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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 190 | Mayo 1997



One Ethic Is Vanishing and Another Being Announced

For over two hundred years, nation and work were two values that gave us a sense of dignity and belonging, yet both have now entered into an irreversible crisis. On what values will the new society and the new ethic be built? Professor Comblin examines this question in the following essay, which appeared in Cristianismo y Sociedad, No. 125-126, under the title, "La sociedad del saber y la responsabilidad ética de sus nuevas élites."

Joseph Comblin

Violence, criminality, isolation, drugs and unrestrained sexuality are not the true problems. They are the symptoms of a more radical and widespread problem, which is the rupture of the ethos that has formed the basis of ethical consensus in society. This rupture in turn grew out of the rupture of the social pact by Western society's new elites.

That's why the problem can't be resolved with more policemen, more repressive laws, more jails. In many countries the police, the repression and jail life itself generate more violence and social disorder, and contribute to destroying society's basic ethos even more.

The moralizing preaching of churches, educators and social authorities is so inefficient for the same reason. It has absolutely no effect because it doesn't reach the level of the real problem.

This ethical problem of our time is not a holdover of the past which historical evolution itself can resolve. It's not a problem of underdevelopment, because it actually comes from the more developed countries. The United States, which is the chosen model of Latin American elites, entered into a profound ethical crisis in the 1970s, and today's ethical crisis in Latin America comes from there. The nations suffering this crisis the most are precisely those that have adopted the US model of society, the First World model.

Thus, current historic evolution will tend not to solve the problem, but to accelerate it. "Development," "modernization" or "readjustment" do not solve it; they're creating it.

A New Group Holds the Power and Wealth

Western society has changed greatly since the 1970s. The economic model has changed; it has manifested the "third wave," a new stage in industrial development. It has initiated the age of the information economy, in which human capital becomes more important than financial capital. With the economic changes described so many times that it's unnecessary to restate them here, society's configuration changes. Classes or social groups that were strong in the previous era the bourgeoisie of bureaucracy, of personal services, of the public function fall into decline, and naturally the decline of the agricultural and mining classes is accentuated. Production now uses many fewer people than communication. Manipulation of the market is more important than the manipulation of material.

A new social group is concentrating the power and wealth; it is the group of "symbolic analysts" that manage symbols and have no direct contact with material production. In the United States this group may constitute 20% of the active population. In less developed countries it is numerically less important, but can take on even greater power.

These "symbolic analysts" hold more wealth than has ever before been concentrated in the hands of elites, more than the bourgeoisie of the previous industrial society. According to surveys, the upper class that runs the economy in US society moved from a salary 12 times greater than the average worker's salary to one 70 times greater in only one generation. It is enough to look at the development of cities and other living areas over the last 20 years to see the immense concentration of wealth that has been produced in these two decades.

The New Elite Has Broken the Social Pact

Power is concentrated and democracy is left with no content because governments are obliged to apply the policy defined by the entities that represent the interests of this new class: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the institutions in each nation that represent the interests of financial speculation. Democracy was left as form with no content; decisions aren't made in the elected bodies of the nation, but in the hallways, and elected representatives must cede to supposed economic necessities. The new class has turned economic issues and a single economic system that favors their social ascension into the absolute priority.

Analysts of US society observe that this new elite broke the social pact. In contrast to the former bourgeoisie, or to former aristocracies, the new elite has no feelings of solidarity. It closes itself off and rejects the links and restrictions that solidarity imposes. The new elites in Latin America are following the same road.

The rupture of the social pact produces a divided society, in which there is no contact between the upper and lower parts. In this communication era in which information excess is a growing problem, there is no personal communication. Before, workers knew their bosses. Struggle is a form of association, and class struggle a form of social union, but today not even class struggle is possible because the lower world doesn't know who's running the show or how society functions. It doesn't understand the society in which it is physically present, but not mentally integrated.

The two worlds don't know each other, or even communicate except through television. But television doesn't establish personal communication between the rich and the poor. It's not a medium for meeting and knowing.

Ethos is the unconscious organization of a group or a society, the basic element of culture, the basis on which norms and values are established. It is everything that is observed unconsciously, the combination of behavior modes that are not discussed but spontaneously transmitted. It is expressed in sayings, proverbs, symbols, myths, popular wisdom. It is evident in social conduct. It's not a natural morality because that doesn't exist, but it is what brings together a culture. It's what keeps society united because it joins all the members together into a whole.

Ethos is the basis of all ethics because it would be useless to teach an ethics that was not inspired in the ethos of society. It would be talking to the air with no one listening. Ethics is not part of a philosophy or a rational reflection. A purely rational ethics does not enter into the fabric of life.

