The role of culture in upholding peace, human values, and economic development

Published January 20, 2019, 12:05 AM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.


Jose C. De Venecia Jr.
Jose C. De Venecia Jr.

(This article on cultural globalization is part of speech for Speaker De Venecia delivered at the launching ceremony of the Asian Cultural Council in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Jan. 15-16, 2019.)

 We note that cultural globalization is perhaps spreading even faster than economic globalization — and transforming traditional societies even more drastically. The international “pop culture,” borne by the globalized media, is spreading even in poor countries still peripheral to the global economy.

In these countries, everyday people’s objections to globalization focus on its cultural side effects — the way it is transforming accustomed life ways and hierarchical social relationships.

As for cultural values and economic growth, people generally believe that cultural factors — ideas, customs, group behavior — either help along or hinder economic growth.

The German sociologist Max Weber ascribed to the “Protestant ethic” of hard work, savings and personal austerity the growth of capitalism in Northern Europe in the nineteenth century.

More recently, exponents of “Asian values” cite the influence of Confucianism in explaining East Asia’s “economic miracle,” though Confucians traditionally accorded the practical merchant a lower status than the gentleman who devotes himself to the cultivation of virtue.

Yet all too often civic problems merely reflect structural defects in political institutions. The well-known American sociologist, US Senator Daniel Moynihan, believes that “politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

In short, culture is a broad and changing framework, within which a great variety of political behavior is possible.Simply changing the rules is often sufficient to reform — to change — the culture.

The idea that culture itself can be the main barrier to development is not new. Historians often cite how Western observers in the 1880s were pronouncing pessimistically on Japan’s prospects at the very moment the Meiji-era samurai were poised to muscle their way into the ranks of the great powers. The Japan Herald of 9 April 1881 is typical:

“Wealthy we do not at all think [Japan] will ever become: the advantages conferred by nature, with the exception of climate, and the level of indolence and pleasure of the people themselves forbid it. The Japanese are a happy race and being content with little, are not likely to achieve much.”

Must the culture first be transformed so that institutional change becomes politically sustainable? Or can a country prosper simply by removing institutional barriers that hinder development?

The Meiji Restoration dismantled Japan’s feudal politics, brought down its great landlords (daimyo), and raised the lower-rank samurai to political and economic power. A generation later, a similar cultural revolution from above (led by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk) forcibly secularized Turkey’s Islamic society.

In Taiwan and South Korea after the Pacific War, authoritarian governments and visionary entrepreneurs erected industrial societies on foundations of agrarian reform. But in no case did the reformers discard the traditional culture: instead they modifiedit to suit their new circumstances. They worked along the grain of the Meiji-era slogan of “Western Learning, National Spirit.”

In sum, institutions and culture seem equally crucial to the transformation of a traditional society. Together they make up the rules and values by which people live. And history seems to suggest that changing the rules is the fastest and simplest way to steer a culture in a new direction.

In our time, all the emerging countries have to deal with this problem of adapting to the impact of globalization on their accustomed ways. They will find a thorough and insightful study of cultural globalization useful for policy-making.

Toward a new economic Ideology for developing countries

Our globalizing world needs to develop a system of ideas and ideals that will make globalization work for all our peoples.

Particularly the nations and states just joining the global economy need practical lessons in “late industrialization” which is achieved by learning from earlier modernizers.

In my view, the East Asian idea of the market and the state not as competing but as complementary operating systems can become the basis of a new economic model — particularly for the poor countries entering the global economy for the first time. And I believe such a model should combine the best elements of both capitalism and socialism.

 I regard capitalism’s best element to be the individual enterprise that capitalism stimulates. Self-interest generates the entrepreneurial drive that produces invention and innovation — the motive powers of industrial progress.

Capitalism’s principal failing lies in the progressive debasement of this “self-interest principle.” Competition — unrestrained — all too easily degenerates into an every-man-for-himself ethic. And, ultimately, this kind of anarchic competition produces not only tremendous disparities in wealth and power but also despoils the global environment.

 Socialism, as we know, evolved in response to the excesses of capitalism during industrialism’s early years.

Today’s social democrats contend that citizens in a political democracy should have some say in its economic decision-making as well. For only when people have a say in the economic system will once-and-for-all solutions to basic social problems such as poverty, ignorance, and disease be possible.

