The UN / COMMON HUMANITY
January 1991, and stacks of silver canisters have appeared overnight at every junction along the one surfaced road that leads to distant Imperatriz in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. The place is an inferno, haunted by the hired guns of absentee landowners, the sun dimmed by acrid smoke from burning rainforest. Scarcely anyone bothers to broadcast to the people who live here, so they tune in to the BBC World Service in Portuguese. They have just learned that Patriots are being fired at Scuds – a Gulf War has broken out on the other side of the world. Fearful of fuel shortages, the Brazilian Government has immediately decreed that gas canisters – widely used for domestic cooking, even at the heart of the inferno – must now be half-filled. So people have put out two empty canisters instead of one, to await the next delivery.
Isolated though they may seem, such people tend to be outward-looking because the world intrudes so often into their daily lives, though they have no obvious means of affecting it. Those who imagine that they live at the centre of the world usually expect to be insulated from it. An artist I met a few years later in El Paso, Texas, lamented the complete indifference of her fellow citizens to the tumultuous sprawl of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just a short walk away across the Rio Grande.
The problem at the UN is that the view from El Paso prevails, though the view from Imperatriz is shared by far more people. To function at all, the UN needs a cosmopolitan point of view. But, advocate it as you will, where is the treasure, the passion, the ability to act, to go with it? Where is there any evidence to suggest that such a thing as ‘common humanity’ exists at all? What colour, sex, age, language, creed or car might it have? Take all these ‘identities’ away, and what are you left with?
Well, quite a bit – not least, all the needs of human life itself, like food, water, air, blood, sweat, laughter and tears. As things stand, such universal human attributes have few forms of political expression. What’s more, they are increasingly vulnerable – not just to irreparable loss, but to ruthless partiality.
There is a real difficulty here. The more we use our sense of identity to distinguish us one from the other, the more we ignore our common humanity, which has no-one to distinguish itself from. Yet without the essentials of life we would not exist at all. A sense of identity detached from common humanity is a fatal thing indeed.
Even so, the UN is up against it. There is, for example, precious little philosophical foundation to the conduct of its business, which tends to begin and end with horse trading. Lawyers busy themselves with international law, economists and financiers with corporate globalization, military planners with the ‘projection’ of power, even philosophers with universal truth; but the prevailing view almost always derives from the perceived superiority of Western ‘civilization’. You don’t have to deny its power, or even its merits, to suggest that these are partial, not universal, views.
They have been narrowed further by the accumulation of ill-digested history. Power and wealth currently accrue to an élite whose view of civilization, such as it is, derives from the Ancient Greeks. It was they, after all, whose words for ‘household management’ and ‘rule by the people’ became ours for ‘economy’ and ‘democracy’.
However, the Ancient Greeks also thought that they lived on a flat earth at the centre of the universe. And, as it turns out, common humanity made a prominent appearance even then. They placed great value on unorthodoxy, curiosity and the fresh insights these yielded. The initial focus of their political curiosity was the polis or city-state. The Stoics then suggested that a cosmos lay beyond the polis. We inhabit two worlds, one assigned to us at birth, the other ‘truly great and truly common’, as Seneca put it. The Stoics were the first to refer to themselves as cosmopolitans, or ‘citizens of the world’. All other allegiances – to family, friends or compatriots – were contingent upon a prior allegiance to common humanity.
Conceived within the nation- state, this viewpoint nonetheless implied a rejection of colonial empire, the prism through which European rulers had by now come to view the world, coloured as often as not by evangelical Christian belief. Most religions do indeed lay claim to universal spiritual truths, but since these can be translated into practice by one religion only at the expense of all the others, their relevance here is strictly limited.
Through the 19th century the most intense clash of ideas was between European colonial capitalism and international revolutionary socialism. ‘Workers of the world unite!’ pleaded the Communist Manifesto. However, international socialism failed to prevent the First World War, when the working classes of Europe (and of its colonial entourage) were induced into nationalistic slaughter. Though revolution may have been the immediate outcome in Russia, and the Great Depression the eventual outcome in the capitalist West, the result was not just the advance of militant fascism in Europe and Japan, but a retreat into ‘socialism in one country’ in Russia – and the tyranny of Stalin.
These events spelled the end of the European empires. The nation- state, national ‘self-determination’ and ‘sovereignty’ were now deployed – often within arbitrary borders – as the only conceivable means of governance or political expression in the liberated colonies of Africa and Asia.
In recent years, thinking of a more truly cosmopolitan kind has begun to surface again. For example, ‘egalitarian individualism’ takes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a point of departure. It argues that corporate globalization – heavily backed by the governments of the United States, Europe and Japan – has outpaced political cosmopolitanism. This has been to the detriment of democratic governance within the nation-state and of international institutions like the UN that are based on outdated notions of national sovereignty. A corrective is now required.
Exactly what sort of corrective, and what this might mean for the UN, is still in dispute. ‘New cosmopolitans’ recommend the compulsory application of both corporate globalization and ritual democracy, even at the expense of national sovereignty in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq. Others look a little plaintively to the prospects for some sort of cosmopolitan social democracy. Top-down reforms and manifestos proliferate. Meanwhile, power-brokers retreat to bunkers where there are no causes or consequences, only morals and beliefs; where nothing can be done about narcotics, poverty, crime, cancer or terrorism without declaring war on them; where visceral hatred of anything the UN might conceivably stand for pre-empts all reasoned argument.
The rediscovery of common humanity is, meanwhile, seeping into the void from the bottom up. One place where I saw this starting to happen was in Chiapas, southern Mexico, in September 1993. Shortly afterwards, on 1 January 1994, the Zapatista uprising occurred. It was timed to coincide with the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it was accompanied by a broad, cosmopolitan appeal to the people of the world. In metropolitan Mexico City the Zapatistas were ridiculed as mere ‘peasants’ in a ‘backward’ if not plain ‘crazy’ corner of the country. Their message has resonated nonetheless, and not just in Mexico City, but around a world turned upside down, slowly suffocating from its own toxins.
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