Dialogue with Jean Chesneaux
Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
Jean Chesneaux, a French academic, published Brave Modern World in 1992. His critique of modernity is broad, widespread and deeply felt. He expresses what many people feel, that the economic and technological progress we generally applaud has damaged many lives, and threatens the future. He stands as a credible critic of a Genuinely Free Society, and it may be worthwhile to engage with this work and explore the differences between him and the Altruistic Libertarian.
The form of the dialogue will consist of segments drawn directly from Chesneaux’s book, and responses from the Altruistic Libertarian.
Altruistic Libertarian: Dr. Chesneaux, what is the principle basis for your criticism of modernity?
Jean Chesneaux: By instinct I am probably particularly sensitive to everything modernity has deprived and banished us from. Long walks at night under stars shining in a pollution-free sky. The subtle harmonies of a man-made landscape, whether in town or country, elaborated gradually over centuries instead of being ordered into existence by the blueprints of a 'design consultant'. The natural strong smell of tomatoes ripening slowly in the sun without any artificial 'speed up'. And above all, the capacity of human beings to find their own orientation in the natural space as in the social field, to think by themselves and create by themselves without depending on the so called assistance of over-sophisticated gadgets of every kind, without having to be 'monitored' by all-powerful, computerized programs of social control.
AL: Those are commendable values. And you are right about the ‘gadgets’. If you wrote today, you would be astounded by the ubiquity of cell phones. People do everything with their eyes glued to one. Last week at the gym I watched a guy doing curls with one arm, while texting with the other. People will sit across from each other in a restaurant texting to people somewhere else, never looking up to engage the person they are eating with. But the simple fact remains, those people find value in possessing and utilizing the new technology. For those of us who don’t, we can choose to go without. For example, I spent the majority of the past fifteen years without a cell phone, and now that I own one, I rarely use it, so it remains possible to remain unplugged from the network, should one choose. But about your last comment about ‘social control’. Can you provide an example…
JC: ...media's forced feeding of news.
AL: Actually, we are remarkably immune from being forced to attend to anything. With the latest technology, news gets disseminated in multiple ways, in various media, allowing a person to choose what they wish to read or see. I imagine many people simply turn it off, given the typical content of any particular news cycle. What do you believe the news should be reporting?
JC: The effects of ubiquity and 'off-ground', the obliteration of the local in favor of the global, the priority granted to closed circuits, the decline of streets, the haphazard decomposition of urban space into airtight subsystems, the confusion of near and far, combine to shake the very foundations of our democratic life.
AL: Yes, change makes things different, one of the costs of progress. But how does this affect ‘democratic life’?
JC: What control does the individual have over his or her personal time?
AL: In a Genuinely Free Society, considerable. Within a modern and relatively free society, a person can pursue any number of activities within their personal time. They can socialize with friends, learn a new language, spend time training their pet Labrador, teach their children how to play soccer, read the best books ever written, even write a few themselves.
JC: In other words, what control does society have over its future?
AL: None, actually, because ‘society’ is a conglomeration of free thinking individuals with countless agendas and value sets. ‘Society’ doesn’t think, act or behave independent of the people that live within it. As for the future, nobody ‘controls’ it. And for the sake of a Genuinely Free Society, nobody ever should.
JC: Everyone 'has to' watch television, everyone 'has to' have a bank account and at least one credit card, everyone 'has to' have a telephone and a car.
AL: Many people hardly watch TV anymore. Modern technology provides so many alternatives, many people don’t even own TVs, and that number will continue to grow. Today we control what we watch, and when we watch it. Commercials are no longer unavoidable. It’s true most people have banks and credit cards, and the financially wise use them well. The largest danger is the disappearance of cash money. When that happens, the government will have far too much personal information at their disposal. ‘Telephones’ are becoming a thing of the past, replaced by smart phones. And in a Genuinely Free Society, cars wouldn’t even exist, at least not in their current form [see chapter 7 of the Altruistic Libertarian].
JC: Modern life is still characterized by shocks, tensions and violence.
