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Living In A Sychronized Global Economy

Vaclav Havel: A Speech to the Longitudes 2004 Conference Paris 26 October 2004

Ladies and gentlemen and honored guests,

Quite recently, I happened to spend a day that caused me to do a bit of thinking once more about so-called globalization, or more precisely, about the evolution of our present-day civilization and the many dangers it poses.

In the afternoon I went shopping at a supermarket. It was as big as a railway station and I got a bit lost and marveled, as I always do, at the incredible variety of foods on offer and how they artfully entice shoppers to buy far more groceries than they intended. I succumbed too, of course. Although I had originally only gone there for a kilo of apples, I carted off a trolley full of interesting things. There was one item, however, that I didn't cart off, even though I put it in my trolley at first. It was an oven-ready product made of seasoned ground meat of some kind that you just stick under the grill and you have a hamburger. An older shop assistant who was standing near the meat display had recognized me, and quietly advised me not to buy the item. He told me it wasn't one of their products but was brought in -- apparently to the entire chain -- from God knows where and God knows what went into it. So I put the item back on the shelf, chiefly, I expect, out of politeness. I asked him where in that particular town I might find a normal butcher's where they would grind up exactly what I chose on the spot. The man looked around conspiratorially and then said softly: "They wiped us out." So he must have once been a butcher, and I expect he found it somewhat humiliating at his age having to stand by a display cabinet with products he hadn't helped prepare.

I know that supermarkets also have counters were meat is cut and ground according to the customer's wishes. However it occurs to me that these chains are slowly and imperceptibly driving many small shops and businesses out of the towns and villages. From the purely economic point of view -- in other words, in terms of productivity and profit -- it is no doubt an advantage to concentrate the bulk of production and distribution under the umbrella of large supranational organizations that have the money and the "know-how." But there are other considerations besides purely economic ones -- considerations that are equally important, if not more so.

Small shops on the streets, corners, and squares of villages and towns were always something like small social centers. They were frequented by neighbors who knew each other and the shopkeeper too. They usually exchanged a few words and, thanks to this human dimension or to the individual nature of shopping, those little shops were one of the many institutions that ensured a certain social stability. They did so by helping to sustain communities of human proportions, small enough that people knew each other, and together they operated as an instrument of something I'd tentatively call society's moral self-regulation or simply social self-regulation. The more such instruments exist, the greater is society's capacity for maintaining certain elementary norms of human coexistence or for asserting its basic moral imperatives, and the less it is required to force these norms into laws and regulations that, ultimately, are understood only by experts and thereby cease to guarantee anything. I am not saying that the elimination of small businesses causes alienation and with it, the growth of violence and crime. All I am saying is that their elimination is part of a trend in contemporary civilization toward uniformity and depersonalization, and that this trend certainly has a pernicious effect on the entire sphere of human morals and, in some cases, can even lead to the emergence of new types of crime.

In any case, soon after my visit to the supermarket I spoke with a friend of ours from Los Angeles who told us for the first time how her husband had died. He was shot from a passing car by a youth who simply wanted to prove to his pals that he wasn't afraid to do it. Would he have dared to do such a thing if he were not concealed within the anonymity of a modern metropolis?

But to return to the small shops. The problem here is not the elimination of choice. On the contrary, large shopping centers surely offer a greater variety of goods than hundreds of small shops do. What they can't offer, however, is a variety of shopping experiences as social events. Small shops can differ from each other in atmosphere, because their owners, their staff and their customers, and the personal relations among them, are different in each case. The same cannot be said of large shopping centers.

Increasing numbers of people on our planet live in cities, and cities turn into gigantic agglomerations, and this inevitably affects every aspect of life within them, whether it be the kind of mass or collective housing, the urban structure, or the attendant mass organization of everything from consumption to entertainment. People are drowned in anonymity and eventually in existential isolation.

In many respects Marxism and Communism were extreme offshoots of modern civilization, or more precisely, of some of its characteristics, such as its emphasis on the entirely rational and material nature of the world and human existence, an unbounded faith that everything was governed by so-called universal laws and above all, a faith in our ability to gradually discover these laws and thereby, eventually, to understand everything. Communism grew out of that faith and it worked out a detailed blueprint for a better world. It systematically swept aside everything that fell outside that blueprint or challenged it, in the unswerving and arrogant conviction that it had a monopoly on the truth and therefore had the exclusive right to organize everyone's lives. At one time many good and talented people fell for the alluring temptation of that convenient, comforting view of the world. Among them were some members of a generation of avant-garde architects. Many of them erected splendid buildings, but most of them succumbed to a delusion that was connected to their Modernist or actual Communist faith. That delusion was their belief that through architecture, they could rationally organize human life to make it better and more just.

