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Domingo, 19 Julio 2009 00:00

A. Introduction

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In this section, we will seek to answer the question, “Where is there any society based on mutualism and cooperation?” This is done from a perspective of ‘simple’ or pre-industrial societies, modern nations, intentional communities, alternative institutions, social movements, parallel subcultures, archetypical figures, and daily anonymous heroes. We will review in some detail certain samples of these different benchmarks, emphasizing that they need not be perfect to serve as alternative models, and end by asking whether or not conflict and competition would have any appropriate place in a culture of peace.


The first section questions the main assumptions, theories and beliefs that underlie in the myth that human beings are inherently selfish and aggressive, and that conflict is necessarily endemic to all societies. The second section analyzes adversarialism as a cultural, hegemonic construct, how it is structured, and where it came from. We are compelled to conclude that, being a cultural construct, the culture of adversarialism could conceivably be overcome and replaced by a culture of peace.

However, whenever this point is reached, the following question almost always arises, often with a tone of incredulity: “But where has there ever been or is there now a culture of peace?” We have been so bombarded by the myth of human nature as being selfish and aggressive, of history as being a never-ending chain of wars, and of conflict as being inherent to all social structures, that it is often hard to believe that anything different from this might actually exist. Furthermore, many people simply have not had the chance to experience a different way of life or, if they have, have not recognized it as such or have come to think that it was just an isolated anomaly. Or perhaps our mental filters have prevented us from seeing what was always there, right under our noses.

The question is actually a very valid one. The social sciences work with ‘referents’, tangible examples of any proposed thesis, which can be put to empirical study. To date, most studies have been based on the many referents of adversarialism: struggles, contests, conflicts, and wars. Social science libraries are full of detailed analyses of a large range of social conflicts, but you have to look very hard to find cases studies of cooperation, mutual support, and self-sacrifice for the common weal.

Why are they not researched more? Has the paradigm of adversarialism blinded us to their existence, is conflict perhaps easier to study than cooperation, do those financing such studies have some vested interest in preserving the adversarial myth, or is it just more amenable to audiences that are already convinced of them? Or perhaps we just feel it is more important or urgent to solve conflicts as they arise on the short term than to cultivate relationships of cooperation and mutualism that could avoid further conflicts on the long term? In this regard, Karlberg (2004:1-22) says:

Once competitive, conflictual relations have become naturalized, we become relatively blind to the significant role that relationships of cooperation and mutualism can and often do play in human affairs. As a result, non-adversarial models of social organization remain under-theorized, under-researched and under-prescribed. Instead, we accept and prescribe adversarial models as a social norm.

This section is an invitation to open our eyes to the cooperation and mutualism that is already there among us, and to give them the attention they deserve in our studies. This is done from several viewpoints. The first is an historical vision of the mutualistic elements found in many so-called ‘simple’ or ‘pre-industrial’ societies around the world. Anthropologists have described numerous indigenous cultures that evince significant elements of mutualism. They include the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, the Mbuti of the rain forests of Zaire in Central Africa, the Zuni in the deserts of Southeastern United States, the Arapesh of the New Guinea mountains, and the Lepcha in the mountain villages of Nepal, to name but a few. The peaceful attitudes of these communities are not due to a different essence or genetic makeup that differentiates them from the rest of humanity, but to generations of conscious decisions and daily efforts to nurture a harmonious way of life.

The second are certain industrialized nations whose cultures of peace have been researched and can teach valuable lessons on how to organize and develop a different kind of society. For example, Norway is a country whose culture of peace has attracted much attention recently. Several modern nations of Asia have millenary cultures that have long been acknowledged and studied for their extraordinary levels of harmony and synergy. They are also the result of joint decisions to achieve a peaceful society, express it in tangible forms and practices, and pass on both this conviction and its outer expressions from early childhood.

The third are various contemporary intentional communities that try to exemplify to the world a different way of life, in a deliberate attempt to create a new society. They are a living proof of that possibility and a source of learning about how to build a culture of peace. For example, members of peace communities such as the Brüderhof practice voluntary poverty, hold no private property, and use any surplus income for humanitarian purposes. The worldwide Bahá'í community, although not living in communes, is known for its unity of purpose, thought and action in service to humanity. In both cases, their culture of peace is not an inherited trait, but is a fruit of mindful determination and everyday sacrifices to build a more humane, peaceful society.