A Society without an Ethos

The division of society into two worlds that are separating more and more is provoking to a radical crisis of ethos in the Western world.

The new stage of Western economy, the information economy, accentuates the ruin of traditional society's earlier ethical values. During the first two hundred years of industrial society, traditional values had been maintained in private life largely thanks to the family, in which women reproduced the ethical heritage of past civilizations. In recent decades, the values of the capitalist economy penetrated into private life. Women entered the capitalist economy, adopted its values, its individualism, its materialism and introduced these values into private life. The spirit of the bourgeoisie invaded everything. Now, the advent of the information age is triggering a crisis of values of the traditional bourgeoisie, which has thrown all of society out of balance.

In the traditional capitalist economy, the bourgeoisie had developed and maintained two fundamental values that formed the basis of public education and the essence of the "republican" spirit: nation and work.

The nation was a common good. The bourgeoisie knew how to sacrifice its own goods for the good of the nation and the workers accepted many sacrifices for the same good. Everyone was in solidarity in the nation.
The same thing happened in work. Everyone felt the need to produce. Workers accepted the greatest sacrifices and the bourgeoisie provided jobs. Work was the common source of dignity for all. Each person identified with his or her place in the nation's work. Each person had a recognized place and this was the basis of social peace, a peace stronger than the conflicts between workers and bosses. These conflicts never seriously threatened production.

In the information economy, the communication economy, these two fundamental values of the ethos of bourgeois society, nation and work, are greatly diminished. The new elites are breaking with national solidarity. They are entering the world of so-called globalization, which globalizes only the elites and marginalizes the great masses. They communicate with the elites of the entire world, but not with the masses in their own countries. Outside of the great cities they construct truly artificial paradises that they leave only to go to the tourist paradises reserved for them on Caribbean or Pacific islands or to the fiscal paradises that so clearly symbolize the rupture with solidarity. Safe on their islands, the elites know nothing of the problems of the big cities. They don't dirty themselves with contact with other people who live in their own country. They don't want to pay taxes. They want a weaker state that only serves to repress disorder by the masses and to guarantee the elite all the privileges. They're not interested in public education or health. They have no idea how people live in the megopolis, nor do they want to know, because they live in another world.

As a consequence, the masses live in immense urban sprawls with no resources, no structures, no forward-looking projects. They are in an informal society that is not even a society. They feel abandoned; they feel that they are no longer members of anything; they're rejected and excluded. They don't feel solidarity with anyone or anything. There is no national solidarity when elites abandon the nation and live far from its problems.

The Crisis of Work: Neither Dignity nor Unity

In the second place, the information economy destroys the solidarity of work. In earlier industrial society work gave workers their personal and social identity, dignity and value. It was their social purpose, the reference point for youth; each one was preparing to enter the world of work. Work signified the presence of a workers' association. It was the principal means of socialization.
In the information society, work stability is lost, as is professional identity. Work is transitory, diverse, with no stability or meaning. Now one works for money. Work now fulfills the Marxist critique: it is pure merchandise, submitted to the market even though it is largely informal. It loses its dignity. Street vendors find no dignity in their work.

Not even the work of the elites, the symbolic analysts, represents the exercise of a profession. It doesn't define a class, conferring identity. It, too, is an object of the market, which has value because of the money it accumulates. These forms of work generate no type of worker solidarity. Even when not repressed by new laws, the workers' associations are declining because they have lost their object: workers' dignity no longer exists. And that is why youth have no reference point for values.

Nation and work had penetrated deeply into industrial societies, including the more industrialized Latin American nations. Together with traditional family values, they formed the cultural ethos. They were in society's subconscious and animated moral behavior.

The current problem of ethics in Western society is that the ethos is being destroyed. There is no longer any foundation for ethics. All ethics remains theory, or awakens emotions, but cannot penetrate to behavior. Behavior increasingly obeys the market dynamic, which means that it has no ethical reference.

The Educational Crisis: Instruction but no Education

The goal of education has always been to transmit the community ethos. Traditional education communicated traditional family values. In the bourgeois era, public and republican education transmitted respect for nation and work. Schools prepared one to enter as a worker into a job, and as a citizen into the democratic nation.

In the information economy, with no longer a common ethos or values and with all earlier ethos dissipated and dissolved, there is no more education. The family has stopped educating in the great majority of cases because parents don't know what they can or should transmit to their children; they abandon them to themselves. They give material goods and instruction, but not values, and their behavior does not communicate ethos.

