An Interview with Nicanor Perlas
In our Spring 2004 issue, we published the acceptance speech given by Nicanor Perlas in Stockholm, Sweden, subsequent to his receiving the Right Livelihood Award (also Known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2003. Nicanor Perlas is President of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (CADI) in Manila, The Philippines. CADI (www.cadi.ph) is concerned with globalization and threefolding in relation to civil society, cultural power, and sustainable development. Perlas’ book Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power, and Threefolding, has been translated into seven languages.
LILIPOH: Nicanor, I know you have lived here in the United States, and I know also that you are highly critical of the stance that the US government has been taking in the world. Can I invite you to “drop the gloves” and say plainly what you see?
NP: Yes. Let me start off by saying something about the positive and high ideals of the US. The US pioneered the ideal that a government is accountable to its citizens. People admire your country for its relative openness and freedom, especially when this authentically expresses itself in some of your outstanding thinkers and individualities. What is happening now, the aspiration to establish a Pax Americana as part of global empire building, is very far from the intentions of the founding individualities and ordinary US citizens—who generally love their country and its ideals. They have no stake in attempts to sabotage or overthrow governments in the world for specific narrow purposes. But they do have a responsibility.
LILIPOH: What is that responsibility?
NP: To love your country means, in this case, to work to keep it true to the roots and high ideals that made it an outstanding country in the first place—a country with a specific meaning for the world. As a result of the unilateral and imperialistic US response to 9/11, tragically, the US has lost a key opportunity to create a more peaceful world together with other nations as well as most of its positive image in the world.
LILIPOH: What is the new image? A bad actor forcing globalization on the world?
NP: You need to discriminate between elite globalization and globalization, per se. There are positive aspects to globalization. With elite globalization, there are only a few winners and billions of losers. With it you have one worldview seeking to impose decisions on other nations, decisions that are alien to the identities and purposes of those nations. A healthy global civilization would respect and honor innate differences. With the pursuit of empire, the US has made the adverse impacts of elite globalization even worse.
LILIPOH: What do you see lying behind the dark aspects of US influence?
NP: Behind the push for empire is an unhealthy alliance between Christian fundamentalists with those who have an overwhelming desire for power and wealth. The Christian Right wants to hasten the coming of the apocalypse because that would accelerate the second coming of Christ—and that impulse has gotten married to some of the narrower interests favoring US world domination. In addition, the power elites want to make other countries malleable so that US corporations can come in and extract wealth.
LILIPOH: A repeat of Rome?
NP: More far-reaching, really. Today, a very drastic form of revolution is taking place—rapidly and with great power. But it is in many ways invisible.
NP: People usually understand revolution as a radical restructuring of the relationships within a society, often with the takeover of state power through armed insurrection. These revolutions often fail because cultural, economic, and political aspects of a society have their own dynamic; and by ignoring these, the end results are as bad as the order which they have overthrown. But today, with the increasing dominance of global economic systems and a few superpowers, both supported by propaganda masquerading as mass media, a revolution can occur without the usual external appearance of a state takeover.
LILIPOH: So you wake up one day and ...
NP: ... and find yourselves in a very different world. That is happening now. A very revolutionary project is unfolding on a world scale, especially in the US, but affecting everyone.
It encompasses the impulse to empire already mentioned, and includes two other main aspects. One is the development of technological singularity—that is, the convergence of nanotech, biotech, info tech, and cognitive technology—leading toward super-intelligent machines and the Cyborg, a half-human, half-machine. Many futurists have been alerting us to this for some time: a new species composed of machines that may not really need us; or people, who through engineering of human/machine interfaces or artificial genetic sequences, are no longer truly human. The other aspect is the radical restructuring of nature, which includes powerful devices being developed under the rubric of Star Wars. These devices will manipulate natural forces or phenomena to disrupt communications or to kill combatants and people en masse.
LILIPOH: The empire, the technological singularity, Star Wars; you are connecting the dots, then.
NP: Yes. The worldview that sees a human as a wonderfully complex but nonetheless biochemical machine that can be altered, cloned, and patented stands behind the empire. It does not concern itself with global climate changes because it feels it can create life forms, agricultural species, or maybe even modified humans who can withstand it. With all of these factors together, the definitions for revolution are met. What we have is actually the most extreme revolution that humanity has ever faced.
LILIPOH: Who are the revolutionaries?
NP: One way or the other, we are. Once you begin to see, to truly know that this is going on, it becomes difficult to live a “normal” life. We are faced with a decision. Are we, in our individual lives and institutions going to be instruments in this revolution—passive instruments—and allow ourselves to be fed into this death machine? Or are we going to take active control of our own fate and destiny and struggle to create a different world?
LILIPOH: You think it's that bad?
NP: It's no longer possible to just sit on the sidelines.
LILIPOH: You can’t just go “tsk, tsk, tsk?” and go back to your meditation?
NP: The moment you do that you are aligning yourself with the decline of humanity—through passivity and lack of courage. To turn this around will require the work and resolve of citizens around the world, not just in the US.
LILIPOH: You must have gone through a decision process on this yourself, no?
NP: Yes. In my own experience of activism in the Philippines, we had gone through one big victory after another. We successfully opposed nuclear weapons programs and nuclear reactors. We stopped pesticides and instituted sustainable agriculture programs. Then, the power of the WTO [World Trade Organization] emerged as a threat that could marginalize everything we had done for twenty-five years — so powerful was its challenge to the environmental work we had done, to the work with indigenous peoples, and so on—the fruit of all that labor was at risk. My personal reaction was total depression. It went on for many months.
