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Weak signals and systemic social processes

(January, February, 2011).

One of SoL’s France associated networks, initiated by Alain de Vulpian, is periodically


producing a note on Weak Signals and Systemic social processes observed by its
watchmen and women.
A selection of recent observations:

1. An atmosphere of revolution

The idea of revolution or metamorphosis was in everyone's mind at our last meeting
Weak Signals (25 January). It's not a new idea. It was already in the air at the end of 2007
or in early 2008 at the Club des Vigilants when we created the Bascule ("Tipping Point”)
group. The great financial crisis had made the economy topple. The coordinated actions
of governments provisionally avoided a collapse but without our returning to any sort of
equilibrium. Every day we feel that power and influence in the world are being
redistributed, radically modifying the geopolitical game. We know that our production
systems and our ways of life will rapidly have to change if we want to meet the ecological
challenge that faces our planet. The conviction that a radical metamorphosis in business
is becoming indispensable is spreading and has even reached the United States (e.g.
Michael Porter with "shared value" and Kalar with "Employees first"). Western societies
are in some places close to apoplexy, and the IMF is drawing attention to the increase in
disequilibria and inequalities that are feeding tensions with the risk of overflowing into
civil wars. In France we have the enormous success of "Indignez- vous !" and the example
of SNCF travellers refusing to buy tickets, or the teachers who refuse to follow the
requirements of the national education system. Frans De Vals thinks that humanity is
undergoing a change of era, and that we are now entering the Age of Empathy. Edgar
Morin has just published his book on "The Way for the future of Humanity".

But at the end of this month of January we owe the presence of this idea of imminent
revolution above all to the revolts that the younger generations have triggered in Tunisia
and Egypt. They exploded out of nowhere, and nobody in the West saw them coming.
They risk spreading. We hardly dare hope for a switch in the Arab world from secular
dictatorships to equally secular democracies. Even if, here and there, the revolution was
recuperated by Islamic extremists, the proof is there, of the existence of a modern and
democratic tropism among the younger generations of Arab peoples.

When thinking of possible revolutions in Arab countries, westerners fear bearded


revolutionaries from whom we are protected by the rampart of dictatorships. But in fact it
was modern young people, many of them graduates, who rose, armed with their
smartphones. Then, seeing their success and shedding their fear, older people in the
middle and working classes joined them. The modern character of these revolutions
increases the chances that they will result in relatively democratic socio-political regimes.
The great waves of transformation of the second half of the 20th century liberated Latin
America, the people's democracies, the non-Arabic Muslim countries from Indonesia to
Turkey, but had not touched the Arab countries. Their eventual democratisation could be
a major event for planetary equilibrium analogous to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

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As for the world of the Arab Muslims, the populations and governments of the West had
more or less clearly three families of future scenarios in mind:

° The first family, inspired by the Islamicist revolution in Iran and the American
reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11 imagines the deepening of a
fundamental fracture between the Christian world and an increasingly
fundamentalist Islamic world.
° The second family of scenarios had older roots. These scenarios are based on the
co-existence, the cooperation or the opposition of a fairly authoritarian pan-Arab
or pan-Islamic world and a democratic western world.
° The third family imagines the development of co-existences, oppositions and
collaborations between an Arab world evolving towards a political and religious
modernity, and the rest of the planet.

In recent years the first family of scenarios has been the one most present in the Western
mind. This range of beliefs has led to western support of dictatorial regimes supposedly
forming a barrier against Islamic extremism.

However, Cofremca, Sociovision and Société Rêvée put more importance on weak signals
pushing in the direction of the third family of scenarios. Field research carried out by
Cofremca and Reachmass in the Lebanon during the 80s showed that customs (if not
proclaimed values) in many Shi'ite and Sunnite families were evolving towards modernity.
Much more recently signals began accumulating that showed that many French Muslims
were evolving towards modern democratic and tolerant attitudes. And our sociologist
colleagues in Arab countries emphasise the modernising evolution of populations in these
countries and the decline in fundamentalist Islamicism. They observed during the twenty
last years the evolution of four socio-cultural currents in the direction of opening towards
others, surge for well-being, rejection of authority and above all personal autonomy.

The Tunisian, Egyptian and other insurrections have reinforced the credibility of the third
family of scenarios. It is not unreasonable to bet on it and imagine various radical
transformations in the planetary geopolitical game..

It would be interesting, in a few weeks or months, to try and sketch out a new set of
scenarios for the evolution of the arabo-islamic-oil world and its place in the planetary
game. Or to try to locate the major trends that are liable to weigh on such scenarios.

