Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives"

Richard Falk

I am most grateful to these five influential scholars in international affairs for their responses to my sketch of a possible role for citizens in shaping a livable and sustainable future in light of the survival challenges currently shadowing the human species. I am further grateful for the generosity of spirit that pervades their comments, suggesting the presence of strong ethical affinities and a process of inquiry that is collaborative, rather than competitive, in its underlying spirit. This itself is encouraging, given the immensity and urgency of the challenges confronting our species at the onset of the Anthropocene Age. These challenges appear to be overwhelming existing problem-solving mechanisms that are either state-centric or geopolitically hegemonic, not oriented toward producing solutions based on serving human well-being and global interests.

I think there is agreement among us that the way forward is obscure, and that it is an unknown terrain containing many paths worth exploring and others best to be avoided. I focused on the reorientation of citizenship through the visionary image of “the citizen pilgrim” not as the only way to respond to survival prayers, but rather as a relevant revisioning of identity that self-consciously rejected the established world order, rooted in the war system and claims to hegemonic power. What I and others are advocating in its place is geopolitical nonviolence, principled resistance, and detachment from existing political ideologies. This entails a shift away from the still prevailing claims of “political realists,” who continue to believe that the course of history is essentially shaped by the outcomes of war, to a “new realism,” a view from the “wilderness,” as I described it.

Franck Amalric and Robert Paehlke believe it is possible and necessary to pursue these shared goals without withdrawing, but rather through engaging in an innovative manner that drastically reformulates what it means “to see like a state” in the early part of the twenty-first century. In different, yet connected ways, Amalric and Paehlke also question the national disaffiliation that I appear to be recommending as a cleansing tonic. I don’t disagree with such efforts to promote change and adaptation from within, provided they are accompanied by an existential and integral awareness of the degree to which the construction of a political community of the whole is essential for the survival of the human species and is unlikely to emerge from incremental reform, however innovative.

Generalizing from an instructive anecdote about reshaping the Finnish national interest so that it becomes almost indistinguishable from the global interest, Amalric argues for the indispensability of such an attitudinal shift. If I understand correctly, this kind of engagement resembles what Buddhists convey by their emphasis on “right mindedness.” There is much merit in such political pedagogy, which purports to globalize our concept of national interests rather than to abandon the national optic of political self-understanding.

Yet I think we who live in the US cannot easily, or perhaps ever, think like Finns, and should probably not even attempt to do so. The US has grown accustomed to “governing” the world for a century or more, and even if we consider ourselves critics of such a hierarchical status, our consciousness is shaped by the experience associated with this global role. America was given the opportunity to act as “the conscience of the world,” and in some respects did so after both world wars of the last century. However, it was never willing to forego the special material, psychological, and political gains associated with this role, and it was arrogantly unwilling to accept the rule of law and authority of the UN that it self-righteously proclaimed as obligatory for its adversaries.

Beyond this, the private sector agendas of corporations and banks (mis)shaped global policy such that what was treated by national political leaders as good for the US turned out to be often bad for the peoples of the world and, in some cases, bad for for American citizens, especially workers. I believe it is only the rare American who can adopt the consciousness required for the pursuit of the human/global interest. It is possible to become alienated from the American global role in the manner of the hard left or principled expatriates, but such positions tend to become inverted negations of nationalist consciousness, and are infrequently animated by the idea of safeguarding the human species and the natural surrounding within which it is embedded.

Joseph Camilleri, himself long a distinguished student of these issues, considers that the focus on individuals (via citizenship) and states (as the institutional political actor) does not have the mobilizing potential needed to achieve the kind of global transformations that seems required. He favors placing emphasis and hopes on civilizational and religious orientations that draw on the accumulated wisdom and experience of the most enduring ethical traditions and on wider identity networks than generated by sovereign states. Camilleri has confidence that the right combination of diversity and commonality can enable creative syntheses of the sort that could generate a new globally centered political and moral consciousness. This represents one promising way to express the preconditions for organizing life on the planet in order to increase the prospects of species survival and well-being.

