The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

March 2005 / No. 34

Cover Story: The World Economic Forum

Seeing the Big Picture

A.C. Grayling, reader in philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London – UK

Grayling is the author of more than a dozen books, including the forthcoming The Heart of Things

A senior philosopher from the United Kingdom says personal and institutional relations are what make any community, global or otherwise, truly function.

“We may be holders of a particular passport,” says A.C. Grayling, “but we are citizens of the world, too.”

Grayling, reader in philosophy from Birkbeck College, University of London is the author of more than a dozen books, including the forthcoming `The Heart of Things’.

He says he personally believes in the idea of global citizenship because of its necessity.

“Now that we live in the global village, all those clichés about new technology, global travel, the interdependence of the world economy - they are all now true. We are all citi­zens of one world, whether we like it or not. And that has been a very good thing, in some respects, because it means that a great deal of the goods - not just the eco­nomic goods, but also the educational and technological goods - are being shared much more widely. It has also brought people in much closer contact with one another.

“We are now bound, because of the sheer momentum of history, to regard ourselves as members of one global community. Now, we have to find ways for that global community to function properly. So promoting global citizenship - a sense of belonging to the global commu­nity and wanting to be a responsible participant in it -really matters. We need to promote mutual understand­ing, the right kind of pluralism, the maintenance of space for people to have their cultural and religious differences without that being a source of strife.”

The British philosopher hopes man can relearn some very interest­ing lessons from the past. “If you look at the history of nationalism, it effectively began in the 19th century. Of course, that’s well after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when the nation-states in Europe began to form. Prior to that time there had only been a couple: France and Eng­land. Until then, Western Europe had been divided by members of the same royal family, so they were all con­nected to an idea rather than a set of physical bound­aries. There were also many, many more languages in Europe than there are now; the different areas of France, for example, spoke different languages. There was that kind of trend.”

He believes the emergence of the nation-state and the self-con­scious appropriation of a nationalistic ideology is a pretty recent phenomenon in a part of the world that has been pretty dominant over the last couple of centuries. “And so what one wants to see is the possibility of unlearning that, of recognizing that, in fact, borders are porous, that while we may be holders of a particular passport, we are citizens of the world, too.”

In the opinion of Grayling man is faced with an obdurate fact: we all have to think of ourselves as members of the same family. Therefore, we have to find solutions to the difficulties that that’s creating. There’s no option, other than trying - with great diffi­culty and probably with eventual failure - to get back to a situation where we literally live apart from one another. But that doesn’t seem to be a viable option now.

Asked if man did not have a greater moral obligation to members of his immedi­ate family than he did to strangers and if it was not precisely what kept him from embracing global citi­zenship, he replies: “Yes, to some extent, to both those questions. Don’t I have a greater responsibility to people close to me? Yes, I do. And isn’t that what gets in the way of a larger sense of identity? Yes, it is. But I think what one has to do here is to break things down into their components. Each one of us, you and I, we’re members of a particular commu­nity: we live in a city, a city is in a nation, we’ve got a passport, we have citizenship obligations in the old nation-state sense. And in that context, we have greater responsibilities toward our fellow citizens than we think we have to people living on the other side of the world. But, equally, we’ve got greater responsibilities to our own immediate family, to our neighbors and friends and colleagues than we do to our fellow citizens. So there is a natural gradation there that we manage pretty well in the normal course of events.

“If I’m abroad somewhere and see a fellow English­man who has lost his wallet, I feel bound to offer my help because we have that connection. At the same time, if it was a choice between helping him and helping my daughter, of course I would help my daughter. There’s a natural gradation there, as I said. The sorts of responsibilities we have to people depend upon cases. My responsi­bility to my daughter is to make sure that she’s looked after and educated, taken to the doctor when she has a cold, all those kind of things. But we are bound, because of the sheer momentum of history, to regard ourselves as members of one global community. Any citizen - my daughter or any other citizen of this country - is to vote, pay taxes, and take part in the life of the community in that broader sense. Now it seems to me that these two kinds of responsibilities are not inconsis­tent, that one can parlay that idea into the global context. We can say “I’ve got responsibilities to other human beings.” Here I live in one of the world’s major economies, and I think about the developing world, the Third World. I have to think about the sorts of responsibilities I have as an individual - perhaps to participate in some kind of charitable work, to try to persuade my government to increase aid to developing countries, whatever you like. I can see that there are ways of exercising different kinds of responsibilities that are not inconsistent with the fact I’ve got a local context as well as a global one.”

In response to a question if globalization heightened man’s sense of familial ties to those distant from him, or was it just the contrary, Grayling says: “I think they have very much, especially for anyone who travels with any regularity. For instance, I know China pretty well and have written a few books about it; I’ve been a visiting professor in Japan. These are cultures that are, in many respects, pretty remote from Western Euro­pean civilization. But getting to know people there, becoming friendly with individuals there, getting some insight into the culture, leads one close to them - to gen­uine interest and even affection. Of course, there remains a recognition of those large differences, of that big cul­tural space, and in a way that’s good, because one wants to enjoy those differences. If it were a case of the whole world becoming a single McDonald’s culture, or a single Chinese culture, that obviously wouldn’t be a good thing. That’s not what we want, of course.”