One manifestation of that delusion was their conviction that the quality of life would be improved by separating the various functions of human settlement. And so they began separating housing from the work place, shopping from entertainment, recreation, and parks from industry. Town planning and architectural schemes were influenced by a belief in various belts and zones, such as green belts, sports complexes, residential zones, industrial zones, shopping centers, administrative centers, restaurant quarters, entertainment quarters, and houses of culture, cultural centers, or even multi-centers.

I see the products of this kind of architectural thinking around me all the time, some of them more or less successful, some pretty monstrous, whether they be the incurably dismal housing estates left behind by Communism, or the strange supermarket zones that capitalism brought to my country and that have spread into the open countryside along with all their extensive storage areas and car parks, squandering land and turning increasing areas of the land into something resembling a steppe.

But don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that modern architects are chiefly to blame for these questionable intrusions into human life and nature It is a product of our civilization, of the modern attitude to the world, an expression of human vanity and the cult of one-dimensional expediency or profitability -- a result of the materialistic nature of our civilization. Avant-garde and modern architects satisfy the demands of the era they belong to, whose thinking they have absorbed, and whose requirements they must, or wish, to fulfill, and which in one way or another they refine and develop.

And once again, I'm convinced that life itself, in all its inscrutability, will reveal what a mixed blessing this trend is. It will suddenly be discovered that people prefer to live -- and that they get on better together -- in places where life goes on at all times of the day, in other words, where the different functions of human settlement are not strictly separated, but where life itself weaves these functions together complexly in a sometimes surprising fashion and gives rise either to streets and lanes where offices, shops and restaurants mingle in various ways, or to something reminiscent of the classical village, where the boundary between nature and settlement was still clearly defined.

Coincidentally, on the evening of the same day that I didn't buy that hamburger and spoke with our friend from Los Angeles, I went with my wife to the premiere of a very good new Czech film. The premiere took place in a new Prague multiplex cinema. We arrived at the complex half an hour before the start of the film and yet we were still late. You see, we found ourselves in a kind of labyrinth of cinemas and restaurants in which it was hard to find our way around. In fact, we lost each other right away because the ladies' and the gentlemen's facilities were at opposite ends of the building. It took a long time for each of us to find our particular room, and because we had forgotten to leave a trail of peas behind us, like the children in the folk tale, it took us a long time to find each other again, and then to find the proper cinema. Asking the way was no use, because not even the staff could help us. At one point someone actually directed us to a restaurant, and though they might have been happy enough to take our tickets they couldn't tell us where our cinema was either.

I admit that my exasperation with that building, its architect, and the inventor of the multiplex cinema mounted with every passing moment. And in that frame of mind it struck me that the elimination from towns and villages of all the little cinemas, which, like the small shops that had been closed down, represented a certain focal point for more or less well-defined communities, and the way they were being replaced by these anonymous multiplexes in the cities was, in the final analysis, just one more powerful and damaging blow to the body of society. Were this trend to continue to its logical conclusion, then one day all the cinemas in the Czech Republic would be replaced by a single, gigantic super-, mega-, hyper-multiplex. Some people would probably find this a great advantage: the reels of film wouldn't have to be carted all over the country, but could be simply carried from one screening room to the next. It would mean lots of other economies as well.

So to repeat: in strictly economic terms it would be very beneficial to the owners, although not, of course, to society as a whole or its future. It would also be an enormous misfortune not only for the moviegoers, who would have to travel hundreds of kilometers to spend an evening at the movies, but most of all for the life of their communities and regions, which would lose yet another of the factors that establish their originality and also contribute to society's general moral self-regulation. Maybe what I am saying would be clearer if I take this dismal vision even further: let us imagine that in a country of ten million people there is not just one gigantic multiplex cinema for everyone – and in which, moreover, they screen the same endless serial by the same film-makers -- but there is also one gigantic hypermarket, one gigantic sports complex and one enormous industrial zone in which all the country's industry is concentrated. The energy for all of this is supplied by a single enormous nuclear-power station. Naturally, all the newspapers in such an efficiently and rationally organized country will belong to a single publisher, who directly influences what those 10 million people should or should not know about the world.