While recognizing the fundamentalist and regressive features of these broad traditions in a manner similar to Larry George, Camilleri makes a good case for the claim that only such a reorientation of outlook has any prospect of meeting the policy challenges that are increasingly the horizon. In this respect, Camilleri can be read as a humanistic and pluralistic complement to Samuel Huntington’s geopolitical provincialism, both sharing a shift of focus from state-centrism to religious/civilizational wholes. Camilleri thinks along synergistic lines as opposed to the conflictual assumptions that underlie Huntington’s worldview.

Robert Johansen, whose work I have long appreciated, shares the underlying assessments that I put forward, but is dedicated, as his lifelong efforts manifest, to situating visionaries and incrementalists in the same big tent. He believes we need both kinds of engagement simultaneously as interconnected undertakings. Underneath this assertion is an abiding conviction, which has guided his own influential scholarship on behalf of a better human future, that it is necessary to work for a better world now because the challenges we face have an urgency that cannot be postponed. If I read him correctly, he aligns his engagement with those who insist that the longest journey starts with the first step, and that such steps should be taken for as long as possible, with leaps of faith in more radical direction only when and if it becomes absolutely necessary. Johansen associates my discourse with a prophetic voice and, like Paehlke and Amalric, does not believe that a retreat to the wilderness is called for. Nor do I most of the time, except as a matter of purifying my mentality in order to shake free of the tyranny of past and present.

My own efforts have oscillated between deep involvement in the concrete “now” of perceived catastrophic wrongs (as in Gaza or, earlier, Vietnam) and the visionary “then” of humane governance and a spiritualized sense of solidarity not only within the bounds of humanity, but extended to nature, and indeed to the cosmos. It is these extensions that reject the newly fashionable ethos of anthropocentrism, which I find to be a form of ecological infantilism that afflicts the species and threatens its future. Transcending anthropocentrism depends on a nurturing of the spiritual dimensions of our apprehensions of the “new realism,” which among other ambitions, seeks the re-enchantment of nature.

What I do believe, which may set me apart somewhat, is the belief that the desired future cannot be attained incrementally, but will involve sharp ruptures with the present that cannot be predicted on the basis of present trends. It is for this reason that I have dedicated myself to two vectors of thought/feeling/action: the commandments of values and the politics of impossibility, that is, trying to do what is right without succumbing to a political calculus of probabilities and interpreting historical change, not from the perspective of “power” but rather from that of “values.” Rather than an endorsement of ideas of moral evolution, this puts forth a manifesto of political struggle dedicated to an affirmed future without being inhibited by perceptions of improbability.

Johansen raises many questions about the implications of my more general prescriptions. Interestingly, he is varying the adage about “the devil lives in the details” by implying that the devil haunts those domains that are generalized without bothering to specify details. In other words, “the devil lives most happily if not irritated by details.”

Finally, I want to touch upon Larry George’s sensitive reassessment of the relevance of technology to a sustainable future. While agreeing that it is technology that got us into this extraordinary mess, he has become convinced that without technological ingenuity, our prospects of meeting the challenges of the day are almost nil. In effect, we do not have the luxury of time to wait for some form of postmodern re-enchantment of nature. We can surely invite the gods to return, as several of us wish, but to wait for their arrival seems at this point a path to species suicide, or more pointedly, a waiting for Godot. George recognizes fully that redirecting technology toward planetary justice and species survival cannot be assumed just because it seems rational to do so. It poses a formidable political challenge of its own that involves overcoming entrenched interests and ingrained wrong mindfulness with respect to security and well-being. In effect, if I comprehend George’s meaning, it requires wrenching technology from the clutches of capitalist greed.

I have benefitted greatly from this interaction with the authors of these comments and believe that such dialogic exercises are themselves part of the process of generating from thin air new configurations of political community, which if sustained and replicated in many venues, could move us closer to a future we need, wish for, and sometimes dream about.

Richard Falk
Richard Falk Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Fellow of the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and author of Power Shift: On the New Global Order.

Cite as Richard Falk, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives," Great Transition Initiative (September 2014),

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