2. Globalisation of the process of civilisation

The Arab revolutions that are unfolding now are a strong signal of the globalisation of the
process of civilisation. It is not restricted to the West. The emergent countries are taking
it up in their own ways, and more rapidly than one would have expected.

In the West we are at the heart of a civilizing process that is taking us into other worlds,
and which is now very advanced. A very deep transformation of people and of the social
fabric began during the 20th century. It gives great weight to people who become more
sensorial and emotional, more consistent, more autonomous, and at the same time more
linked to each other. It also gives more weight to networking, where fast spreading
interpersonal communications technologies are multiplying networks which interact and
interconnect. A new society of people is self-organising from the bottom up, sculpting its
own life in its own way, and freeing itself from earlier powers and structures. A new
civilisation is in the process of emerging.

The form taken by the Arab revolutions shows that these countries or at least the youth
of these countries are already very marked by an analogous process of civilisation. These
revolutions have exploded spontaneously without having been prepared or systematised

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by installed organisations, official or clandestine parties or leaders. An incident sparked
the powder, and the results spread like wildfire. These revolutions have been triggered
and piloted by young people who are suffering, will not put up with the passivity of their
parents and who rely on the most modern techniques of interpersonal communication to
spread and direct the change. It is a revolution whose motive power is emotional rather
than ideological or religious: they are demanding freedom, dignity, bread and the fall of a
regime. No Islamicist proclamations. No anti-American or anti-Israeli posters.

As in Iran after the disputed election of Ahmadinejad, our TV screens have shown us men
and women who appear modern, little concerned with ideologies but more concerned for
concrete acts, with eliminating a dictator and corruption. They do not make appeals to
Islam. They do not have leaders but seem to function by a sort of collective intelligence.
The women wear or do not wear headscarves and that does not seem to pose any
problems. And, after the dismissal of Moubarak, the first reaction of the demonstrators
was to clean up Tahrir square so that life could go on. We have seen in action a
generation that appears modern and post-Islamist. In support of this analysis we will need
in-depth interviews that will make it easier to understand how these Tunisians and these
Egyptians live the religious question.

The process of civilisation is sweeping the world along more rapidly and more profoundly
than we think. The extremely rapid development of television, mobile phones and social
networks is having its effect. The young people of Tunisia or Egypt whom we see on our
screens (like those in Iran a year earlier) are inventing their modernity. The political,
economic and social regimes under which they live are diametrically opposed to this
modernity. A clash is under way.

With a gap of 45 years, this revolution resembles in certain of its aspects the revolt of
young Europeans and Americans in 1968. They wanted to change usages and morals and
they did it. The young North African Arabs want to change the political regime, the
distribution of wealth and usages and morals.

The Arab revolution has expanded. Authoritarian regimes have collapsed in a matter of
weeks, swept away by crowds whose pacific character must be emphasised. Other
regimes are tottering. Today (25/2/11) a battle is raging in Libya.

In other authoritarian emerging countries could a similar modern and frustrated youth be
the detonator for rebellions and revolutions? It is said that the upper levels of China are
uneasily watching the Arab revolutions and that Chinese TV is presenting these events in
attenuated form, insisting on the chaos that they are causing. The major Chinese Internet
gateways have blocked their search engines in response to the word "Egypt". And what's
happening in Russia?

Our situation is not so different. In fact, while in the more industrialised countries the
process of civilisation is very advanced, certain old power structures (our governments
and our big companies, in particular) resist its progress, and have not yet succeeded in
transforming themselves so that they are comfortable and effective in the new
environment that is visible on the horizon. Dramatic turbulences may result from this
developmental lag. Our younger elements may decide that it would be a good idea to
remedy this.

3. The next generation, a global club and accelerator of


sociocultural change

The decision to take action by young Arabs is a warning bell for the industrialised
economies as well as for emerging countries.

Young people born between 1975 and 1995 are today between 15 and 35. They became
familiar with computers and free interpersonal communication at a young age. They

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connect with whoever they like, they connect to this or that person or network according
to their affinities or moods. They learn to live in a world of networks dominated by
transversal interactions and inter-adjustments, where formal hierarchy is absent and
heterarchy rules, in which leadership is simply a transient state. A world in which
connections are relatively free, not really limited by distance nationality, religious or
ideological membership.

A self-aware, worldwide younger generation is coming into existence, and in the process
is contributing to the emergence, more rapidly than one would have expected, of a
multicultural, global civilisation. It is probable that young Americans, Europeans,
Tunisians, Iranians, Egyptians or Chinese will have more in common, will communicate
more and understand each other better than any previous generations in these different
countries.