AL: No doubt too much violence exists, but so much of it sponsored by the state: wars, drug interdiction, and repressive regimes. Many of these tensions would be significantly reduced in a Genuinely Free Society, where many of the causes of war and violent confrontation would be eliminated. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that today’s world, even as it is, surpasses the shocks and uncertainty of ages past. Just consider what humans once had to face: famines, raids by brigands, slave uprisings, unchecked plagues, and un-forecasted hurricanes. Most of these disasters have been significantly mitigated by modern technology and social changes.
JC: ...modernity's disjointed life-style and lack of meaning or direction.
AL: This is a most interesting observation. In the absence of God, and the realization by the wealthy that having yachts and private planes and big houses doesn’t bring with it happiness or satisfaction, people in the modern world are left without any obvious purpose. For the most part, a Christian, Moslem, Jew or Buddhist doesn’t have this problem. They know what is important, why they are alive, and for what to strive. The purely secular have a serious existential problem: what’s the point? what is the meaning of life? Given the range of possible solutions, and the drastically personal nature of such questions, the only approach that serves all possible answers is to encourage individuals to seek the answers for themselves. A Genuinely Free Society provides the best opportunity to do just that.
JC: The slave trade of the 18th century, trafficking in Chinese coolies and Indian workers in the 19th—inhuman as it was—had a functional character...But one century later, the industrial reserve army has become planetary, and unemployed workers from every continent scatter in all directions seeking a less desperate life.
AL: That’s an odd and frightening characterization of slavery, as if functionality somehow justified the practice. Comparing it unfavorably to a mobile workforce—pretty much the opposite of slavery—seems incongruous. It is true that in a Genuinely Free Society, such mobility would virtually eliminate unemployment, and go along ways in minimizing the number of ‘desperate’ lives.
JC: The West...its near-monopoly over advance technologies.
AL: Monopolies generally do not exist, given the readiness of commercial entities to sell. The only advance technologies generally unavailable are those associated with national defense. Any nation, with the social basics in place (rule of law, etc.), can lure foreign technology into their country to take advantage of local comparative advantage. No place in a free world is restricted from taking advantage of the latest medical, engineering and commercial technologies.
JC: Western Europe, Japan and North America have the skill, the experience, the structural efficiency, essentially the history that enables them to produce better, more cheaply and in greater quantity. The superiority of these countries comes from their own internal development...
AL: This is true, in that in all three cases mentioned, historically high levels of sophistication (rational/scientific cultures), literacy rates and individual liberty provided the basis for exceptional industrial expansion. Since the early 90s when this was written, the ability to produce ‘more cheaply and in greater quantity’ has expanded to other nations, China and India most prominently. The economic growth of these new industrial powers has greatly increased their wealth and improved billions of human lives. Ironically, this book soundly criticizes the basis for the foundation of that success.
JC: What remains of its previously triumphant iron and steel industry must now be defended against new competitors with great difficulty. Its naval construction industry has collapsed in the face of competition from South Korea or Taiwan. The Midlands of England, the Walloon area of Belgium, Lorraine in France and other industrial basins on which the old European prosperity was built are little more today than fallow land and rubbish.
AL: An ode to Schumpeter’s creative destruction. With the growth of world trade and the development of new industrial centers, production and consumption patterns will change, and for the better. As new wealth is created, and new technologies employed, the comparative advantage of one nation (say, textiles in Indonesia) will draw investment and new production. This change benefits everyone, as the newly producing nation improves their standard of living, while the consuming nation obtains products far cheaper, enhancing their standard of living as well. The nation that loses industry to the new ones maintains comparative advantage in other forms, usually more service-oriented or technically sophisticated ones. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to import the cheaper products from other markets.) So yes, old industrial centers in the West decline, while new dynamic industries take their place. In a perfectly free world, the cost of transition would be minimal, as it wouldn’t be necessary that the old industries ‘be defended against new competitors with great difficulty.’ The only valid defense for industry in a free world would be improved efficiency, quality, and innovation of new products. In such an economy, taxpayers would not be called upon to protect anything, and would be served by better products at lower prices and increased professional opportunities.
JC: Free trade zones...Integrated directly into the world market, they are highly successful in economic terms; but in social terms they are violently regressive places where the hard-won rights of generations of workers are dissolved as if in acid.
