How to move in the 21st century

Rafael Heiber of the Common Action Forum provides a framework for navigating our way through a world where neofascism, economic inequalities, the environmental crisis and the emergence of new technologies are the new norm. Español

Andrés Lomeña Rafael Heiber
22 March 2019
Silicon Valley North. Wikimedia Commons, all rights reserved.

We engage in mobile lives in several ways: we move by land, sea and air, we depend on our smartphones, we travel frequently for both business and pleasure, and human movement is accelerated as the dynamism of migratory flows breaks with static, national boundaries.

Lawyer Renata Ávila already enlightened us about digital citizenship, key in understanding the 21st century. Now I have enjoyed some wise insights from Rafael Heiber, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Forum of Common Action Forum, a progressive non-profit organization seeking global solutions to problems like the rise of neofascism, economic inequalities, the impact of new technologies or the environmental crisis.

In addition, Rafael writes for HuffPost and Open Democracy. As an expert in mobility, he knows the business model of the so-called “collaborative consumption” very well and is familiar with experiences such as carsharing, and his thoughts will help us understand how to move literally and metaphorically in smart cities ... and how to work towards a society that reflects a citizenship of the common good.

ANDRÉS LOMEÑA: First of all, I want to ask you more of a frivolous question: How do you usually travel? If movement is a political issue, what are our socially responsible options, and which are eroding the social fabric? You are Brazilian, but you live between Spain and Germany. Uber and Cabify are accused of unfair competition, but there is less discussion surrounding the French company Blablacar as a model of collaborative consumption. The fact that motorized scooters are indirect rivals of taxis, and are currently experiencing a boom in cities, is also not directly addressed.

RAFAEL HEIBER: I'll start with another frivolity. Currently, I am responding from ten thousand meters above the Atlantic and pilot just advised us that we are carrying 110,000 kilos of fuel. You cannot talk about movement without talking about energy.

As banal as the first is, its dependency on the second forces us to face environmental limits and cruel geostrategic battles. If we are relentless energy consumers in our everyday lives, it is no longer because we move too much, but quite the opposite. In addition, fossil fuels produce much more heat and emissions than kinetic energy.

They are a waste ... we have lost the struggle for our daily lives when we incorporated a dual system of mobility-habitability that relies on standardized waste and invisible risk.

For me, walking and cycling are still good ways to combat this, and civilize our urban existence. The more this can be integrated into public transport, the better. Berlin is a great example, and hopefully it will not become an authentic metropolis, because then it would exceed its saturation point.

It is notable that cyclists’ aggression is actually a result of the tensions and asymmetries imposed by our global private car system, a system that causes more than one million deaths in traffic accidents and other tens of millions in premature deaths due to urban air pollution per year. Victims of war and the migration crisis are also part of this energy matrix that we exploit with our lifestyles.

The automobile, as it was imposed in a hegemonic way, symbolizes an entire epoch that is nearing its end, although it still continues to perpetuate itself. The consequences that this model has had on our psychosocial life are incalculable. And given what is still to come, we need a universal posthuman treaty more than ever. Moreover, I am eager for a revolution among medium-sized cities, which could create a more sustainable lifestyle in social and environmental terms.

What has changed is that famous IT has ceased to serve as a communication tool, and has become an extensive apparatus for the control and accumulation of data.

My first shared transport experience goes back to those prosaic bulletin board announcements at university. Some students had cars, but they needed to share the cost of long trips. Then, in the digital era, before smartphones, I used Mitfahrgelegenheit, a digital platform where you can offer or search shared routes, which now belongs to Blablacar.

What has changed is that famous IT (information technology) has ceased to serve as a communication tool, and has become an extensive apparatus for the control and accumulation of data. Silicon Valley has helped to subvert a series of practical and symbolic concepts: disruption, resilience, collaboration and anarchism.

While companies such as Uber, Lime or Airbnb are following this script, governments are still several steps behind when proposing regulations and alternatives. There are neighborhoods, hotels and taxis that have been affected by this transition, especially because what is at stake is not simply the act of sharing transport or housing, but the deregulation of the mobility market and modes of habitation.

It is an important transition phase and we should pay attention to two things. The first that what is being sold is mobility, rather than the resources to move. That is, the car is losing relevance in identity construction, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

But instead, this new automobility in the form of direct merchandise means a significant loss of privacy, because we provide all our behavioral data. This is true for the consumer, but also for the Uber driver, who is not compensated for accumulating this data, which will lead to the viability of the autonomous car.

