People in Community are the Solution
By: Munir Fasheh
We learn from the Palestinian experience- whether in the West Bank or Gaza or in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon- that the most profound solutions to problems are those that stem from efforts of the people themselves, while institutions are dysfunctional and weak. I began to form this opinion during the 1970′s in the West Bank (where I have lived most of my life), and it deepened thereafter during the first Intifada. What was common between the two time periods was the weakening of institutions during which people reclaimed all responsibility for doing whatever was needed for daily life to keep going. We will try within this encounter to collect stories that reflect this disappearing reality. At the same time, we will try to uncover the other side of this coin: an in depth criticism of Western civil society (its instruments and values). Many have done this before, the fiercest critic being Gandhi (this being another hidden fact). In 1909, Gandhi wrote that lifetime exile (to a deserted island) for someone trying to spread Western notions of civility would be insufficient to absolve them of their sins. Among the Palestinians, Al Sakakini was the one to found his first school in Jerusalem that same year (1909), refusing to use grades and prizes.
The story of modernity is the story of undermining and monopolizing: undermining peoples and monopolizing the road to ‘progress’. It is a story of undermining societies and civilizations rich in heritage and history, and monopolizing the authority of determining what is of value.
What makes this mechanism of undermining and monopolizing one of profound impact on destroying beings and societies and life is, firstly, the claim to a single universal path to development (the European way), and secondly, the readiness of Europeans to help others walk along this same path. This triad- undermining people, monopolizing the path to progress, and the readiness to help- represents the axis of destruction in the world today. The principal weapon in this destructive operation has been and continues to be the crafting of instruments claiming to be universal, neutral, and indispensible- like basic education (in all its components), the nation state (particularly participatory democracy), and the measurement of people/communities along a vertical scale, and the (toilet flush). Claiming that these instruments are neutral and that the instruments of development is what led to the misconception that any flaw in its functioning is a flaw in its application, and not in its essence. However, the essence of such instruments is represented by the values that governed the behavior and consciousness of people who fell in the trap of instruments: competing over symbols, control, winning, and greed. The destruction of life in earlier times was due to ignorance, the destruction of modern times is the result of trickery and deceit and a premeditated distraction of people. The machinery of modern progress is designed to eliminate the people in community, to undermine civilizations rich in culture and heritage: schooling undermines language and the knowledge and skills of people by reducing the value of a person to a numerical grade; ‘democratic’ elections deny any real participation of the people in governance by reducing the role of a person to a single vote; the toilet flush destroys the soil and plunders water and organic wastes and pollutes nature in the name of modernization; and development destroys agriculture by defining its value by an index that measures productivity with no regard to everything else; and satellite television deepens illusion and severing and distraction by the numbing of audiences; and the modern state robs classes of people and robs other communities in the name of security. The internet is possibly the first technology designed to be an instrument for the people rather than for those who want to control them and deny them of their capacities and assets. Here we can differentiate between email and Facebook, in which the latter, in my opinion, can be a tool that enables and deepens control.
Denying and undermining peoples’ knowledge and culture and arts and religions and capacities and understandings and consciousness is what started to worry me in 1971. From this point forward, my concern revolved around the need to heal from this malady and replace it with the conviction that people in community are the foundation, and the measure, and the solution. What helped me was the Palestinian situation, particularly in the West Bank where I have lived and worked most of my life. The Palestinian reality did not only help me come to the realization about the depth of the destruction (through the instruments of ‘development’) but also as to how I could remove myself from this reality. The two time periods that contributed most to this realization and change were the 1970s and the first Intifada, during which institutions were paralyzed and people had to assume the duties of life. This also deepened my conviction that people in community are the solution and that nature is the measure [I will discuss many examples and experiences during the Janana Encounter].
In a time when illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams evaporate into thin air, and projects, development programs, and plans are exposed for what they truly are- i.e. in a time that many have lost their compass and are feeling sadness and despair- it is normal to ask: Where can we find hope in current times and what are the sources of strength in society?