AL: This seems overly provocative, and paradoxical, as the new wealth that such zones create provides countless new families with opportunities they never had before. As for the ‘hard-won rights of generations of workers’, perhaps this refers to union workers who have contributed, with their high wages, to the loss of local industry. In a Genuinely Free Society, or even a generally free world economy, such historical privileges are bound to be dissolved. Some time ago, I met a Canadian dairy farmer, and he described how in Quebec all such farmers were guaranteed markets and prices for their milk. They couldn’t produce more than a quota, and local consumers could only purchase locally produced milk. While this provided a stable local dairy industry, one absent any incentive to grow or innovate, it resulted in high-priced milk that every family in the region had to pay. It also meant government subsidies on occasion, resulting in even higher costs to the community. In such an arrangement (and any government-caused restriction on industry) everybody who purchased that product (milk, in this instance) paid for the economic inefficiency of the industry. Taking this approach on a wide scale (health care, employment, etc.) burden’s the economy to the point of stagnation, as it reduces innovation, opportunity, and leeches the economy of capital and wealth.
JC: Thus they were renouncing their traditional ambitions to establish a radically new social order dissociated from the capitalist 'old world'. The same values of profitability, functional adjustment and high operating performance that have replaced the traditional references of social responsibility and democratic control in the West were supplanting the old socialist ideals of mass mobilization and collective solidarity in Russia as in China.
AL: Replacing traditional ambitions for a new social order with values of profitability and increased effectiveness continues today, to the benefit of billions of humans that continue to improve their standard of living. On the other hand, the ‘mass mobilization and collective solidarity’ experienced in China and Russia caused more death, destruction and human grief than any comparable event in history, outside of two world wars. Just consider one dramatic example, China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’:
Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.
To laud these communist ideals indicates a lack of historical awareness, and trivializes their cost in human suffering.
JC: Globalization could not be farther from an economic order, i.e. an organizing principle capable of responding to the needs and interest of all peoples, whatever their inequalities might be.
AL: Globalization, to the extent that it supports freedom, benefits everyone who participates, in particular those who are ‘unequal’. International trade opens up local opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Access to global markets maximizes local comparative advantage. The free movement of labor would also help, to the extent it was supported. Limiting immigration and imposing tariffs weakens world trade, and hurts everyone, ‘whatever their inequalities might be’.
JC: Throughout the five continents, Anglo-computer jargon pushes out the local vernaculars in much the same way that Coca Cola displaces local drinks much better adapted to the resources and tastes of each particular place.
AL: It’s true that new technologies introduce new language. As for being ‘much better adapted to the resources and tastes of each particular place’, it seems appropriate that local residents make such distinctions, by what they choose to purchase. Participating in the global market simply provides alternatives, some of which they may choose over traditional ones.
JC: ...of rediscovering real universal values? Universal values based on plurality rather than on reductive uniformity; values that would protect and guarantee the full realization of each people's specific experiences and strengths, rather than suppressing or denying them.
AL: This is a typical critique by wannabe social engineers. They assume they can identify ‘real universal values’ that apply to everyone (thus the universal). Such values are hard to come by, and will never generate a consensus, particularly across cultural boundaries. No one set of values will satisfy everyone, and nobody is wise enough to identify, in any absolute sense, a set of values that surpass all others. The only way to insist on one set of values over another is through the application of violent force. Alternatively, establishing a Genuinely Free Society encourages every individual to strive for their most cherished values, absent any compulsion to adopt a limited few.
JC: A chasm has opened, breaking the cultural continuum though which, by imperceptible degrees, an individual could raise himself from being a Sunday dauber to a Picasso, from a village fiddler to a Mozart.
AL: Such chasms exist in every society that restricts freedom in some manner. Often, those restrictions are imposed by special interests in order to prevent others from attaining those same interests. Rigid classes, like those in historical Britain, (and to some extent, still extant), and caste societies such as India serve as examples. Laws that restrict certain peoples from attending school or entering certain trades (racial laws that once existed in the US, for instance) also apply. Or administered societies that require one to gain permission from a dream-crushing bureaucracy to travel, or change professions. In a Genuinely Free Society, no such structural impediments would exist, providing unlimited opportunity for those who work hard, develop their talent, and possess a degree of luck.