A second point includes how easy it is to transform everything into a financial relationship, eroding the demonetized solidarity that should underlie our relationship networks. We are already aware of the gentrifying effects of Airbnb, but look at its perverse social consequences: it is so easy to rent a house or room to strangers that, when you receive visits from friends, they feel obliged to offer you compensation.

We are creating a dangerous sociotechnological environment, in stark contrast with humanism’s best ideals. Requesting donations on Facebook from third parties because it is our birthday is nothing more than a cosmetic show of solidarity that ultimately only serves to sustain this same system that essentially fosters isolation, selfishness and hedonism in abundance.

Returning to the mobility-habitation binary, I already discussed the Mitfahrgelegenheit. Perhaps it was the furthest we have come in terms of collaborating in mobility that is mediated by technology. In terms of habitability, Couch Surf would be a good example as compared to Airbnb. But do not be fooled: while economic capital may matter less with Couch Surf, users’ erotic capital plays a central role.

A.L: A network society is understood from the point of view of connectivity. In Connectography, Parag Khannah argues that the most connected powers are those that lead the world. In his opinion, the Internet, infrastructure connectivity or international trade routes are more important than borders. What kind of political and economic measures do you view necessary for an increasingly connected, but at the same time more unequal world?

The world is undergoing an advance in inequality, where a deterritorialized global elite, which represents only one percent of the population, holds more than 80 percent of the wealth produced each year

R.H: I am not familiar with the work of Khannah in depth, but I understand that the argument refers to an analysis of territorial, economic and political morphology, with a bit of intellectual entrepreneurship.

In a nutshell, the world is undergoing an advance in inequality, where a deterritorialized global elite, which represents only one percent of the population, holds more than 80 percent of the wealth produced each year (as reported by OXFAM).

This elite’s system of financial capitalism fundamentally controls the structures of flows that surpass all kinds of spatial and institutional friction, while simultaneously speculating on the future in order to inflate the present.

Recently I have been told some Mayan legends, and it is incredible to note how much more meaning they hold than the neoliberal and conservative myths of today. But in the sixteenth century the Spaniards controlled connectivity.

Now, to see the most representative remnants of this old civilization, you have to travel to Guatemala. An important lesson is that altering our border paradigms has produced changes with devastating consequences.

In speaking about these injustices and conflicts, the two most important borders are still in dispute: the border of the body and the border of the planet. This is where the real fight takes place, in the conflict between Western neoliberalism and state capitalism.

If we do not correct this path, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Iran will represent only small overatures. Today’s socioeconomic inequalities will be remembered nostalgically. Fortunately, at the moment, we are all forced to share the same planet and to seek solutions, even given the “disruptions” of Silicon Valley that seek otherwise.

A.L: In Globalization and its Discontents, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz remembers how devastating some IMF and World Bank economic formulas have proven.

Your organization Common Action Forum is a progressive think tank, and although the situation may have changed in recent years, there is a consensus that the left has been more fragmented than the right. Do you think that laboratories of progressive ideas have more difficulties in excercising influence than laboratories of conservative ideas?

R.H: Globalization deserves a lot of criticism because by nature it is selective, and it expands the power of those who already hold it. Globalization needs to be globalized! This neoliberal globalization has used democracy to legitimize itself.

I believe that the number one mission of the so-called progressive movements should be to invert this, with a new logic where globalization is at the service of democracy.

Unfortunately, democracy has not yet fulfilled its fundamental objectives and fear has become the smokescreen that allows power to concentrate in the wrong hands. Trump, the Brexit, Bolsonaro ... there are too many examples, and each one with its own particularities.

In any case, the traditional left-right binarism, with its moments of center radicalism, does not solve a fundamental political feature: guardianship. In the leftist narrative, the State, the spokesperson for equality, regulates relationships in order to protect citizenship. According to the narrative of the the right, the entrepreneurial spirit always has the protection of the invisible hand of the Market, the spokesman for freedom.

None of these narratives discount solidarity, as they promise benefits that extend to the whole community. Many of your readers will be familiar with the famous idea (and in my opinion, mistaken idea) that, if at 20 you are not a proponent the left, you do not have a heart, and if at 40 you are not a proponent of the right, then you do not have a head. But then you look at our world context, you’ll see that both models are shortchanging 99% of the population.