LILIPOH: What got you out of it?
NP: I had to find inner approaches that could go beyond the level of the problems. It involved a transformation of my concepts and perspectives, as well as my mood and attitude toward the world.
LILIPOH: Can you characterize those transformations?
NP: I no longer saw the problems as obstacles. I saw them instead as messages from the external world, as questions asking, “So what is the next stage that now needs to happen?” It became a kind of spiritual attitude. I saw that you cannot use the same consciousness and structures that created the problem, in order to bring about change. At the same time, you have to work out of the internal requirements of the situation. You can’t do it out of a spirituality that’s off the ground. You need instead a profound spiritual deed based on the constraints and possibilities of the existing situation.
LILIPOH: Please translate that to our situation. What are the stages you see for us, if we are to have the right kind of revolution? Nicanor, how does this counter-revolution take shape?
NP: The first stage is the stage of individual revolution repeated on a massive scale. It is an issue of personal spiritual life and inner spiritual path.
LILIPOH: Do you have a particular path in mind?
NP: No. Whatever path you have. But it has to include developing a degree of honesty about yourself, your fears, weaknesses, and possibilities, such that you can have an objective relationship first with yourself, and then with others—so that you can face your anger or depression or whatever your emotions are and come out intact and able to creatively change the circumstances around you. Dealing with fear today, for example, is an important spiritual practice.
LILIPOH: What about religion? Is that included here?
NP: If it has authentic spirituality at its core, it can be renewed from within. But it has to allow the possibility of a dialogue with other spiritual paths. And it can't be a kind of dropping out. All personal spiritual development hits a point where in order to truly deepen, you have to engage in a wider social context. You have to connect to world processes to go forward.
LILIPOH: Hasn't that always been true?
NP: Not really. In the past it was legitimate to separate yourself from the world in order to develop—you could go quite far. But today, the new spiritual paths are deeply connected to world process. You get in touch with your deeper self to create a new framework of understanding not just of your own situation, but of the world. Out of that you can develop new initiatives to reshape both.
LILIPOH: Yourself and the world.
LILIPOH: Is there a single trait that differentiates these new spiritual paths from older ones?
NP: Yes, Respect for other paths.
LILIPOH: And with that relation to others, you can move safely to the second stage?
NP: I want to add something first about activism. We can have great fun resisting corporate power and greed, but to create a different world, you need to examine the very premises of your understanding of the world and your place in it. We have to find a spirituality that is profound enough to counter the empty cosmology that is dragging us down to the level of the Cyborg. Science and scientific research have to be re-conceptualized. That means a total revolution of our culture.
The next stage requires that we find groups that want a different kind of discourse; or we transform existing ones in a manner consistent with our own inner transformation. If the thinking of advocacy and activism groups remains on the same level as the thinking that created the problems we face, no change, no transformation of the world can take place. That's why the second stage rests on the first. Strengthening in this second stage protects social life from further erosion—brought about through assaults coming from the market and the state.
The third stage requires finding and developing strategic allies, connecting up with networks and institutions that want to move in the same direction to transform economic and political life.
LILIPOH: That's where nervousness about ideals and aims being corrupted comes in strongly, right?
NP: Many activists succumb to power. Only a purification of purpose can enable people to remain true to themselves when they embrace powerful ideas. That's on the personal level. Moving from second stage to third is fraught with dangers of co-optation. It is by nature contentious. Some will say: We can't engage with corporations because they are capitalist structures. Others will point to economic leaders in the business world who want to change the system from the inside. They say you can't change things overnight, and you have to start with the present reality.
Danger and opportunity sit side by side. The important point is that this stage relies on the groundwork of the other two, on real cultural change. The failure of many revolutions to successfully transform political and economic life can be credited to such a lack of foundation.
LILIPOH: That's the reason, then, that Civil Society has to emerge out of the cultural sphere, rather than out of the economic or political spheres?
NP: Yes. Civil Society has to be there first. When Civil Society helped neutralize the aims of the WTO in Cancun [5th Ministerial Meeting, September 2003], it did so by engaging political leaders and tactically supporting those who were bringing concerns for the economic inequities of the world into the negotiations.
LILIPOH: How would you describe the larger goals of your work? What are you opposing? Where are you going?
NP: That involves the fourth stage, mobilizing the different nation states to address the critical questions of globalization and its regional implications. We do want to oppose the huge consolidations of power we see today. We do want to create zones of resistance, but we can't just go from demonstration to demonstration. We have to achieve the stage of cultural revolution in strategic societies around the world. The most powerful empires in the world are vulnerable to one thing, and that is to their own citizens. There can be tyrants only if there are slaves. Part of our GlobeNet5 aim is to launch peaceful societal revolutions—in Japan, the Philippines, the Middle East...
LILIPOH: And within the US, as well?
NP: Yes. The question is then, how long do you want to remain slaves to the empire?
LILIPOH: So we are slaves to the empire?
NP: Maybe not consciously, but if you are not resisting in your daily lives, you are helping.
LILIPOH: Cheer me up!
NP: I am hopeful. I see people on a large scale shifting their lives to take on these great challenges.
LILIPOH: Nicanor, thanks so much. We could go on so much further, but we're out of time.