The sense of community that socialism teaches is also part of its attraction for everyday people.

As for socialism’s downside, we all know from historical experience how easily Communism degenerated into totalitarianism. But even democratic socialism is susceptible to bureaucratic tyranny — to anonymous and unaccountable civil servants making decisions better left to the market.

 State and market as complementary

In my view, the individual initiative that capitalism stimulates — combined with socialism’s compassion for those whom development leaves behind — should become the basic element of a new economic model for our globalizing world.

Obviously, building this new economic model won’t be easy. All we now know — from recent experience — is that the market by itself is not enough.

Capitalism’s natural drive is to maximize returns on capital. It has no internal governor to check its social behavior. Left to itself, the market remains indifferent to the ethical dimensions of what its workings do to vulnerable people.

Obviously government must reassert its powers to regulate markets and protect the rights of people from runaway capitalism. Of course, government cannot solve all our problems. But government should do the things people cannot do for ourselves.

Before the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC in 2009, at the United Nations University in Barcelona in 2011, and at the earlier conferences of ICAPP and other international organizations, I proposed a review of the global political and economic system in the aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown at the time. I suggested then that there might be merit in bringing together the best elements of capitalism and socialism.

Best elements of capitalism and socialism

Today I propose once again that the concept could integrate the finer features of Germany’s ‘social market’ economy and should operate under the aegis of a liberal constitutional democracy committed to free elections, free markets, and a free press.

In China, Deng Xiaoping advocated — and started off — something similar: a Chinese “system neither Marxian socialism nor (Adam) Smithian capitalism but something in between and better — which can be called Confucian synergism.”

I do not know in detail what specific ideas and ideals will shape this new economic ideology. I only know we need to find today a way out of our seemingly endless cycles of boom-and-bust.

I also know we should respond to the needs, wants, and hopes of ordinary people the world over — whether those in the emerging countries or in the failed states or those peoples in advanced countries suffering from grave financial crisis — who desire no more than secure employments, adequate incomes, and decent livelihoods.

The Swiss Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, has been developing a “Global Ethic for Global Politics and Global Economics.” Fr. Kung points out that all the great religions without exception have variations of the “Golden Rule” as a cardinal principle — and that, therefore, “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You” could become a working ethic for all of humankind in our globalizing world.

Hans Kung is a professor of Ecumenical Theology at the University of Tubingen (Germany). A colleague of Pope Benedict XVI, he was one of a group of radical theologians who set the stage for the Vatican II reforms under Pope John XXIII. Because the Catholic Establishment regards his views as too radical, he has been prevented from carrying on his pastoral duties, but he remains in Holy Orders.

Perhaps in collaboration with Professor Kung, we in the Asian Cultural Council and the fraternal parties and societies associated with ICAPP could study the possibility of the Golden Rule’s becoming the foundational principle of a practical twenty-first ethic for global political and economic leaders.

An ethical denominator for all belief systems

“Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Hans Kung believes this “Golden Rule” to be the common ethical denominator in all the religious — and even non-religious — belief systems on Earth.

Of course this “global ethic” would be no substitute for the Great Books of the Faiths — the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, the Qur’an, the Bha-ga-vad-gita, the Discourses of the Buddha, or the Analects of Confucius.

Neither is it a global ideology. The Golden Rule is nothing but the necessary minimum of binding values, irrevocable standards, and moral attitudes that all religions can affirm, and which even non-believers can support.

As the mother of ethics for the whole of humankind, the Golden Rule could therefore become the core of initial agreement around which interfaith, interreligious, and intercultural dialogue could build a thousand years of peace.

As we know, the coming of international terrorism has sharpened the urgency of interfaith dialogue. Indeed we the founding members of the Asian Cultural Council believe that understanding among the great civilizations has become the only basis for global peace that will endure.

But there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. And there can be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions. And to this purpose we here gathered today must mobilize churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques — Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, and Jews no less than Christians and Muslims — to isolate the extremists who advocate terrorism in the name of religion.

I recall that in their quest for peace, dialogue among faiths, cultures, and civilizations, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) adopted a similar simple, uncomplicated declaration: “We belong to one human family under God.”

Institutionalizing the Inter-Faith Dialogue

We in ICAPP campaigned in the UN General Assembly, in the UN Security Council, in the halls of the UN for an interfaith, intercultural, and inter-civilizational dialogue with our proposal to create an Interfaith Council in the U.N. or at least a focal point in the Office of the UN Secretary General, at a time when discussion of religion was somewhat taboo within the U.N. system.