The problem is that the left has a very vast range marked by resentment, dispute and suspicion; it is often repetitively critical, rather than proactive.

How do we change this? Perhaps by recognizing that both narratives end up constructing a space for a tutelary relationship, with the those who follow the prescriptions dictated by the State or the Market. Without deconstructing this tutelage, individuals or resilient societies are not prepared for the onslaught of fear and desire as tools of control.

Now, if one insists that these two discourses are the world’s only possibilities, one must be cognizant of the fact that the discourse of the liberal tradition, which gives special importance to the atomized individual and the elites, has only provided results in countries whose States have guaranteed excellence in education, health and employment policies for the entire population; this in turn generates a greater demand for responsibility and duty from the ruling classes. If you apply the same doctrine in Latin America or Spain, what you get is an elite in search of privileges, not duties, and a middle class that will defend these values ​​as they aspire for social mobility, which in the end works against them.

Although I love conservative intellectuals like Peter Sloterdijk, from an intellectual perspective, if we insist on this binarism, I have no doubt that the most avant-garde work comes from the left. The problem is that the left has a very vast range marked by resentment, dispute and suspicion; it is often repetitively critical, rather than proactive.

A famous intellectual and Anglo-Saxon writer of progressive ideas told me regretfully something very spot on: leftist academic departments resemble a sniper camp. Now add to these problems how easy it is today to caricature or distort complex ideas in shoring up public opinion.

It turns out that promising ideas do not have enough momentum to be implemented, while conservative intellectual imposters remain protected, setting the pace for many behaviors, values ​​and lifestyles.

This partly explains why conservative idea laboratories are more influential. But above all, they are already at the service of an instituted status quo and its short-term world project. It is easier to reach agreements by prioritizing the interests of a few to narrow economic and business areas, rather than facing reality in all its complexity.

Progressive commitments entail another level of demand because they involve more decision-making factors, several of which are ignored or subjected to the dominant structures of power. It takes a social actor strong enough to bring all these demands together. Without it, the result is a fragmented left, both in discourse and in practice.

The proletariat no longer exists as such, and many environmental causes that shaped the green movement have been transformed into commodities. Solving these epistemological flaws and practical deficiencies is a real challenge for progressive laboratories, which should collaborate more with each other in order to optimize resources and maximize the diffusion of results.

A promising initiative to improve such collaboration on a global scale is Progressive International, a network created recently by US Senator Bernie Sanders and former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis. Its advisory board now has two Common Action Forum members: Celso Amorim, former foreign relations minister of Brazil, and Wadah Khanfar, Co-founder and President of Common Action Forum.

In addition, it is important to include the Global South when developing progressive ideas. Addressing transnationalism should not only treat of the economic, but also of the social and political, which is why some of our most important events and projects will also take place in Mexico City, beginning this year.

A.L: You also collaborate, through the SYMUN project, in educational issues. You are a polyglot and also a Doctor in Sociology, although you were initially educated as a geographer. Give us some insight as to the educational values ​​that we should transmit to new generations. As a philosophy professor, I am sometimes horrified by how teenagers address in a simplified way, or obsess over, things like the death penalty or life imprisonment, not to mention their lack of true conversation or connection.

R.H .: The reality of European education is very different from Latin America, the two regions I know best. It is clear that in Latin America, school, and mainly public education, has to play a social role that it should not have to, because many students are marginalized and living in poverty or in a situation of and domestic tensions.

I am not incognizant that Spain also has a significant number of youth suffering from these problems with little hope for the future. But even so, the two are not really comparable.

What seems to be prevalent is a crisis in school as a monolithic institution, providing knowledge and behaviors that shape occupational aspirations and build national identities. This model has disappeared in light of postindustrial society.

In spite of the Internet’s sensationalisation and the multipresence technology offers, physical spaces will still be neccessary to develop social skills, create bonds and thus enhance learning capacity. School will have to progress in this direction, as well as teach how to organize so much information. It is regrettable that philosophy and sociology have lost prominence in many countries’ curricula, when they should serve as their foundation.