Since 1971, I have had a growing conviction that resides and flourishes within me, that people are the source of strength- those people who respect creation and nature, who protect them and live from them and within them, those who create life in their work and the way they live. Most of these people live outside the city, outside institutions, and outside the consumerist mode of living. Their self worth is associated with the good that they do (the skills they master that emanate from the self, in which there is beauty, no harm, and respect). Hence, they remain invisible to experts, professionals and academics that see only one path to progress, measured vertically.
I know very well that the people of the villages and the camps are currently at risk for losing many qualities as a result of urbanization. They remain, however, the homeland of hope and strength. Their word is one of a people who still have strong ties to each other and to their land. But, for people to be the solution, they have to do it for themselves. They have to find a change their traditions while remaining traditional, and figuring a way to preserve the ability of life to recreate itself. I don’t see any hope for humanity if the sprawl of the city continues to devour the villages, destroy life, and consume nature. Maybe the role of the conscientious urban dwellers who are aware of such dangers is to live responsibly and to remind those who live outside the city about the richness they access. The Palestinian village remains- much more than the city- respectful and protective of nature, protective of communal social fabric, and exemplifies the ability of life to recreate itself. The village still tells stories and tales, and engages through people meeting and talking and forming personal relations. In the village, there is greater responsibility about what enters and leaves the body, and what enters the mind and leaves as spoken word. People of the village are still better informed than city dwellers about where the food they eat comes from and what the words they say mean. The city takes without giving. And when and if it gives, it gives what is usually harmful. The city does not give back to the soil as it takes from it. The people of the city have lost their relationship with the land, with the body, and with the meanings related to life. They have lost the meaning of useful knowledge.
We repeat terms such as ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘civil society’ without asking what these terms mask or turn our attention away from. ‘Knowledge economy’ excludes the knowledge of other persons, the knowledge of the source and ingredients of the food we eat and what happens to our wastes, the source and meanings of the ideas and words that we use, nor the truth that science has done much more harm than good. It is difficult for those who have been educated through schools and universities and television screens to see that hope resides in people. In such institutions, no significance is given to the land, the people’s stories, and local economies. Civility as it has existed for the past 350 years has been killing the ability of life to regenerate life. The spreading of consumerism has been its main instruments.
‘People are the solution’ is not just a nice slogan, but one that centers around basic convictions that represent the essence of society. It is based on the idea that a human being is made up of relationships: relationship with the self, with others, with a place, and history and civilization and nature (which together what can be termed as ‘personal identity’). ‘People’ are a product of three interrelated pillars that together form the foundation of community: local soil, local culture and local economy. And a dysfunction in any of these three pillars makes it difficult for the other two pillars to sustain life. Thus it becomes imperative for any community to protect these pillars in order to ensure its sustainability. Possibly the most important creature for local soil is the earthworm, the most important for local culture is the mother, and the most important for local economy are relationships of exchange and building on what is available in the local environment. From here, we can see that one of the most detrimental inventions to local soil has been the toilet flush and other chemicals that kill the earthworm; the most detrimental to culture and the social fabric of community are schooling and the media; and the most detrimental to local economy is the nation state. It is useful to contrast the values that protect soil and culture and economy to those that govern the toilet flush, the education system, media, and governments. The values of the former are the respect of creation and the protection of the life’s ability to regenerate itself; the values of the latter are control, winning, competition and greed.
What distinguishes modern institutions is its role denying people what they can do without relying on equipments and instruments and professionals, such as walking, writing by hand, having face to face conversations and helping one another, or such as the body’s inherent capacity to heal or a person’s inherent capacity to learn, and the capacity of seeds to regenerate. The claim made by modern institutions that they provide support to people is the very reason that ‘needs’, in their present day meaning, were invented (usually meaning bad or harmful habits). “People are the solution” requires us to recall what has been silenced and forgotten. From here, it becomes important to avoid anything that is harmful to nature and conflicts with respect for life, no matter what the rewards may be on other levels. It is also important to engage with exploring what is being silenced and masked. This is what we will be doing this August in the Janana Encounter. Corrupting people has gone to new heights in the past years, and it has caused (for the first time in Palestine) a transformation in the value of land: from a source of living and dignity and belonging to a commodity for sale, and the transformation of the Palestinian to a commodity that serves the highest bidder!