He elaborates further by saying: “Consider that in the 18th century when the first Euro­pean contacts were made with East Asia, Europeans worked very, very hard to conform to local conditions. If you think, for example, about the first trading contacts with Japan - when foreigners were restricted to Nagasaki, and were given a little piece of land by the emperor to build a settlement and have a harbor - they worked very hard to learn the language and to respect their customs. But the more powerful the Europeans became in the East Asian context, the less care they took. And, finally, that provoked rebellion; the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 is a very good example of that. So there are plenty of his­torical precedents for looking at ways of relating and liv­ing alongside one another fruitfully.”

In response to a key question that which sort of world are we moving toward today: One dominated by culturally insensitive multination­als that reduce culture to consumerism, or one in which we truly recognize and respect our differences, he says this is the most interesting issue man is facing at the moment.

“There’s a pessimistic and an optimistic view of this. The pessimistic view is that the trend of the post-Second World War era will continue: the imposition and total dominance of political and economic models by the US and Europe, which began as partly a bulwark against Soviet influence. But, like everything else in history, when the pendulum swings a little bit too far, it provokes a reaction. The very, very sharp end of the reaction was what happened on 9/11 and what has happened since then. At the same time, what has happened since then is tremendously interesting: on the one hand, we all have a sense of heightened tension and conflict, and of even more entrenched attitudes among people, on both sides of the argument, who are fundamentalists in their outlook. On the other hand, we see in the West a massive explosion of interest in Islam and the Middle East. There is a huge number of books published about all this, so much dis­cussion in the media.”

In the recent past, he continues, the Middle East had been reduced to Israel and Palestine; people didn’t think about the rest of the region and what was likely to develop. Today, he says, there’s a huge amount of interest and sensitivity and knowledge. “And that has to be a very good thing. The fact that it was provoked the way it was, is a very bad thing, and it’s a great pity that it happened that way. But if you are optimistic, you could say, ‘Today, we’re learn­ing a lesson - very, very painfully - about what’s required for good relations to exist.”

There are different ways of thinking about this, Grayling notes: You can engage, persuade, negotiate, discuss, offer the best of what you’ve got and look for the best of what they’ve got to offer you. Another thing you can do is to invade a coun­try, and think that you can reform it by force and have a big footprint in the area so that your values and institu­tions will thrive. Or you can believe that trade relations and cultural exchanges have this very potent seeding potential to promote long-term understanding. You can see that personal and institutional relations are what make any community, global or otherwise, truly function.

Grayling was asked if he saw an inexorable trend toward a greater sense of global citizenship historically, or had this ebbed and flowed? He found this a hard question to reply. “Because if one were to try to project very much further ahead, say six genera­tions or 150 years, that would be problematic. I’m reminded of when heavier-than-air travel (the earliest airplanes) first began, people found that biplanes were more effective than monoplanes. As a result, they thought that the planes of the future would have 12 wings. So bear that in mind about the security of predic­tions.”

He says demographic and economic trends suggest a possible picture in 150 years that will alter the character of the question you just asked me. The picture is this: a largely Hispanic, maybe Spanish- speaking, North and South America. A largely Muslim Middle East and Europe. And two global super­powers: India and China. Now if that’s what the world looks like in 150 years, then the question you just asked takes on a different character. Because the answer would have to take into consideration to what extent would Chinese culture, Chinese forms of capitalism, Indian cul­ture and Indian forms of capitalism - what kind of influ­ence would all of this have on the rest of the world? What would the relationships be like? That’s quite hard to guess at the moment. It’s very, very difficult to under­stand, for example, the contrary trends in China.

Go to Shanghai or Beijing. Look at those seeming replicas of Manhattan. So you ask yourself: Does that mean that they are replicas of America? And the answer, of course, is no. Because these are entirely ersatz, entirely artificial constructs to make the city look mod­ern and flourishing. Under the surface, however, there’s a very different ethos at work. So it’s very hard to see how that’s all going to work out.

To get back to the question, he says it’s not an ebb-and-­flow situation. It never has been in all of history. In the period of, say, the British Empire - from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century - insofar as there was any kind of quasi-global community of institutions or outlook, it was one that was imposed by a particular Vic­torian sensibility. And it wasn’t sustained; it collapsed.

In the opinion of Grayling, today there is an upward trend. “There is a necessity and an inevitability to this process of globalization. It’s like the butterfly effect: anything that happens, anywhere in the global economy is going to have an impact on the rest of the global economy. And the economy is clearly the engine that determines whether people have anything to eat, have clean water to drink, and enjoy electricity to light their homes.”

For Grayling these are hard, obdurate facts that people will keep bumping up against, unless they begin to orga­nize themselves so they can cooperate and not be forever in conflict.


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  March  2005 / No. 34