JC: A worker in a DCMT (digitally controlled machine tool) is 'worn out' far sooner than a woodcutter who can easily go on working until he is 65, at his own rate and with his own hands.
AL: Having done both (cut wood and operated CNC lathes) I can assure the reader that the latter puts far less wear and tear on a person. But even if it were true, that a woodcutter is less worn by his work, the machine operator will create far more value over a similar period, contributing magnitudes more to society, while earning far higher wages for him or herself.
JC: Here [genetic engineering] we are quite plainly in the area of the unforeseeable and the irresponsible.
AL: No doubt unforeseeable – that assessment characterizes any sophisticated view of the future. Determining the precise benefits or perils of any change is nearly impossible. As for ‘irresponsible’, that charge seems less ‘plain’. The nation-state poses the principle threat to humanity, and any misuse of genetic engineering (or weaponized plague, or thermonuclear bombs) will likely be credited to an unprincipled government, not a private entity. These risks would not exist in a Genuinely Free Society, given the lack of large power structures likely to employ such things against innocent humans.
JC: ...whether [new technologies] will in the end be likely to create more jobs than they destroy.
AL: Another typical concern of those ignorant of basic economics. Properly deployed technology increases productivity, and increased productivity creates additional wealth. While jobs get temporarily displaced with the advent of new technology, new opportunities are created. As long as structural impediments don’t exist (intransigent labor unions, protective tariffs/quotas) transitions will happen smoothly and incrementally. For example, in the telecommunications industry, the mechanical switch replaced telephone operators almost a hundred years ago. Had they not done so, it would take every woman in the US (and half the men) to operate manual switchboards to handle today’s voice traffic. Or take something closer to home: in the late seventies, service station attendants took your order and pumped your gas. As a college student, I worked as one of those attendants, and two of us would greet each customer. One of us would take their order (“Fill it up with unleaded,” for example) and the other would wash the front and back windows, and check under the hood. Usually just to check the oil: “You’re a quart low, Ma’am,” holding the dip stick so she can see it. “Would you like me to take care of that?” If the oil was okay, and I had another minute, I might inspect the fan belt, or pop open the air filter. I sold a lot of additional service that way. Some years later, gas stations offered two options: self-serve or full service. Over time people quit paying for the additional service and now station attendants are a thing of the past. Technology has filled the need, making filling a car with gas more efficient. Losing all those jobs had no effect on employment. Examples are endless. Technology creates opportunity; it doesn’t destroy jobs.
JC: ...the computerized milking of cows has not liberated the West from its milk surpluses, which are both absurd and an insult to the starving people of the world.
AL: Ongoing surpluses can only be caused by one thing: intervention in the market. This occurs when the government guarantees prices above market value. Producers continue to produce beyond the demand of the market, resulting in surpluses. If the producers become more efficient, by using computers to control the milking of cows, say, the surpluses get exacerbated. In a Genuinely Free Society, all markets would clear, with both suppliers and demanders seeking an ongoing equilibrium. Also, people wouldn’t starve anywhere, if the regions in famine had access to free markets. Modern famine is almost exclusively the result of war, or regions isolated by hostile governments. For example, consider the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia:
A widespread famine affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. The worst famine to hit the country in a century, in northern Ethiopia it led to more than 400,000 deaths, but more than half this mortality can be attributed to human rights abuses that caused the famine to come earlier, strike harder, and extend further than would otherwise have been the case. Other areas of Ethiopia experienced famine for similar reasons, resulting in tens of thousands of additional deaths. The tragedy as a whole took place within the context of more than two decades of insurgency and civil war.
The famine of 1983–85 is often ascribed to drought. While climatic causes and consequences certainly played a part in the tragedy, it has been suggested that widespread drought occurred only some months after the famine was under way. The famines that struck Ethiopia between 1961 and 1985, and in particular the one of 1983–85, were in large part created by government policies, specifically the set of counter-insurgency strategies employed and so-called "social transformation" in non-insurgent areas.
JC: Not only do the new technologies have some clear positive aspects, such as the ability to promote a better life-style and greater well-being, but it is in no one's power suddenly to consign them to the rubbish heap.
AL: Completely agree.