Schools are more and more centers that prepare youth to be victorious in the market. However, the great majority know from the outset that they will be losers in the competition. Education offers nothing to them; school only helps those who will triumph in the labor market. For the others, everything that is taught is useless because they'll never use it. Students learn science and techniques that they can never apply. And they receive no preparation for the life they will actually live.

Society has stopped communicating values because there are no longer any values outside of the market. There's no public education. States are allowing public education to decline because they see no object to it. The task of preparing information technicians will be better assumed by private institutions more integrated into the market.

The information economy values only one kind of knowledge: knowledge of the market. New information and communication techniques permit one to accumulate and use millions of pieces of information, but everything that is communicated refers to the market. It is information to select and orient production, to create or orient the market, to make capital perform the best. The new techniques and scientific inventions benefit those who know how to make use of them economically; those who know how to use a new invention or new merchandise. This is knowledge in the new economic era. Education prepares one to use communication techniques and to know how to compete in the market. It doesn't teach values that could only perturb the market game.

It's true that moralizing exhortations are still made in schools, but they are ineffective words because they have no roots in an ethos among the young. They have no effect on actions, because there's no longer a fixed social structure for action, and youths are following market suggestions. They act with market logic and not with ethical logic.

TV Ethics: The Consumption Dream

Everyone knows that the messages communicated by television are much more important; they spend more time watching television than in school and television is much more interesting. Now, television shows the lifestyle of the upper class.

The upper-class ethos is narcissism. People have no reference to themselves, but to the image they project. That's why there's a need to be able to consume in order to exist. Their consumption needs respond to the needs of the economy, which must always produce items of higher value, both more sophisticated and more expensive. The masses imbibe the ideal of the elites, an ideal that is a dream for them. However, the dreams awakened by television -the most important part of television being advertising- awaken the desire to consume, which explains teenage robberies.

Faced with the ruin of the ethos and the vanity of moralizing discourses, with the absolute priority given the economy and the market, and with the ascension of a new globalized elite physically separated from the majority of the population, what can be done to reconstitute an ethics that is not only theoretical but rooted in a new cultural ethos, a new system of values?

The Churches Convince No One

Little can be expected from the churches, considered as concrete historical entities. Both the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant Churches are too weak to respond. They multiply their moralizing sermons, but in practice convince no one and do nothing but actually aggravate the problems.

In the first place the Catholic Church and the other historical churches fell into "suburban captivity." A great part of the Catholic institutional system is installed in the ruling class neighborhoods, at the service of the new elites. Many of the clergy, nuns and priests, parish bureaucrats and deacons are ever more closely associated with the highest strata. Medellín and all the changes only affected a minority, today in disrepute. Several of the most powerful lay movements are implanted in the world of the elitist paradises, cultivating the values and solving the problems of the new ruling class. Much of their educational structure is at the service of the same class and transmits the same values, cultivating narcissism, though with the coverage of moralizing discourses with no visible effect.

The Church installed in the "modern" world "modernizes" itself. It adopts the ruling class communication techniques, values, consumption and bureaucracy, but this "acculturation" does not change the upper class living style or implant attitudes of solidarity.

Solidarity is confined to charitable works that the ruling class helps support to correct what it calls transitory defects in the new economic system. The new class is extraordinarily optimistic and proud. It claims that the new economy will improve life for the whole population. It promises consumption levels to all on a par with the current residential paradises: everyone will take vacations in the Caribbean and bank their money in the Bahamas. Meanwhile, they recognize that current evolution creates victims and they give the Church the task of correcting the economic system's negative effects. The "suburban" Church accepts that role, which confers upon it an important status in the new society.

The Catholic Church entered a "recentering" phase 20 years ago. It is concentrating on its internal problems, reaffirming its historic identity, revitalizing the past. It is closing itself off from the external world. It's true that it multiplies its calls to evangelize the whole world but they are voluntary calls with no practical repercussion because all Church practice is enclosed in its past, separated from the world and modern culture. The Catholic Church took the side of an anti-modern counterculture that protects it against the world's contamination, but separates it ever more from social evolution.

The newer Protestant sects seek refuge in a moral fundamentalism that is also the basis of an anti-modern counterculture. All those fundamentalists contribute to maintaining the popular masses in a certain ethical structure. They are a ferment of order and stability, but at the same time a sign and a factor of society's deep division. With these "values" the popular masses defend themselves from the contamination of a permissive society. However, it's not clear that fundamentalism can engender a new ethics in the new society. It solves the most urgent task, which is to survive in the midst of general anomie, but it has no message for the future. Many fundamentalist churches are waiting for the end of the world and an imminent final judgment.

