United People's Assembly
May 12, 1998
As all measurements of time, centuries punctuate our fragility and finitude. But they also occasion reflection on that fragility and finitude. It is no surprise therefore to find a cottage industry growing at the end of each century in general, and this one in particular, that apocalyptically proclaims the end of history (Francis Fukuyama), geography (Vincent Mosco), modernity (Vattimo), work (Jeremy Rifkin), university (Eli Noam), and journalism (Elihu Katz). What would life look like without the fun and frolic of history, geography, modernity, work, journalism, and university?
Rest assured that nothing is ending except a century, which is a figment of our own imagination anyhow. In the midst of this clutter of voices, the reflections of a Buddhist leader, Daisaku Ikeda, represent a message of hope rather than despair. Recalling the Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdjaev (1874-1948), Ikeda makes a critical distinction among three kinds of time: cosmic, historical, and ontological. Cosmic time (light years) marks the evolution of the universe; historical time punctuates human days, weeks, years, and centuries; ontological time celebrates the timelessness of being.
Ikeda suggests that Enlightenment is awakening to the timelessness of ontological time, seizing the moment for its joy of life. The great 13th century Sufi poet Rumi has a similar view:
Consciousness mirrors past memories.
Natural spirituality can lead us to liberation from the burdens of time. Nevertheless, we also live in cosmic and historical times that bring us suffering. It is through natural spirituality that we can overcome this suffering by assuming cosmic and historical responsibility for the celebration and continuation of life. When Buddha was asked, who are you(a God, an angel, or a prophet, he replied simply, "I am awake!"
The term for God in Persian, Khodaa, literally means self-awakening. Cosmic and historical time, therefore , cannot be dismissed without serious damage to our natural spirituality that connects with and cares for all beings. As we strive to transcend historical time, we must also be children of our own times by taking responsibility for all forms of life.
This brings us to our own historical moment. Globalization may be characterized as the most powerful trend of our own times. The process has been going on for the past 5,000 years and will perhaps continue for the next 5,000. However, since the end of the Cold War, it has gained considerable momentum by drawing the former Sino-Soviet bloc, Asia, Africa, and Latin America into the vortex of pancapitalist development.
The abstract and anonymous forces of the global markets, electronic communications, and military domination appear to leave little room for individual human agency. Yet, our natural spirituality ceaselessly calls for our involvement to preserve life against the forces that threaten it.
Three historical forces are currently at odds: markets, states, and civil societies. In recent decades, markets have led the way through the global reach of some 30,000 transnational corporations (TNCs). Superstates, such as the G7, have collaborated with the TNCs to open up new markets such as those in the former Sino-Soviet bloc. Smaller and medium states, such as those in the less developed countries, have tried (often unsuccessfully) to defend their national interests vis-à-vis super-state and TNC encroachments. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have become the main arena in which the conflicting interests of the large, medium, and small states are negotiated.
In the meantime, the global civil society has organized itself into some 40,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International. The struggle among the three protagonists is an unequal one. Of the top biggest economic units in the world, over 50 percent are TNCs. A typical TNC is larger in assets and income than a typical small or medium state. In this struggle, the NGOs have little if any clout. That is why economic globalization is way ahead of political and cultural globalization.
As we have witnessed in the recent Asian economic debacle, political institutions have not been able to regulate and moderate the excesses of financial markets. Similarly, the market forces have debased global cultural institutions. In one arena, for instance, this has resulted in CocaColonization and McDonaldization of the world. Global advertising is whetting the appetites for consumption well beyond the Earth's carrying capacity.
As U.N. reports show, growing gaps in wealth and income among and within nations are also dangerous outcomes of this state of affairs. As Gandhi once remarked, this world has enough for all of us but not enough for the greed of a single person. How can the balance between economic, political, and cultural globalization be redressed?
There are those who argue that we must return to an earlier age of strict national sovereignty, economic barriers to trade and investment, and cultural protection of national identity. However, that solution does not appear to be either realistic or necessarily desirable. As a globalist, Ikeda has proposed the formation of an NGO organ within the United Nations to represent the views and interests of civil society. To follow the same logic, the General Assembly could have two branches consisting of a People's Assembly and a State Assembly.
For the United Nations to become an organization of nations rather than states, such reform is absolutely necessary. Elected directly by the peoples of the European Union, the European Parliament has already set a successful precedent for such transnational institution. To be a century of peace rather than strife, the next millennium must bring its global political, social, and cultural institutions into sync with its economic institutions.