JC: ...the state electricity board in France (EDF) declared war on coal stoves and geothermics, local waterfalls and photovoltaic cells.
AL: Without more context, we might assume that the state’s opposition to alternative sources of energy was done entirely to protect its own interest, and to maintain its monopoly on electricity. If so, such action was clearly in opposition to the interest of France’s citizens, limiting as it did such alternatives.
JC: Ethics is perhaps the only social reference that can act as a counterweight to the pressures jointly exerted by the state and the market in favor of the new technologies and that can counter them with critical thought.
AL: Yes and no. On the one hand, an ethical stance against the market is appropriate (not owning a cell phone, say), or choosing to live a simpler life. And informed criticism is always appropriate, and may provide a positive influence on others. On the other hand, mere ethical stances count for little against the state. Faced with an armed and recalcitrant government, there is little that one can do, except submit.
JC: No one ever planned the pin-ball mass suburbanization that has proliferated under every regime and in every latitude since the 1960s as a combined result of the crisis in the rural areas, land speculation, economic expansion and the temptation of the 'modern' model of consumption. No government formally decided on this development or sought the opinion of its citizens, let alone questioned it.
AL: Mostly true. Nobody planned suburbanization, and economic expansion certainly contributed. Ironically, it was probably the private automobile that is most to blame for modern suburbanization, a form of transportation that never would have evolved in a Genuinely Free Society [see chapter 7]. As for the government deciding such things, only ones far more intrusive would consider such planning, a role that ill suits such institutions.
JC: By a curious detour, modern Western society seems to have converged with the Soviet model founded 75 years ago on the inaccessible powers of the CHEKA and the KGB, the Glavlit (central censorship) and the Gosplan.
AL: While the risk certainly exists, the convergence has not yet taken place. Post-9/11, the increase in domestic surveillance has been alarming, and the prospective disappearance of cash money exacerbates the threat to personal privacy and individual liberty. But censorship generally doesn’t exist, nor central planning, making the comparison inapt.
JC: Not only does the state acquire a wider range of powers with technical progress, not only must the state intervene in the most diverse areas, from traffic control to food industry standards, from town planning regulations to the distribution of radiophonic frequencies, from the disposal of toxic industrial waste to the legal implications of genetic engineering; it must also manage the by-products of modernity: unemployment, the crisis in the suburbs, drugs, juvenile delinquency, the homeless and the vagrants.
AL: There is no doubt that the power of the state has increased in the past century, but this phenomenon is due to social, cultural and political reasons, not necessarily technology. As to the by-products of modernity, it is the thinking, caring, active, and intelligent human individuals that must address these problems, many of them caused or exacerbated by government intervention in the first place.
JC: ...such as the efficient, the reliable, the compatible, the processible, the functional, the operational, the coding/decoding interplay. Others are the ideological reflection of the market: profitability, flexibility, mobility…Other references derive from the military arts, offering an opportune reminder that violence, even when masked, still underlies the 'soft' society:
AL: Yes, these are some of the values that effective commercial organizations adopt, resulting in greater output at lower costs. The last sentence, however, grossly misuses the word 'violence'. Violence is killing, maiming and destruction—the use of force against human flesh. Assault, rape, and artillery barrages are acts of violence. Freely associating individuals creating wealth and consuming it is something else altogether.
JC: ...[functional efficiency] leads to the retreat, if not destruction, of the real values that were the cornerstones of democracy: collective responsibility, the capacity of critical analysis, disinterested civic initiative, the ability of the grass roots to criticize the authorities, the right to oppose or refuse.
AL: It’s interesting that such values are so closely related to democracy, as ‘collective responsibility’ might fit better with socialistic ideologies. As to ‘critical analysis’ and the ability to criticize authorities, such things prosper in free societies, and whither to nothing in those dominated by the state. And the words ‘disinterested civil initiative’ hark to a soulless bureaucracy, as opposed to impassioned social effort that we might prefer in a Genuinely Free Society.
JC: The major political measures…are drafted within a closed group of 'deciders' and 'designers' who govern as they like the fate of the people and the daily life of the individual.