Strengthening the State Is an Ethical Proposition

Like Ronald Reagan, the new elites think that the state is not the solution, but the problem. They participate actively in the campaign to weaken the state. In fact the state is subjected to strong pressures from within and without. From within it suffers the pressure of the new economic system that wants total independence to control everything, in the name of the free market. From without it receives its ready-made governing plan from the IMF, and suffers permanent pressures from the large multinational groups. At the same time campaigns are organized to denounce state corruption, but there are never accusations against corruption in private businesses.

Particularly in the countries of the South, however, the state is the founder and organizer of the nation, and the nation is still not totally formed. In those countries the state is the creator of the economy and of work. It is a myth that the national economy can develop simply by integrating into a supposedly free globalized market.

Thus the state was the primary agent of education during the bourgeois era and nothing is replacing it in this new stage of Western society's development. Without state mediation one cannot think about the possibility of a strong and widely disseminated new cultural ethos. While the state is not responsible for inventing, creating or taking initiatives, only it can disseminate and universalize values and behavior. Its mediation is indispensable.

Due to its current weakness, the state will have to seek support in the organization of stronger and more aggressive grassroots movements than in the past. For centuries Catholics have learned to fight against the state. At this moment they face the opposite challenge. There is no longer a strong state that threatens Church independence. The state is weak and needs Church support as well as support from other popular organizations. The concern should be to strengthen the state.

In the past the Church fought against state-administered public education and supported private education oriented to traditional Christian values. Today, faced with the tremendous decay of public education left to its fate by the new elites, Christians' highest priority should be the restoration of public education, since it is the only way to reach the great masses of poor and prevent the degradation of new grassroots generations doomed to a dead end situation with no refuge, no socialization, no dignity.

Building Hope in the Future

Given the state's weakness and the disinterest of the Churches, which have turned inward, responsibility for the future is in the hands of volunteers, of nongovernmental movements and organizations, not ecclesiastical ones, of movements open to all, motivated by overwhelming ethical concern, able to shake off the new economic structures and remain independent of the new values system. They will base their work on a critical assessment of the new society set up by the new social elites and of the holistic market ideology that is trying to legitimize the exorbitant privileges of this new elite.

The excluded masses will never have enough strength to contest the new system. If the organized working class didn't have enough strength to change bourgeois society, much less will the disintegrated and demoralized world of the informal economy in the megalopolis be able to do it. The masses could contribute to and support the formation of certain grassroots organizations in the midst of such adverse conditions, but they don't even have the ability to realize what's going on, since they are camped in the cities, but are not citizens.

The builders of a new society will appear among the children of the new elites. The current generation of the new elite is too proud to change the system. They think the path of so-called globalization will bring happiness to all, and aren't willing to contemplate the evident contradictions of reality. But their children will be different. Some will be able to distance themselves from the world their parents created. Knowing the system from within, they can use their own resources to change it, but they will have to radically break with it. They'll have to knock down the borders to see what's happening in the hell that their parents left to form itself alongside their paradise. They'll have to follow the dynamic of "Doctors without Borders" and be engineers without borders, analysts without borders.

What Values for Tomorrow's Society?

In other times Saint Bernard took the aristocracy's children to his monasteries. Today God doesn't send them to monasteries, but to the cities; that's where the new Jerusalem is that others sought in the monastery. Tomorrow's tasks await them there. They will have to leave everything, leave the paradises where they were educated, and go to the desert to find the unknown barbaric world of their fellow citizens -whom they never met and their families feared.

They will not found new orders, either military or religious, but open, ecumenical organizations outside of political parties, united by the project of an ethics. They will not build a society only for the economy, the police, the political institutions. They will need a common ethos, a basis of values and norms of social conduct introjected into the collective unconscious. It is not enough to announce a new theoretical ethics if it can't be spontaneously assimilated and doesn't become transformed into the normality of social relations.

In this ethical project, neither the nation nor work will again occupy the role or the importance they had in the former bourgeois era. The nation will still be an important reference, a positive value, but will not have the convocational force it had in the past, since it has been irrevocably relativized by the global economy and above all the new universal television culture. As for work, it will never be what it once was: the strength of personal and social identity, the main factor of socialization, the sign of human dignity. It is enough to observe the decline in the May 1 celebrations to understand the decline of the work ideology.

Tomorrow's Main Value: Human Relationships

Tomorrow's society will need other values, other areas to value to maintain itself. Besides, neither nation nor work were the roots of ethos for most of the history of human society. The idea of nation is only two hundred years old and work in the modern sense of the word is no older.

