All societies have grand narratives. They are constructed through the selection and organization of historic and present facts, philosophical and theological assumptions, and ethical beliefs. They are necessary for the functional unity of the society. Grand narratives have various degrees of consistency to actual historic facts, but regardless of their veracity, they must have credibility among society’s members.
With the emergence of the modern nation-state, each nation developed a national grand narrative. And since the nation-state was a central actor in the development of the modern world-system, each national grand narrative had some component that explained the place of the nation in world history and in the world-system.
Since the 1970s, the modern world-system has entered a sustained structural crisis. The grand narratives of the nations of the North do not recognize the global systemic crisis as such, but they are aware of its symptoms: stagnating corporate profits; financial volatility; unemployment; global poverty; global political instability; a new form of terrorism; uncontrolled international migration; and international criminal networks that traffic in drugs, arms, and persons.
The crisis of the world-system makes indispensable national grand narratives with a scientific basis, if humanity is to respond intelligently to the global crisis, and rescue itself from chaos and possible extinction. Mere credibility among the people in the nation is not enough. Two additional qualities are essential: the grand narrative of each nation must see the nation in global terms, as part of the modern-world system; and it must have validity and truth value, well connected to actual historic and present reality.
But how do we arrive to an understanding with a scientific basis? What is the process through which opinion makers of a nation arrive to formulate insights that transcend the vantage point of a particular class, race or ethnic group, or national culture?
Many years ago, I read that the slave understood more about the characteristics and essence of slavery than did the master. This insight was expressed by songwriter Paul Simon in 1964: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.” This is the key to an epistemological moral imperative. For all who live in positions of privilege or relative privilege, there is a moral obligation to understand the true and the right, and the key to understanding is listening to the voices from below.
Karl Marx practiced the epistemological moral imperative in a systematic way. Having been formed in the tradition of German philosophy and German radicalism, Marx, after moving to Paris in October 1842, encountered the movement formed by Parisian workers, artisans and intellectuals, many of which had studied idealist socialism. At the same time, Marx obsessively studied the British science of political economy. By 1844, Marx was beginning to write an analysis of human history and of modern capitalism that was based on a synthesis of German philosophy and British political economy, formulated from below, from the point of view of the worker (see McKelvey 1991).
Marx’s achievement established the possibility for significant advances in understanding human societies and political-economic systems. But these possibilities were contained by the subsequent bureaucratic organization of universities: the fragmentation of knowledge into the disciplines of philosophy, history, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology functioned to marginalize the work of Marx.
In the second half of the twentieth century, when the Third World project of national and social liberation was approaching its zenith, Immanuel Wallerstein did something similar on a scale that transcended Europe. He encountered the African nationalist movement during the 1950s and 1960s, which enabled him to understand that African nationalists looked at the world from the vantage point of the colonized, trapped in the colonial situation. Wallerstein’s encounter with African nationalism enabled him to arrive at the insight that the Western social scientific assumption of the “society” as the unit of analysis was dysfunctional for understanding, and that historians and social scientists ought to take the “world-system” as the object of their investigation. He proceeded describe the historical development of the modern world-system, beginning in the sixteenth century. His work established the foundation for understanding the colonial foundations of the world-system, consistent with the vantage point of the colonized (see “Immanuel Wallerstein” 7/30/2013).
Wallerstein, however, did not continue his encounter with Third World movements of national and social liberation. His development came to be more influenced by French thought than by the leaders and intellectuals that were central to the development of the Third World project. He never arrived to understand the possibilities for human emancipation that the project was seeking to formulate, in theory and in practice. Thus, Wallerstein’s work would reflect a subtle form of Eurocentrism (see “Wallerstein: A Critique” 7/31/2013; “Wallerstein and world-systems analysis” 3/25/2014; “Wallerstein: Europe-centered or universal?” 3/27/2014).
I arrived to appreciate the epistemological problem of Eurocentrism in the early 1970s. At the time, I was one of a handful of students of European descent at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. Its African-American and African professors were formulating a black nationalist perspective and a colonial analysis of the modern world from the vantage point of the colonized. I of course could not overlook the fundamental difference in assumptions and analysis between black thought and mainstream social science. I wondered if an objective analysis of society were possible, and if we ought to recognize that there is a black historical social science that exists alongside a white social science, fragmented into distinct disciplines.
Seeking to distance myself from the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant world that was principally responsible for the development of colonial structures in the United States, I sought to find a place in Catholic higher education. I continued to investigate the epistemological question in a doctoral program in sociology at Fordham University, where Father Joseph Fitzpatrick and his philosopher colleague Father Gerald McCool introduced me to the work of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan maintained that an objective understanding is possible, insofar as we truly desire to understand, and insofar as we move beyond the limitations of the horizons of particular cultures through a process of encounter with persons of other horizons. In cross-horizon encounter, we take seriously the insights of others, which enables us to discover relevant questions that previously were beyond our consciousness (see “What is personal encounter?” 7/25/2013; “What is cross-horizon encounter?” 7/26/2013).
Cross-horizon encounter is the key. Marx was engaging in cross-horizon encounter when he encountered the Parisian working-class movement and British political economy in the 1840s, and Wallerstein was practicing cross-horizon encounter when he took seriously the African nationalist voices of the 1950s and 1960s. Cross-horizon encounter moves the insight of Paul Simon to a more advanced level, for it establishes the epistemological moral imperative for persons who occupy positions of privilege and relative privilege in the societies of the North. Our duty it to encounter the social movements constituted by the movements of the colonized peoples of the earth, and taking seriously their insights.
So if the grand narratives of the North are to form part of a constructive response to the sustained structural crisis of the world-system, they must be formulated on a foundation of personal encounter with the Third World project of national and social liberation. It is the Third World that constitutes the great majority of humanity and that has been formulating from below an integral understanding, expressing itself in theory and practice.
The neocolonial, neoliberal and neo-fascist grand narratives of the nations of the North are not rooted in scientific knowledge. They all ignore the processes of colonial and neocolonial domination, thus failing to take into account the essential condition of the great majority of people on the planet. In ignoring empirical evidence on a significant scale, the grand narratives are limited in understanding, and they are incapable of responding to the sustained crisis of the world-system in an intelligent form. Under their direction, the various symptoms of the global crisis will continue.
An alternative, scientifically-based grand narrative must be formulated by the Left. Indeed, it can only be formulated by the Left, which has historically assumed the task of defending the excluded on the basis of the moral principles formulated by the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century. The European Left emerged during the course of the nineteenth century as radical thought, contrasting itself to liberalism and conservativism, and reacting to the evolution of the democratic republics toward political-economic systems controlled by and serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. The European Left emerged as a synthesis of, on the one hand, the defense of the working class and the poor, and on the other hand, a moral commitment to rights proclaimed and promised by the democratic revolution.
The Left today must play its historic role, but with a global perspective. The poor, the excluded, and the superexploited today are of the Third World, and they can be defended only on the basis of listening, as did Marx and Wallerstein. Only by listening to the historic and contemporary voices of those who have been colonized can it be possible to develop a peaceful, harmonious, stable and sustainable world-system.
The Left in the United States must reject post-modern tendencies and recognize that the difference between true and false and right and wrong can be known. It must affirm what the Honduran activist Sara Rosales said to me a number of years ago: “Our children do not have enough beans to eat. This is wrong, and everybody knows that it is wrong.” It must seek to understand the true and the right through sustained encounter with the voices of below, demonstrating a persistence in seeking to understand that is equal to the determination of the peoples of the Third World in their quest for social justice.