What does such centralization amount to?

Basically, totalitarianism. And if I have often stressed that I see Communism as simply a cruel caricature of contemporary civilization, what I meant, among other things, was that a political and economic dictatorship of the Communist type is simply a distorting mirror that reflects present-day civilization as such, and that this civilization is essentially moving toward a barely noticeable, hidden, and extremely sophisticated kind of dictatorship. We can call it different things: a dictatorship of cartels, or a dictatorship of advertising, of consumerism, of profit, or of corporations. But it all boils down to the same trend towards centralization and thus toward the concentration of power, toward monopolization and a general unification of things, albeit cloaked in an endless, superficial diversification.

I have imagined this grotesque vision of a centralized world taking place within the boundaries of a single country. But the process I had in mind is not limited to one specific state, and certainly not to anyone's ethnicity.

For instance, when the world's biggest car manufacturers merge, few people care where the company in question originated: they all have factories, sales outlets, and repair workshops all around the world. Imagine what would happen if all of them merged one day to make a single worldwide car manufacturer! Perhaps in purely market terms it would be a real advantage, not only for the owners, but also for the customers. But would it also be good for humanity? Is it a good thing for a single company, or even a single person, to control such a popular mode of transportation? Might not a concentration of economic power of that magnitude tempt the owners to blackmail the governments and people of the earth? And wouldn't it be in effect just another brutal assault on the diversity of the human race, an assault hiding behind the banner of diversity, not genuine diversity, of course, but one that is controlled from the center? And would it not eventually lead to the very danger I've been talking about, that is, the danger of making life more uniform still, of suppressing human nature, and in the end, of encouraging a further decline in human responsibility?

I believe that every kind of centralization is dangerous. And my fear is that if this civilization, and humanity, do not arouse themselves to a radical new sense of responsibility, then no anti-monopoly legislation will be good enough, nor any regulation of economic life thorough enough, to put a stop to this hidden trend once and for all.

Among the European Union's adopted and ratified objectives is the intention of catching up and overtaking the United States in terms of gross domestic product. The concept of continuous movement, growth, change, progress and development has been one of leading ideas of Euro-American civilization from time immemorial. The staggering advances in science and technology in modern times is simply a modern variation on that ancient -- and most probably Christian -- idea.

Nevertheless I venture to say that the obvious or hidden technocratic attitude of western governments is a double-edged and therefore dangerous phenomenon. For obvious reasons, even if all the indicators were absolutely splendid, it could turn out to be almost impossible to live in our developed world. Quality of life cannot be assured simply through quantitative economic indicators. After all, it is quite possible that some of us will live in countries where the gross domestic product is growing by leaps and bounds, where everything is flourishing, the superstores are full of goods, the roads are teeming with lorries, energy is getting cheaper all the time, there is more and more construction, more and more industrial zones, bigger and bigger multiplexes, and more and more persuasive advertisements assail us from all sides -- and yet everything is somehow dull, desolate, empty, soulless, ugly and, in spite of its pretense of diversity, infinitely uniform. And people are more and more nervous, disenchanted, lonely and sad.

I don't have a handy recipe for making life on Earth pleasant and enjoyable for everyone. All I know is that it is culpable arrogance for anyone to think that they have such a recipe, and that it consists in the mechanically and financially demonstrable growth of all the economic indicators.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are millions of people in the world who would be only too glad to be able to buy at least one "global sandwich" in a supermarket once a week, and there are millions of people in the world who live somewhere in misery and for whom it would be a dream come true to live in the worst prefab high-rise housing estate left behind after the fall of Communism. And they would be overjoyed to get tickets to a multiplex cinema at least once in their lives. I have met and spoken to such people on many occasions.

Any export of inventions, technology, goods or capital from the developed to the less developed world, so long as it is truly destined for people in need and not to line the pockets of some dubious rulers, is something I welcome and support.

What worries me, however, is the export of all the mixed blessings concealed within contemporary civilization. After all, it is often precisely the export of our -- Euro-American -- conveniences, customs, rules and intentions, which in other lands and other contexts causes -- directly or indirectly -- many of their major problems. Problems that, taken together, can sooner or later grow to become a planet-wide catastrophe.

That is not the only reason, but it is one reason why we should give more thought to all this than has so far been the custom.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind invitation and for the attention you have paid to my words of warning.