the consequences of their deficiencies. The collapse of the Soviet Union has facilitated the task of those who were anxious to rid history of the second ideal of the French Revolution, egalité, after the third, fraternité, had fallen by the wayside. Only liberté is a respected goal—in fact an absolute—in the dominant ideology. And it implies, increasingly, liberty to pursue one's self-interest conceived very narrowly. In a culture where the "other" (person or group) is considered with indifference or as an object of domination and appropriation, inequality—depriving its victims of money, security, respectability and power—is bound to increase in scope and intensity, and to lead to growing resentment.

A utilitarian philosophy of life and society can provide a sufficient rationale for effective distributive and redistributive policies that aim to achieve economic and social justice—but only when the political configuration gives a voice to the weak. In most parts of the world today, a successful struggle against inequalities would require a political ethos constructed around the notions of common humanity, charity and solidarity. The "moral imperative" evoked in the text of the Summit has yet to become a reality.

According to the Summit Declaration and Programme of Action, social "integration"—or, preferably, social "cohesion" or, even better, social "harmony"—between the members of a political entity requires obedience to laws and adhesion to shared values. Laws should emanate from legitimate, respected and, if possible, democratically appointed public authorities. Values should stem from traditions and from the progress of the human spirit. They should inform a moral conscience and behaviour that enables autonomous individuals to live together in harmony. The liberal view that such a social contract, willingly honoured by individuals, is the best guarantee of social cohesion and of the democratic exercise of power has very strong historical and contemporary credentials. No credible alternative that reconciles respect for human rights and social order has been invented. And this system is presented as a model to emulate under the attractive slogans of "democracy" and "good governance".

Alas, the solidity of this social construct seems shaken. Cracks in the social structure of rich and less rich societies are all too obvious: from violence to tax evasion, from decline of education systems to crises in political institutions and widespread corruption. A major cause and symptom of this crisis is the weakening of institutions whose function is to nurture the sociability of individuals, and the operation of which does not fit into the logic of the market economy. Families (nuclear and extended), schools and religious institutions are well-known cases in point. Their decline creates a moral and spiritual vacuum quickly filled with advertised products and aspirations. The role models offered to the young by the modern culture celebrate selfish individualism rather than social responsibility. When profits made through speculation or "downsizing" are not seen as morally reprehensible and economically dubious, when salaries of executives reach indecent levels in a context of "wage restraint" for workers and employees, and when the pursuit of self-interest, and even greed, is heralded by political leaders as the ultima ratio of life in society, the ensuing violence and social disintegration should be of little surprise. Such market societies are not viable.

The incompatibility of the spirit of the time with fulfilment of the main objectives of the Summit suggests the need to give a large intellectual and political scope to the discussion that will take place in Geneva in June 2000. The prevalent ideas of a period are changed in the same ways they are produced, through reflection, debate and political confrontation. There are forces throughout the world, including in the dominant countries, that denounce the shortcomings of the current path to modernity and globalization, and testify to a richer conception of what constitutes "a good life", a harmonious society and an inspiring world community. Such forces will eventually manage to develop a political project of universal appeal. It is an endeavour requiring respect for the views of others, firmness on principles, and attention to facts and language. Democracy at the international level requires informed and open debate on the features of the world society that ought to be constructed. The United Nations, with its diplomatic culture and capacity to mobilize the intellectual and moral energy of people throughout the world, is the best forum for such debates. Moreover, it has the mandate to consider issues that affect the future of humanity.

Jacques Baudot is Secretary of the Copenhagen Seminars for Social Progress, which aim to elaborate the concepts and values that might help nations and the international community address current societal problems. He was named to the UNRISD Board in 1999.

1 Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development