Perspective: The Individual and Social Action
A growing number of people all over the world, believing that powerful global forces have ignored the well-being of average citizens in favor of the interests of big businesses, transnational corporations, governmental elites, war machines, ecological destruction, and other evils, are taking to the streets to protest. They see their governments as failing, their livelihoods and ways of life threatened, and convincing evidence of social injustice.
The main flashpoint for the widespread protests has been “globalization,” a phenomenon with two distinctly opposite effects. On the one hand, it has served to integrate peoples and countries through “the enormous reduction of costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge, and (to a lesser extent) people across borders,” according to Joseph E. Stiglitz.
On the other hand, its detractors say globalization's economic aspects have had devastating consequences by promoting a regime of deregulation that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor — a trend that some statistics bear out. In 2003, for example, 54 countries were poorer than they had been 10 years earlier, and more than half of the world's largest 100 economies are now corporations, rather than nation-states.
Naomi Klein, one of the most vocal spokespeople for the anti-globalization movement, sees the failure of governments to take an active role in guarding the welfare of their citizens in this scenario as a “betrayal” of “the fundamental need for democracies that are responsive and participatory.”
It is no wonder, then, whether they are troubled by the hardship resulting from the actions of multinational corporations, worried about the alarming deterioration of the environment, horrified by the worsening plight of the world's poor, or angered by their government's participation or nonparticipation in various military interventions around the world, that a growing number of people are searching for ways to make themselves heard and to make a difference.
There is much debate about the best way to move forward, however. While some advocate the slow route of pursuing reforms within existing legal or administrative avenues, others favor direct action as a faster, more efficient way to remedy social ills.
Ms. Klein argues that “a new culture of vibrant direct democracy is emerging, one that is fuelled and strengthened by direct participation, not dampened and discouraged by passive spectatorship.”
This increasing emphasis on direct democracy reflects both widespread disillusionment with established political systems and the conviction that the “self-actualizing” power of the individual is the strongest means of effecting change and bringing about social justice. According to individualist and anarchist social theories, to which the anti-globalization movement bears some relation, the state and society block the power and “natural energies” of individuals through their perpetual efforts to control them.
“Cultural common sense leads many to believe that the best way to organize every social institution is in the form of a contest,” notes Michael Karlberg of Western Washington University. “Paradoxically, it also leads many to believe that the best way to reform those institutions is through protest — and other adversarial strategies of social change. Protests, demonstrations, partisan organizing, litigation, strikes, and other oppositional strategies are standard methods for pursuing social change. In more extreme cases, violence and terrorism are also employed.”
Underlying the various paradigms encompassed by this approach is a long-standing conviction that attacks on the “other”— whether governments, corporations, or institutions — are the most effective means for accelerating change in society.
But can a movement based on adversarial strategies sustain unity within its own ranks — or engender a society that can meet the needs of all its members?
“If they were viable in the past, they now appear to have reached a point of diminishing returns,” writes Dr. Karlberg. “Adversarial strategies legitimate the assumptions regarding human nature and social organization that sustain the tripartite system. When social activists engage in partisan political organizing, they legitimate the contest models of governance that keep them at a perpetual disadvantage. Likewise, when social activists engage in litigation, they legitimate the adversarial systems of jurisprudence that keep them at a perpetual disadvantage. Even street protests, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience legitimate the underlying assumption that contest and opposition are necessary forms of social interaction.”
Too often, as well, the root causes of activists' concerns largely remain unaddressed.
Within this wider context, the Bahá'í community, which is also concerned with addressing the ills that beset society, sees itself as making a number of contributions to the struggle for social transformation — but with a distinctive vision and approach based on its sacred scriptures. A basic tenet of Bahá'í belief is that humanity, standing on the threshold of its collective maturity, must develop appropriate new qualities, attitudes, and skills that can carry humanity beyond the simplistic and limited conviction that human beings are aggressive and quarrelsome by nature and can only progress through the adversarial pitting of “us” against “them.”
For Bahá'ís, conflicts can best be resolved — and social transformation accomplished — through a new paradigm of unity and cooperation based on the recognition of humanity's underlying oneness. It is a vision of human unity that also stresses the importance of humanity's spiritual nature.
Accordingly, Bahá'ís seek to solve social problems by attempting to address what they see as the spiritual root of the problem facing humanity — its failure to recognize and wholeheartedly embrace the oneness of the human race.
But if adversarial relationships are taken for granted as the norm of operation in society, how can we move from the current model of “containment,” where institutions are seen as controlling and limiting the freedom of individuals, to a model of empowerment?
The new paradigm advanced by the Bahá'í Faith focuses on empowering individuals to become agents of constructive social change in their communities, or, in the words of one writer, on “cultivating the capacity in individuals and their institutions to participate in their own development.”
The Bahá'í view of change as organic in nature provides a perspective that allows the community to pursue it through established, lawful channels. Just as a human being must traverse numerous stages from infancy to adulthood, the political world “cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even from moment to moment,” according to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá.
Outside the adversarial “contest” paradigm, the Bahá'í community is devoting its energies to building communal patterns to encourage the development of “those means that will conduce to progress.” While still very young, the community is gaining valuable experience in nurturing “learning organizations” at the grassroots level and in empowering both individuals and institutions to walk their own path of development.
The maturation of democratically elected Bahá'í governing bodies at the local level and the progress of a worldwide system for training human resources both offer encouraging evidence of those patterns within the Bahá'í community itself. Bahá'ís are also seeking ways to offer the insights and skills inspired by their beliefs to the wider community, notably through social and economic development efforts around the world.
This recognition that spiritual transformation needs to be the foundation of lasting material improvements is central to the Bahá'í approach to social change. “Humanity's crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age,” writes the Universal House of Justice. “It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness.” “[E]ach human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.”
In the end, then, the temporary overlapping of individualistic agendas or ephemeral political alliances common to most protest movements cannot lead to lasting change. If, however, change springs from a conviction that humanity is one, and that both individuals and institutions play reciprocal roles in serving humanity, then it will endure.
[Editor's note: The following was adapted from a longer article in the 2002-2003 edition of The Bahá'í World. The complete article can be found on page 199 of that edition or at In Chad, a project to promote sustainable fishing yields extra dividends]