AL: This is certainly abhorrent, to the extent it occurs, but would be no concern at all within a Genuinely Free Society, as the power to govern the ‘fate of the people and the daily life of the individual’ simply wouldn’t exist.
JC: If a plague or cholera epidemic suddenly caused as many deaths as the weekend motorway accidents, the whole of Europe would be in shock. But people feel powerless when faced with the complex and surreptitious connections of which these road deaths are perhaps the result: housing dispersed in distant suburbs, the need to escape on family trips, the prestige of the private car, the emblematic if not ideological function of the motorways as places of modernity. Then people become resigned, persuade themselves that road accidents only happen to others.
AL: Completely agree with the first sentence. Why we accept such senseless slaughter remains an enigma. The analysis, however, falls short: the root cause of so many tragedies lies with government intervention (see chapter 7 in The Altruistic Libertarian) and not the reasons mentioned. The transportation system based on private vehicles would not exist in a Genuinely Free Society.
JC: ...where political society has been degenerating so slowly that life remains tolerable for most people...
AL: Excellent point. The rate of intervention has been so steady, and gone unchallenged for so long, we have grown accustom to inefficient postal service, dangerous highways, stagnant economic growth, the ubiquity of foreign wars, the plethora of the poorly educated, the multitude caught in the welfare trap, and the social costs of the war on drugs.
JC: Malnutrition is general [in the third world]. Famine is rampant throughout immense regions of Africa and elsewhere. According to the World Health Organization, water-related illnesses affect hundreds of millions of people. Infant mortality attains levels and forms entirely unknown in the West. In northwest Brazil, the height of children is 16 per cent lower than the national average, and their weight is 20 per cent lower… Uganda has been described as a 'devastated country'. Electric lighting is maintained in operational order only at the price of an extraordinary repair effort; taxi driving as a 'second job' expresses the inadequacy of public or private pay; official racketeering forces the foreign visitor to buy local currency at a false and utterly unrealistic rate; absenteeism is unrestrained throughout the public services. People cannot survive without the parallel market (magendo) based on barter, corruption is widespread, and famished children assail tourists at every step.
AL: Yes, things could be much improved in the poorest regions of the world. A halt to political violence, the restoration of the rule of law, seamless connection to world markets, and the elimination of local corruption would be the best treatment to regional poverty. All solutions that rely on the proper application of government institutions.
JC: Executives who work desperately in a climate of uncertainty and deregulation resort to amphetamines and tranquilizers to keep going.
AL: Having served as an executive working in ‘a climate of uncertainty and deregulation’, I can testify to the misrepresentation of this comment. As the VP of Network Engineering and Operations in a telecom company during the transition years in the industry, we worked hard within a changing and uncertain commercial environment. We weren’t desperate or relying on drugs, despite the daily stress of managing a complex organization utilizing an intricate network to provide various services. Yes, the recent deregulation of the industry complicated our lives, but also provided additional opportunity and challenge.
JC: Living is not good under modernity...
AL: Yet based on previous comments, those who genuinely suffer live outside the modern world, in dire poverty and sick with disease. Yes, people also suffer in wealthy societies, and struggle to find meaning in their lives, or wander around in a perpetual existential angst. We often take our good fortune for granted, sometimes waste our opportunities for increasing our satisfaction, or soothing the pain of existence with some spiritual balm. To some extent, this reflects the human condition, one that necessitates a charge to rise above the mundane and make something of ourselves.
JC: ...giant silos where agricultural surpluses pile up...underground nuclear arsenals...network of superhighways...Franco-British Concorde...
AL: For better or worse, a nice list of circumstances due entirely to government intervention.
JC: How to avoid this devastation? By returning to history.
AL: Yes, a return to the principles that founded America, one based on individual liberty, would be apposite.
JC: We are still in a capitalist regime.
AL: This is hardly the case, especially in Europe. At best, the democracies of the west are an unhealthy mix of socialist and capitalist features.
JC: Worker's wages are ludicrous in relation to the mammoth budgets of the TNFs. Consumers are powerless when confronted by products whose quality is determined by financial calculations that have nothing to do with real needs.
AL: This displays basic ignorance of corporations and their relationship to the market. As demonstrated in the previous chapter, mammoth corporations can fail if they do not consistently provide customers cost-effectively with products and services that they want. As to ‘real’ needs, it’s up to people to decide what those are, and not social engineers.