And they should serve as a foundation precisely because the most significant value that permeates the development of new generations is uncertainty. Meanwhile, social network bubbles in fact represses this uncertainty, confirming and reinforcing pre-existing simplifying judgments.

In addition, it is important for education to incorporate technology, or else we will be unable to untangle the complexity of the world and show young people the invisible relationships of interdependence that build reality. In short, show them that the smartphone is not a genius magic lamp.

Isabelle Stengers already bluntly posed it in a publication called The cosmopolitical proposal: the issue is not that capitalism ignores climate, but rather that climate ignores capitalism.

The example that you gave of SYMUN tries, to a certain extent, to reflect these values. It is a United Nations simulation, organized by university students from the Carlos III University of Madrid on their own initiative, with some linked to the Common Action Forum.

Each year about three hundred high school students participate, united in their interest in interactively learning about how the system of negotiations between countries in the United Nations functions. Ultimately, a small group is selected to attend a seminar program and participate in another simulation outside of Spain.

The main objective is to demonstrate the importance of curiosity and dialogue, as well as to bring awareness to the fact that young people are capable of reproducing certain faults that are currently present in certain prestigious organizations, faults which prevent us from moving towards a common goal.

Therefore, if they want to change the world, it is important that they understand the authenticity of the cause, rather than confuse it with the status that comes with prestigious membership.

A.L: In the recent essay Where to land, the French sociologist Bruno Latour suggests that the explosion of inequalities and denial of the climate situation are the same phenomenon. According to Latour, the new climate regime is seeking the deregulation of markets and migration flows. Should we approach these conflicts as the same problem? I ask because climate concerns seem to have a scientific answer, and the regulation of markets seems more to do with taming financial globalization.

R.H: Bruno Latour is one of the most interesting thinkers of our time, and I sympathize with him even more because he seems to avoid playing into ambition, refraining from representing a given flag or political group.

What he does is offer a system of thought that breaks with traditional epistemological conventions and puts us before a complex, dynamic and contradictory world. Now that is profoundly political!

To begin answering your question, the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, close to Latour, already bluntly posed it in a publication called The cosmopolitical proposal. The issue is not that capitalism ignores climate, but rather that climate ignores capitalism.

I can say that my first scientific specialty is climatology and since I started studying it, my first point of departure was to focus less on statistical averages and learn to observe the linking of climatic elements and their rhythms of operation.

The main consequences of global warming take place exactly in the phenomena of these rhythmic peaks. But also, in a less abstract way, urban data already seemed convincingly responsible for this change in behavior. This topic is not new. The London air almost ended Churchill's government.

When cities are transformed into merchandise and grow without limits, the effects on the atmosphere are immediate: pollution, change in rainfall, imbalances in the absorption of energy and an increase in temperature. It is notable that when we look up the temperature for a certain place and time, for example, 45 degrees Celsius, that this temperature is measured by a sensor in the shade and two meters above a lawn.

The sensation at street level is inhuman. Moreover, in order to maintain the consumer society, it is necessary to modify environments and areas that should remain preserved. There is no doubt that we are damaging the planet on different levels, and that a great deal of the world population no longer has access to clean air.

But hey, this is the admirable part of capitalism, in how it manages to turn its problems into merchandise and maintain its own state of affairs. They call this particular issue the lovely name of “socioenvironmental entrepreneurship.”

The positive side of all this is that there is already a consciousness about effecting change that, although is not hegemonic, is not marginal either. Additionally, in terms of the economy, more possibilities are opening up for growth of gross domestic product to cease to exist as a value of universal measurement.

Instead, it could be replaced by a more holistic and sustainable notion. The question that no one can answers is whether we will have enough time to make all these advances. If we continue with reformism in reformism, I tend to be pessimistic.

A.L: The philosopher Peter Singer applies the utilitarian philosophy in an effort to remedy the problems of the world. For this Australian thinker, the greatest good for the greatest number of people means that we should fund NGOs before theaters or cinema.

Singer prefers to donate money to NGOs rather than to scientific research, which is a safe, but long-term remedy. What do you or does your organization propose to promote the arts and sciences, without that meaning forgetting about poverty?

R.H: It is difficult to disagree with the position of Peter Singer, especially when the scenario of causality is quite limited. The problem is that history is not flat and this discourse feeds on social realities affected by the interests of power.