The fourth are alternative institutions that seek to transform certain social structures in response to the inefficacy of official institutions, with which they coexist while seeking to replace them. Therefore, they are usually not promoted by States, but by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society groups, often in the form of political and economic ‘laboratories’ or sociocultural ‘experiments’. They may also be part of larger social movements that seek to correct some of the disruptions caused by the culture of selfishness and violence.

The sixth are mutualistic subcultures, which are another important source of often-invisible benchmarks or referents that coexist alongside, below the surface, or sometimes against the current of the predominant culture. A classical example of this is the so-called ‘private sphere’, traditionally managed by women, which is characterized by cooperation, conciliation, preservation, kindness, and compassion. It coexists with the ‘public sphere’, conventionally dominated by men, with its patterns of competition, conflict, conquest, aggression, and insensitiveness. The public sphere tends to be the most visible and outspoken, but it is the private sphere that has enabled humankind to survive the damage it has generated.

The seventh are archetypical figures – people who transcend the limits imposed by custom and inertia, who show us what we are capable of becoming. They may be moral leaders, whose reputation has made them emblems of human virtue and achievement, such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. They show us the heights that human beings can reach. However, often people do not identify with them enough to follow their examples, but place them in a separate category, as almost super-human.

Of greater importance perhaps is the mass phenomenon––ubiquitous but practically invisible––of everyday anonymous heroes. These are silent heroes who are around us every day, who we sometimes take for granted, but who provide tangible, inescapable models of selflessness and kindness: fathers, mothers, teachers, brothers, mentors, friends. Few acknowledge their ceaseless labors of love, both large and small, but they are the immense majority of the population, who keep this world from being completely torn apart by the adversarialism and voracity of the minority.

The examples cited in this section are irrefutable proof that a multifaceted culture of peace already exists and is all around us, even if largely obscured by the predominant culture of conflict and violence. As the renowned social scientist and peace activist Kenneth Boulding is claimed to have said, “Whatever exists is possible.” In fact, it is because of these elements of mutualism that humanity has been able to preserve some vestiges of cohesion and vitality. They now offer us a rich reserve of non-adversarial strategies and resources for sociocultural change, lying hidden beneath the culture of struggle and aggression. Being ‘underground,’ many ignore the existence this immense deposit, which this is precisely one of the main obstacles to its being exploited more broadly. Karlberg (2004:183) explains,

The problem is that these strategies are generally not noticed as strategies of social change. We seldom read about them in history books because they often lack elements of conventional narrative drama. We seldom hear about them in the commercial media because they lack the extremism and confrontation needed to make them ‘newsworthy’. Likewise, we do not even read about them in the writings of social reform-minded scholars because these strategies do not conform to the adversarial models of social change that many academics have been trained to ‘see’.

Just a few disclaimers before we start. It is common to think in terms of either/or extremes or dichotomies, which is just another aspect of today’s culture of adversarialism. When discussing these benchmarks or referents, some seek to stand up for adversarialism by pointing out any little bit of conflict, aggression or selfishness within them. If a society shows even the slightest amount of divergence or egotism then––according to this dichotomic thought––it is an adversarial culture. To be deemed mutualistic––according to this argument––they would need to have perfected cooperation and selflessness to the highest degree. Since we know that no culture has achieved such a feat, we would have to conclude that mutualistic cultures do not exist.

The falseness of this approach becomes obvious when the equation is turned around. Suppose we said that no society could be called adversarial if it contained any traces–-no matter how small––of cooperation, mutualism and self-sacrifice. Since no known society meets such a strict requirement, we would have to conclude that all societies are mutualistic. It just as impossible to find a completely mutualistic society as it is to find an entirely adversarial one. If the flickers of peace found in contemporary society make it no less adversarial, then neither do the remnants of adversarialism in peaceful referents make them any less mutualistic.

Nevertheless, as seen in the former section, this conclusion is so intolerable to adversarial science and practice that it has invented complicated, abstruse explanations to turn any sign of mutualism into just another example of adversarialism. It would be more appropriate to accept the fact that all societies contain certain elements of adversarialism and others of mutualism. Our purpose in studying the latter is not to claim that a certain culture is entirely free from all conflict and egotism, but rather to look for any lessons that can be learned from their mutualistic elements, no matter how incipient or fragile they may be. Please keep this in mind as you read this section.




1. For more information on ‘simple’ or pre-industrial societies, there is an excellent bibliography and articles at:


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