Nor will religion be the basis of the new ethics, at least in the Western world. The churches are still suffering the consequences of centuries of struggle against the intolerance of clericalism. They have undermined Christianity's prestige.

The fundamental value, will be human relations themselves: being able to relate, to communicate personally, to harmoniously coexist with others. Human coexistence in recognized and accepted diversity will be the basis of a new ethics. What will be valued in a person will be the place he or she occupies in human coexistence, her or his role in forming human relations.

The word communication is ambiguous because it's used to designate the network of technical means to transmit information. The communication developed by technical means is market communication. What is communicated by the media is technical data relative to the market. Such communication is not personalized; in fact, it's depersonalized. The human being integrated into the new world market is constantly inundated by information and is constantly listening for new things. More than ever time is money and an information delay of one minute can lead to the loss of millions or billions of dollars.

What is valuable is personal communication. The lonely world of the big cities lost the sense of community and personal communication. It looks for them without finding them.

The Three New Tasks of The Ethos of Sociability

The first task will be to organize around a common life. The sense of socialization is lost in today's cities. Social relations are oftimes limited to relations between members of the fragmented family. They live on top of each other, always mixed together, always close but never knowing how to structure their relations, establish peaceful communication, harmonize their differences and allow each other their space. From global society they learn the need to compete and pit everyone against everyone else. The only one who triumphs is the one without ethics. Neighborhood organizations and other grassroots movements are on the decline. Loneliness is rampant, even in upper-class paradises. Everyone is isolated in defending their rights; the fundamental human right has become the right not to be bothered by anybody or anything, the right to total selfishness. In a word, cities must be built out of today's urban sprawls. Civilization is city and today's situation is barbarity.

The second task is to promote voluntary work around collective tasks at the service of all. There will be no urbanization or environmental preservation without voluntary labor. Nor will there be grassroots organization. In a society where everything is commercialized and anything free is disappearing, the only thing that can restore interpersonal human relations is what is free. Because the personal is free. The value of gratuitous products must be restored against the market ideology not only in theory but in collective work practices as was always done in former civilizations.

The third task is basic human education. Fernando Cardenal explains the Sandinista failures in the rural world as the lack of basic education. It is not enough to give material tools, or to give theoretical notions. School programs direct attention to abstract reason. Since they don't penetrate the collective unconscious and don't form personalities or prepare for social responsibility, the poor and marginalized, those excluded from society, don't learn personal responsibility, don't wake up to personal advancement, don't learn to relate in groups. They don't acquire the basic dispositions that would allow them to use the material or cultural tools offered to them. Machines are destroyed, money is wasted, associations fall apart. No one takes responsibility. Everyone contemplates the disaster but no one knows how to find a solution.

Twentieth century educational reforms insisted on communicating to students a scientific vision of the world, as if this vision were a stimulus to fight to move up in society. But for the majority of students who will never reach leadership positions, the pseudo-scientific instruction they are taught is mythology. They have no way to refer the scientific information to realities of their daily life. It is pure memorization, an object of faith. It is a modern mythology that doesn't serve them in life and thus doesn't arouse their passion, a cold mythology that makes no contact with existence. This scientific teaching is what will surely destroy in them forever the scientific spirit, which is nothing more than constant submission to experience, correlating reason to observed data.

Basic education consists of teaching what will serve for future life. Save for the few elites who will have access to techniques/technology, what will help in life at the present time is knowing how to relate, how to work together. This is what basic education refers to. It is much more important than literacy or mathematics, though these areas are also important.

Only practicing a social life can teach the value of human relations, of life in common. An ethics cannot be built without this feeling of value. It is a new practice of life, which should lead to the birth of a new ethos of urban life.

The new economy tends to exclude all those who do not have the basic know-how to use the new tools. This new knowledge is not within everyone's reach, and people who were born in unfavorable circumstances have little chance of accessing the new economy. But the new model also tends to isolate the new elites because it permits economic life without direct contact between human beings; it permits the isolation that is already visible and that has provoked the social division and a new cultural ethos in which the supreme value is the "culture of satisfaction."
The traditional figure of the boss has disappeared, but the behavior of the new elitist class is objectively much crueler and colder; total indifference lies behind a mask of false compassion. Even the IMF directors say they have a preferential option for the poor. Since they live and talk far away from the poor they can speak freely and their words will be received simultaneously in all countries of the world thanks to the communication techniques. Meanwhile, their practice continues with the most implacable indifference.

The 1960s and even the 1970s were decades of many words. There were many highly ethical discourses. Today the discourse of the liberation of the poor has been co-opted by their worst oppressors. To talk today is suspect; the time has come to act.

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