We’re living in a unique era in which more than ever people are forced to ask philosophical questions: What is my identity? What is reality? How do I experience it? Where does nature end and nurture begin? Is freedom an illusion? Books that address the so-called big questions are selling well. And even though a lot of them are drivel, I’m an optimist. People seem aware that we must redefine ourselves.
But how? Today everybody can imagine the end of the world, but nobody can imagine a different social order. It’s almost as if we’re forbidden to think about it. Although we live in an era of allegedly free choices, they are often vain ones — like the choice between Pepsi or Coke. On the level of fundamental social choices, there are none. Just 20 years ago, people could at least think of things being different. I don’t believe liberal democracy is necessarily the final word on how society will be organized in the new age. In fact, globalized capitalism — and liberal humanism — can happily cohabit with very different political systems. Look at any American toy store — if the Chinese close down their sweatshops, that’s the end of most of those products.
But globalization isn’t threatening particular identities; it’s generating them. Look at what’s happening in Wales, in Scotland and elsewhere: there’s a resurgence of particular cultures. Of course, we in Slovenia worry about losing our uniqueness. But we are a narcissistic nation that considers itself full of great poets and thinkers, waiting for the world to appreciate us as a cultural superpower. Those who have more to fear are big nations like France and Germany. One of the benefits of globalization is that these large nations, with arrogant, state-building traditions, will be reduced to the status of us Slovenes and other smaller animals in the European stall.
The real problem isn’t how globalization balances with specifics, but its need to be balanced with even more universalism. Perhaps it was Bill Gates who pointed out that 60% or 70% of the global population has never made a phone call. Globalization itself generates new exclusions. What’s on the horizon is a limit even stronger than the old class division. In Russia the difference between the globalized nouveau riche élite and the lethargic masses is so distinct it has become almost biological. Global capital, this mythical entity, isn’t interested in true globalization in the sense that everyone should be included. It’s not one big happy village; it’s the ins and the outs.
If I were to imagine the ideal religion for global capitalism, it would be what I ironically call Western Buddhism. Its basic lesson is that you shouldn’t get totally involved in social reality, that you should learn to withdraw into an inner peace. Don’t even try to grasp what is going on, just resign yourself. This is an empty spirituality in the sense that it doesn’t call on you to change anything. The most decadent Hollywood star can have this religion as a pure fetish.
The whole idea of self-realization — be yourself — is another enemy. I’m sorry, but hypocrisy is the basis of civilization. Rituals and appearances do matter. If you drop the appearances and go to the thing itself, it’s sometimes pretty horrible.
What is worth fighting for — although I might be accused of being Eurocentric — is the Judeo-Christian legacy, and I say that as an atheist. In that tradition you find the idea that what makes you human is not, as in other mystical or pagan traditions, this deep immersion into yourself where you experience unity with the universe. In the Christian tradition, what makes us human isn’t a voyage of self-discovery but rather, to quote The X-Files, “The truth is out there.” The point is that we are ultimately free and responsible. This is for me the Good News, the optimistic message of Christianity.
[Appeared in Time 2000 Winter Issue. Reproduced here in full as currently not online.]