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Edgar Morin: Uniting the best of Africa and the West

Interviews

Edgar Morin: Uniting the best of Africa and the West

The French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, who turned 100 in 2021, is a witness to the selfishness and lack of solidarity of the last century. He presents his hopes for a conscious humankind and cultural symbiosis in an exclusive interview with Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet.

You celebrated your 100th birthday in 2021 and you have written more than 60 books, of which two are often cited: Method (six volumes) and La Voie [“The Way” – not yet translated into English]. With the start of a new year, what are the topics you want to address and that will still surprise us?

With a fully transforming world that brings about many unexpected events, I believe this all remains to be diagnosed and understood, if we can. I would say it is the world itself that is asking us to think.

Two years into the pandemic, disorder is setting in. Can we still move towards the “humanistic civilisation” you promote?

Unfortunately not. This is because we still live in a great crisis. Firstly, the pandemic is not over and is even on the rebound with Omicron. The policy of vaccinating the whole population has its limits. From the start, we should have been looking for cures and disseminating hygiene principles for food and products that foster immunity in addition to social distancing and masks.

At the same time, the economic situation is sending worrying signs. Extreme inequality between individuals and between rich and poor countries is growing. Budding inflation could grow worse. We remain in great uncertainty and unpredictability.

When the pandemic came, we were not in calm and quiet times. France had the yellow vests crisis and protests from rail workers’ unions going on. There were oubursts of anger in various countries and tragedies in the Arab and Muslim world.

The world was stirred up and, in addition, we saw a general crisis of democracies, not only in distant countries like Brazil but in our Turkish and Russian neighbours and even within the European Union in Hungary and Poland, both neo-authoritarian regimes.

We also saw a crisis in politics and in political ideas that spurred in France the fragmentation of practically all left-wing parties and even to some degree of Les Républicains [the country’s major centre-right party], while new and unfortunately reactionary forces appeared.We saw a dire global situation only made worse, as far as France is concerned, within national boundaries.

That’s without mentioning virulent sources of conflict like Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan, Shia Iran and Sunni monarchies.

If the truth be told, humanity’s adventure has taken a new turn ever since technoscience created atomic weapons that could annihilate it and since the techno-economic wave degraded the planet by posing a vital threat to the biosphere and the anthroposphere, that is to say humanity has become its own worst enemy.

Can we predict what will come from this systemic crisis? Disorder seems predominant in this global agitation. Do you have an idea or intuition pointing to a possible outcome?

I tried to formulate principles of what I see as a new way. I published La Voie as a large book and after the crisis I even wrote Changeons de voie [“Changing Paths” – not yet translated into English]. The global trend is pushing us to general regressions and to disasters that are ecological, political and religious (see India and Pakistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Sudan…) and military.

We do not even have the premises of a move towards a solution. We remain at the level of wishful thinking. I have been preaching in the desert! There is a need today for new forces, for ideas that understand the complexity of the world, and for coherent policy.

There is invaluable goodwill in the world. Multiple movements of solidarity occur, from civic organisations and others. In France, it is incredible to see all these solidarity NGOs! Still, on the one hand, they do not come together, and on the other they cannot find the new type of political organisation that we greatly need.

Regarding the pandemic, we find information in French news about events in neighbouring countries like Spain or Italy. But nothing about Africa. Because of Omicron, we learned that the crisis was very violent in South Africa.

But in other African countries, who have been promised vaccines, we do not know what happened and if some of them have found cures. We are in complete ignorance and I believe you should be informing us about Africa.

It is possible, through empirical means and traditional recipes or by cures known locally, that an important part of the African population has been safe from the virus. But not of course in large urban areas.

View the whole interview (in French)

You are known for your antisystemic thinking. Today, with the Western model of civilisation starting to unravel through heavy disruption, are we headed towards a war of systems with Russia on one side and China on the other, or are we going towards a convergence that will provide means for cohabitation?

I will first say Western civilisation is experiencing a deep crisis at the very moment when it wants to be a model for the whole world. Many important components of our civilisation are modelled on individualism.

They are positive when they give autonomy to the individual, and negative when they generate selfishness and a degradation of solidarity. Large families disappeared with monogamy. Small families are in a crisis because of divorce. The solidarity I knew in the village, at work, in the neighbourhood, when I was young, has disappeared.

Still, many African societies, maybe with flaws inherited from feudalism and from patriarchal powers, at least have virtues of solidarity and mutual help. Today we need to bring out the best of both the West and of these civilisations that have a sense of community.

That is to say, individual autonomy should be inseparable from a sense of community, from participation, be it at the level of a small familial community or of local or national community. Our civilisation has multiplied knowledge but has fragmented it and given priority to calculation, something that ignores pain and misery. We are suffering from a terrible crisis in thinking because it cannot conceive the complexities of reality.

For instance, we can see a never-ending debate between proponents of growth and degrowth, with everyone seeing either as a solution to all evils. But I have always said growth and degrowth should be joined up.