To institutionalize these Dialogues, I proposed, as then speaker of the House on a visit to the UN and before the General Assembly, the setting up an “Interfaith Council” within the United Nations system.

If creating a new council is overly difficult — as some legalists had warned — then, perhaps, we could write an interfaith mandate in the mission order of the Trusteeship Council of the UN which had anyway ran out of trust territories to supervise.

From these ‘Inter-Faith Dialogues,’ we should expect no miracles — except those epiphanies that result from open hearts, the willingness to see the other side’s viewpoint, and a multitude of patience.

Sunni-Shi’ite dialogue

On the raging Sunni-Shiite issues, we in our Asian Cultural Council cannot discount the magnitude of the barriers that intense doctrinal separation has raised between these two great schools of Islam.

In my earlier letters to Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah and Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, we said it would be of great relief to our region and the world, if the two leaders of Islam, representing the Sunnis and Shiites, respectively, of the Muslim world, could perhaps meet in Mecca and bring about the beginnings of reconciliation and the end of violence in the lands of Islam.

It is most difficult but more than ever this urgent, absolutely necessary meeting between the two leaders of Islam must be set and undertaken and we pray that to some extent if it ever happens, it will succeed for the peace of the region and the world.

An early leader against religious extremism had been the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia.

No statesman realizes terrorism’s global threat more acutely than he did — since his kingdom lies in the vortex of an imagined “clash of civilizations.”

The late King Abdullah initiated a series of “Inter-Faith Dialogues,” first, in the holy city of Mecca, then in the key western cities of Madrid, Geneva, and the Vatican, among others.

I had the privilege to speak in both the Madrid and Geneva dialogues — on the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s Rabitah, the Muslim World League.

Recall how the schisms within Christianity took many centuries to temper, after they broke out in the early sixteenth century.

We must create space for alternative faiths

Former US president Bill Clinton had said remarkably that the 21st century will be defined by a simple choice that the nations must make — whether to emphasize their ethnic, ideological, and religious differences or their common humanity.

But nations can never make the right choice, for as long as their peoples insist that “our faith must reign supreme” — since this claim can be affirmed only by the negation of all other faiths.

All too often, atrocities are committed in the name of religion. Yet we know that violence in the name of religion is contrary both to reason and to God’s nature. There can be no religious motivation for violence, wherever violence may come from.

Let me conclude by proposing to the Asian Cultural Councilmy earlier proposal to the United Nations University in Barcelona in 2011 for a survey course on how the great civilizations dealt with one another in the past — as a guide to how they might live together in the future.

This survey course proposed could become the standard introduction to every seminar or even specialized course that the Asian Cultural Council may offer in the future. The topic might also become a textbook under a publishing programthat the ACC may conduct in the future.

  • Encounters Between Cultures through History.

These topics have been the raw material of world history. The overwhelming majorities of these histories were written by western scholars. The ACC should encourage the finest non-western scholars to write on their cultures.

  • Evolution of Western views of Islam; and Muslim views of Christianity. During its expansive period, Islamic civilization also interacted with Buddhist and Hindu culture in South Asia and with Eastern Europe through the Ottoman Empire.
  • Civilizations turned inward. The Eastern civilizations have for the most part been turned inward during these past 150 years. Many of their component states have been subjected to western rule.
  • The efforts of the early modernizersPeter the Great of Russia; the Meiji samurai, and Ataturk — to force-march their countries toward western-type development — as lessons and caveats for today’s developing-country leaders.
  • Modern but not Western. The Japanese were the most successful in this effort. Japan’s Triumph and Decline in the Post- Pacific War Period. IndeedJapan’s resilience, discipline, and work ethic enabled the Japanese people to rebound. 
  • The later modernizers: Nehru and Nasser. Where did they succeed, and where did they fail? What basic influences did they have on their countries?
  • What Now? And today, we ask: Will the future witness “A Clash of Civilizations” or “An Alliance of Civilizations”? 
  • Opinion-Survey Capability. It is perhaps necessary that periodic opinion-sampling will help to validate these assumptions.
  • Publishing Program. It is important that our Asian Cultural Council should also have a Publishing Program for the Research Studies, monographs, and books ACC will sponsor.