JC: One must always work for the better welfare and improved living standard of all human beings.
AL: Agreed. The best way to do this is advocate for a Genuinely Free Society. No other effort—personal, political or artistic—has the same potential to help everyone, everywhere.
JC: When a municipal council of French Occitania decides to save the sole grocery store-cafe in a village, threatened with closure because of its unprofitability, and declares it is prepared to finance the operation at a loss, this is an affirmation of the primacy of politics over the economy.
AL: No, this is another example where many people are forced to subsidize a few people through additional taxes, affirming state intervention, and utilizing the forcible seizure of resources necessary to finance an operation at a loss. In a Genuinely Free Society, individual consumers would decide what business thrives, and what businesses cease to operate.
JC: It takes moral effort to write a letter instead of telephoning, to walk down stairs instead of pushing a button...Each of us has the option of relying on a morality of dignity and independence; each of us can strive to achieve fullness rather than wandering in the void; each of us can establish him- or herself as a responsible subject rather than submit to being reduced to the level of an object 'treated' by the system.
AL: Absolutely. Within a Genuinely Free Society, individuals can resort to any number of strategies to enhance their quality of life, or avoid elements of modernity they despise. This is an appropriate approach to addressing a cultural or social environment we find unsuitable.
JC: Or should one, on the contrary, seek the institution of new world authorities, whose powers would no longer derive from an ever reluctant delegation of power from the states, but rather from the state of danger in which humanity and its planet exist?
AL: Au contraire. Instead of creating a new global state structure with attendant authority, reducing the power of current states would remove most of the danger people in the world face today.
JC: The westernization of the world, however, has only deepened the chasm between modernity's prosperous side and its destitute side.
AL: This may be true, as parts of the world (North Korea, for instance) remain outside the global market. For those who have joined it, particularly China and India, the results have been stunning, and beneficial to the mass majority within them.
JC: To those who cannot tolerate such arrogance, there is only one real long-term alternative: a challenge to the West's privileged position.
AL: Agreed. China is doing a good job of challenging that position, and in fact may already be approaching the west as a peer. Others are already there – South Korea and Taiwan, for instance. More will arrive, given the relative economic stagnation of Europe and North America, and the rapid growth and increasing sophistication of other nations.
JC: If there is no chance for the rest of the world to reach the Western living standard (the model can be reproduced but not generalized), the only healthy prospect, outside of a general upsurge of the world's 'poor', is to accept that the West must sooner or later give up this high living standard. Give it up willingly or under compulsion?
AL: But others can reach, and surpass, the West’s standard of living. Segments of many nations already have, and many will soon follow. As for compulsion, that may not be necessary, if the West continues to expand government intervention. Doing so will damage the economy and stall improvements in the standard of living. As for external forms of compulsion, the likelihood is so remote that it doesn’t require comment, other than to note the attitude that such a notion expresses.
JC: By the same token, they will pay the price of the effects of a demographic growth accelerated by the disparity between a better control of mortality and a still most inadequate control of births, a growth that has in fact exceeded the capacity for subsistence offered by the planet.
AL: This argument has been made since Malthus, and repudiated time and again. Despite massive increases in world population to over 7 billion, the ability to feed, clothe and house the population has been demonstrated. Only in those areas under repressive regimes, or cut off from regional and global markets, do large numbers of people continue to suffer. As for birth rates and mortality, modernity has lowered the former even as it has expanded the latter. In many modern societies, birth rates have dropped below replacement levels. In fact, as of 2010, some 3.3 billion people (about 48%) live in nations with sub-replacement fertility, meaning that their populations are set to decline (countered in some cases by immigration). Most of these people live in Europe and Asia.
SUMMARY: The discussion with Jean Chesneaux has been fruitful, exposing as it has the contrast between a Genuinely Free Society and a traditional point of view that favors an unchanging and simpler society. Many people oppose change, innovation and economic growth, and the disruption that accompanies it. The alternative, however, is stagnation, widespread poverty and constant war and crisis. Genuine freedom is the balm that will ease the worst of world tensions, and calm the waves of discontent.