Even very modern countries are not safe from revolutions. In these countries the civil
society has been profoundly transformed. Self-organised and intensely alive, the society
of ordinary people has little liking for old power structures that resist change, democracy
the way we do it, and businesses that are finance-oriented, short-termist and neo-
taylorian. Here too the younger generation is frequently frustrated. In a number of
European countries young graduates have the greatest difficulty in finding their place in
the socio-economy. Many are unemployed or can only find training courses or part-time
jobs. Rancour or revolt. Some take advantage of opportunities for destructive rioting.

In liberal democracies young people may perhaps not need a revolution. Effectively, they
fairly easily find the means to influence the auto-organisation of a society that is
increasingly breaking away from old power structures. They can build their own networks
and new social systems, they invent new customs and moralities.

These young people contributed to the election of Obama. And they frightened the
French government when it believed that they were going to identify massively with
protests against pension reforms. They gave rise to WikiLeaks and will create other
iconoclastic activities. They are capable of revealing or discovering dubious secrets,
compromising businesses, paralysing IT systems. It was a young Frenchman of 26, John
Jean, who wrote a program to demonstrate that the confidentiality of personal data in
Facebook is in fact illusory.

In old-fashioned large companies, young people create their own networks and
communities which short-circuit the official structures and communications channels,
reducing the effective power of hierarchies and trigger or accelerate the sociocultural
revolution in the company by rendering t more vital and lively. The process can give rise
to new bodies that take replace or over from older power structures.

However, if these young people suffer too much in companies that pit them against each
other in intense competition, or treating them like pawns. In companies where they
cannot find any meaning in their work. If they do not manage to find their place in society
and the economy the way they are currently run, if some form of governance that makes
use of the collective intelligence of people does not emerge, then these young people too
will revolt.

4. Even in the United States the sociocultural revolution of Big


Business is on the march

The United States have infected us with their brand of hyperfinancial, bureaucratic and
short-termist capitalism. Plenty of lobbies and interest groups would like to preserve the
perverse domination of finance over business and the economy. However, perhaps the
American managerial intelligentsia are about to change their spots.

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In the January-February issue of the Harvard Business Review is an article by two
management gurus, Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. Their starting point is the
observation that the capitalist system is under siege and that during recent years
companies have been more and more frequently accused of being the parties principally
responsible for economic, social and environmental problems. Companies are perceived,
they lament, as prospering at the expense of society.

They show that the problem stems from the management of the companies themselves,
which remain prisoners of an unhealthy concept of value creation, which has become
established in recent decades. They think that companies lock themselves into concepts
of value creation that are closely linked to optimisation of financial performance in the
short term, without taking into account the important needs of consumers nor the
broader influences on which the longer term success of any company will depend.

The authors give examples to show that the best companies are concerned to reunite
business and society, not like organisations that are concerned to demonstrate their
"corporate social responsibility" and for which society remains a secondary phenomenon
to be managed as part of their image. The authors are concerned to show that the best
companies are those which make society the core of their strategy.

In order to escape from the trap of finance and short-termism, the recommendations of
Porter and Kramer are different and complementary to those of the Vigilants/Sol work
group on sociocultural revolution and the company.

The work group considers the company to be an organism contaminated by a cultural


ailment which blinds it and prevents it from adjusting to the world as it is now, today. The
group's emphasis is on restoring vitality in order to reawaken the company-organism's
natural adaptive processes, and attempts to identify those practices that may make this
possible. The approach is biological, not mechanical.

Porter and Kramer have an intellectual approach. They consider a company to be an


economic machine whose managers have built up erroneous maps of their fields of
activity, which must be corrected. P&K advise reform in three essential dimensions:

- Radical re-perceiving and redesigning their products and their markets, making
use of the unsatisfied needs of society to guide them. Such needs are enormous
and may lead to major new developments.
- Re-examine the possible sources of progress for their productivity, taking into
account unusual areas such as the lives of their employees, the uses made of
energies or water, or their environmental impact.
- Bring a serious effort to bear on the vitality of the clusters within which their
company operates.

The two approaches are both relevant and complementary. P&K's approach is addressed
to managers and keeps up the fiction that they alone hold the power. The Vigilants/Sol
work group is addressed both to managers and to agents of change within the company
and its environs. If you want to encourage the metamorphosis of companies, you will
have to be fluent in both languages.

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Si vous souhaitez attirer notre attention sur un « signal faible » et/ou sur une « tendance lourde » ou si vous
souhaitez compléter ou contester tel ou tel de nos textes, nous vous serons reconnaissants d’adresser un
mail à l’adresse suivante : vulpian@societe-revee.org. Nous le discuterons dans notre prochaine réunion.