Thus, many governments deceive their population, making them accept that to recover the economy, they need to sacrifice culture, education, health and the State itself. It is fundamental to exercise a certain relativism, or else the ends justifying the means will always be legitimized, and the aegis of economic logic will be accentuated to the detriment of all others. The end result is more inequality and a more restricted horizon for change.

The most important inventions have resulted from great public investments in research, and the most beautiful expressions of the meaning of life, which escapes the market, continue in the fields of the arts and humanities

Now, if resources are limited, they will undoubtedly have to be managed effectively. This is what Peter Singer demonstrates when he compares the high expenditure of NGOs training guide dogs against the very low cost of other NGOs working to prevent blindness in Africa. Of course, every euro invested in the African NGO is more effective, but no one would agree that guide dog NGOs should cease to exist.

If we talk about the arts and sciences, we have a more complex scenario, because both work in a dimension of possibilities, of potential events.

The most important inventions have resulted from great public investments in research, and the most beautiful expressions of the meaning of life, which escapes the market, continue in the fields of the arts and humanities. To dispense with both means to confine ourselves to the current project, and postpone a better proposal for civilization.

There is a whole current of liberal thinking and prominent intellectuals like Steven Pinker who would not give any credence to this answer, as they have an inexhaustible optimism and an arsenal of data to show how this project has allowed us safer, more comfortable, healthier, wealthier lives, and that we are happier than ever.

I think they need to relativize their analysis to conclude that, in reality, so many resources have never been so wasted, and never have so many possibilities been prevented from being put into practice to reach this world they are depicting.

A.L: The Israeli Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, is more like a guru for futurology lovers than a true intellectual. I know that David Harvey has served as a great inspiration for you and as a geographer you may think that we are still prisoners of geography. In short, I would like to ask you for a recommendation (or a warning) that will help us proceed into 21st century culture.

R.H: You are offering me great references. I think David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity should be suggested reading for all students, regardless of their career choice. It is fundamental in understanding our relationship with time, space, society and the instruments of power that permeate it.

I would not risk saying, as Tim Marshall does, that we are prisoners of geography, but I would say that we are even less so prisoners of history. The imminence of the present has never been so exuberant and concerning. If you allow me to exaggerate, the present already has weight in itself, and no more history is needed. Space remains more vital and saturated than ever... it has a phenomenological horizon ahead.

Perhaps you are right to view a historian like Harari as more of a guru than a true intellectual, but I see many merits in his work. First, it is not easy to compile such a large amount of scientific research and fit it into a well-structured narrative for such a wide public, but a public no less intelligent or less interested.

In contrast with Pinker, I do not judge him for over-optimism when he describes how humanity overcame war, plague and hunger, because he insists on showing the other side of the coin, such as obesity and eating disorders in contrast with hunger. Of course, he uses idioms, but we have already seen interdisciplinary linguistic adaptations, either mechanic or organic, and now is the moment for algorithmic adaptation. This is not a heresy either.

I sense that many people, even reading Homo Deus, had not had previous contact with posthumanist ideas in a serious way, but instead had viewed it as science fiction. While it is true that scholars like Donna Haraway and many others had already pointed to the end of humanistic puritanism in the second half of the previous century, it is also true that this knowledge was very inbred.

Perhaps we should see Harari's work as a call to the entire academic community, which should worry less about the neoliberal fetishism of scientific publication industry, especially if we are talking about the field of the humanities, and should strive to make research results circulate through society.

To provide an example, the recent publication of the book The strange order of things by respected neuroscientist Antonio Damasio does not seem a simple coincidence. This work, which of course I recommend, deals with a highly relevant topic, the union between cultural and genetic evolution.

It is not a simple subject, and it is extremely transdisciplinary. Damasio makes an effort to explain, for example, how subjectivity is a process of interdependencies and not a static self; or how this subjectivity and feelings result in a creative intelligence. If Kant could read the work, he would surely replace his Categorical Imperative with a new Homeostatic Imperative.

Going back to thinking about categories of space and movement, the only thing I would caution is that we need to redefine our place in the world.

A.L: As this interview deals metaphorically about movement, I invite you to not rest until conducting another interview like this in the future, O.K.?

R.H: Thank you very much for your insightful questions. We live in a time where we need to be prepared both to move and to mobilize. It’s been a pleasure!

This article was originally published on Huffpost Español and can be read here

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