We must grow essential needs products, quality products, hygienic products, and degrow the unhealthy products of industrial agriculture, artificial products, and products that are only propelled by advertising but have no intrinsic value. We should account for what must grow and what must degrow.

As for globalisation, we should favour everything that fosters cooperation and culture and, at the same time, be able to partially unglobalise so to save territories, natural environments and cultures that are under the threat of desertification. We should think the world over and it is this rethinking that is my message and that I try to disseminate.

To even start what you describe, this civilisation of biodiversity, balance and well-being, some form of global governance would be needed. We are far from it.

Our only hope stands in this verse by the poet Hölderlin: “Wherein lies the danger, grows also the saving power”. Indeed we are headed towards greater and greater danger. And not only an almost immediate danger like what is happening with Taiwan, which China wishes to possess, that would create a crisis with the United States.

Also not only what is happening with Ukraine, which Russia wants to repossess, and which could generate a crisis. Not only what is happening with Iran and the Sunni monarchies. There is a global trend to the degradation of the ecosystem, a general trend to the impoverishment of the population while a small elite grows richer in an incredible way. Our world is in chaos.

In this situation, we cannot simply say “we just have to”. Historical slowness must be considered necessary for ideas to form. Consider Christianity. It took four centuries between Jesus Christ’s message and the moment when the Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

History seems to be speeding up today but slowness remains, given such huge resistance from interests and conformism. Messages must take shape historically. Unfortunately, minds today are unprepared and too anxious.

This anxiety causes people to fall back to their identity and to recipes from the past. They do this instead of seeing we are now part of a community of fate and of danger, at the moment when we should all realise we all are humans under threat.

The pandemic is typical of what is at stake. It spared nobody. But we are in a time of regression. I have lived through many times of regression and notably the German occupation of France. We resisted but this resistance could only prevail a few years later under favourable conditions.

We should keep on defending ideas and hoping for favourable conditions. We are not the history’s masters but history thankfully is unpredictable.

All who believed in shaping the future were mistaken. Humanity and earth really risk being degraded. Nuclear weapons are becoming a threat with the resurgence of fanatical nationalists. We face incredible perils.

The time will come, I hope, when we will become aware of all these dangers and when structured forces will be created who will think decisively and lead the way. For the moment, let us try to disseminate this consciousness that we all are humans living in a community of fate. This could help Westerners better consider the fate of Africans instead of forgetting them.

 

You have written about 60 books. We need your vision as a sociologist and a philosopher. Can the digital revolution we live in, and in which you participate in a certain way, be useful to human relationships but especially to ways of communicating and of sharing knowledge?

Throughout humanity’s history, techniques have been ambivalent. The first prehistoric tools were at the same time weapons. This has continued. The discovery of the atom’s structure, a wonderful scientific discovery, produced nuclear weapons.

Machines that freed us from much effort and labour have allowed the enslavement of many labourers and workers. The same goes for artificial intelligence. We must domesticate it and not let it domesticate us.

If you believe it will regulate all of society, we will arrive at an anonymous and abstract world where there is no individuality or creativity. What saves the world is that there are unexpected events and creators. Without people who were considered mad in their time, people who could be Buddha, the Prophet, Jesus Christ, Karl Marx or Einstein, the world would have stagnated.

Freedom is contrary to absolute order. Impeccable order is implacable order. We need that there are open stitches in the net. Let us turn artificial intelligence into a very good tool but never ask it to regulate society and rule over everything. On the contrary, let us use it.

Today, one of humanity’s big problems is that we are sorcerer’s apprentices who created machines that are becoming more powerful than we are and dominate us. We created forces that can annihilate us.

We have become too proud and we must fall back to a humanity of humility. It should be known that even if we have spaceships and a telescope out to see the birth of the universe, we stand disarmed to sorrow, death and disease. We will not suppress them but will win over some. Viruses and bacteria reproduce and are very clever.

Today we see more and more, especially as part of transhumanism, the pride of human beings who set out to conquer nature at the same time when, because of this pride, they are destroying it.

This is the reason why wisdom can come from African countries that were not contaminated by this technical madness, this madness of pride. We need cultural symbiosis. I feel very happy when reading African novels, including the last one, a wonderful one, that received the Goncourt Prize. We realise that there is in them a world vision that is much less proud than ours.

So to conclude on an optimistic note, what gives you hope? Where are you today in terms of books and projects?

During the quite long life I have had, I have seen that the improbable happens, notably the Allied victory, which was improbable when Nazi Germany dominated. I have seen that the unexpected happens. I put my hope into the improbable and the unexpected. I also put it into creative and smart human faculties.

Human beings are complex. They are both of reason, homo sapiens, and of madness, homo demens. These two poles are part of being human. Passion should be controlled by reason but reason itself should not be cold and inhuman.

I have hope in the qualities of intelligence, of understanding others and of love, that are underdeveloped but can be developed. My hope is not in the augmented human of transhumanism but in the enhanced human relations of humanism.

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