Civil Society experiencing Transformation

Examples And Prospects
The experience of the Dialogues en humanité

By Débora Nunes and Ivan Maltcheff
Translated by Simone Kunegel

In the second chapter we examined in more depth some of the difficulties encountered by new civil organizations. In the third chapter we discussed possible ways of overcoming them. This last chapter will be dedicated to a new international network, the Dialogues en humanité.  It must be stated from the start that the word humanity in the network’s name is not capitalized, since the latter does not claim to represent Humanity (not even in a network!). Rather, the idea is that everyone takes part in the Dialogues with the whole of their humanity and can thus access the humanity shared by all the “Dialoguers”.

The network, active on four continents, started in 2002 with the Dialogues en humanité in Lyon, France. In this chapter we will describe the network conferences in Bangalore (India), Rabat (Morocco), Paris (France), Berlin (Germany), Salvador (Brazil) as well as the founding event in Lyon. Regular or one-off Dialogues have taken place in Fès (Morocco), Jerusalem, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Porto Novo (Benin), Tunis and Hammamet (Tunisia), Rio de Janeiro, Simões Filho and Itacaré (Brazil), Roanne, Saint-Ouen and Villeurbanne (France).

The events we are about to describe can be said to usher in “the practices of the emerging future”, as they reflect a potential society whose practices we believe may spread in the future.  The Dialogues en humanité are a very interesting experience even though they do not claim to be a model. They were selected as a case study mainly because the authors of this book, as members of the network themselves, are very familiar with it. 

The link between the different events across the world within the Dialogues network can be viewed as an illustration of the “connection of imaginal cells” phase, to refer to the metaphor of the butterfly mentioned in previous chapters. To wit : the metamorphosis of the butterfly (and the world) can only be realized because there are imaginal cells which anticipate the being (world) to come and interconnect the transformation processes at work in the system within a network, thus boosting their transformative capacity. By interconnecting, the events potentialise each other making up a whole (a body) which offers a glimpse of a better life on earth.

But what is this international civil organization? To what extent is it a “new group” that innovates by aiming for organisational coherence to achieve the changes in the world it seeks? By describing specific events and the experience of those involved in their organisation we will attempt to evince an interconnection exemplifying ‘imaginal processes’. These are both fragile because they are still scarce in their environment and strong because they are linked up in a network based on the ‘politics of friendship’, which we will explore in this chapter and in Patrick Viveret’s afterword.

The Dialogues’ literature describes them as a ‘global forum on the human issue’, stating that it is urgent to address human feelings, our relationships, as well as our way of being and of approaching the world, in the public sphere.  This is quite unusual, but anyone with a modicum of experience knows that the ‘human issue’ is the key issue of life. Providing a platform where it takes centre stage in all the reflections, debates and activities was the foundation of the mother event, the Dialogues en humanité in Lyon, France. The challenge is to take an innovative and comprehensive approach to deal with this issue, using rational, physical and emotional intelligence.

The network’s history shows how Geneviève Ancel, in charge of sustainable development for the Lyon region, Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon and Patrick Viveret, a philosopher and consultant, meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, decided that a new approach to the challenges facing humanity was necessary. The idea was to understand why events aimed at deciding on urgent measures to control climate change - from Rio 92 to Rio + 20 – failed to have the desired effects.

The debate on the human issue had to take place in a public event in which nobody would be an ‘expert’ and everybody could voice their opinion. In the construction of the global civil society, the dialogue on the human issue, which involves both politics and philosophy, needed to be more comprehensive and more thorough. What is it in us humans that produces the concrete social, economic and political consequences observed in the world? The idea emerged that the debate should be conducted in a dialogue involving the depth of everybody’s humanity, which would lead to a less ideological, less partisan, more open debate. Seeking unity in diversity does not mean ignoring our differences but viewing them as part of our bountiful human experience, an inspiration to overcome the crises facing humanity.

Thus the challenge is to go beyond a debate confined to the part played by social classes, governments and geographical spheres in shaping human civilization. Feeling free to open our minds in order to understand how genuinely human feelings such as fear and love, anger and compassion, selfishness and generosity fashion humanity’s attitude to the world. Listening to the voices of women and men, businessmen/managers and workers, female employees and ordinary female citizens, politicians and social activists, people of all ages, creeds, colours, nationalities, both in their diversity and their unique humanity.  Therefore, the rules of the debate in Lyon and in all other network events since the very beginning have been :

  • Freedom of speech and proposal ;
  • Goodwill, compassionate listening and respect – towards oneself, others and nature ;
  • Equality of all regarding the human issue.

The founders, in particular Geneviève Ancel and Patrick Viveret, as well as the civil society leaders who rapidly joined the Lyon movement, disseminated these rules for citizen debate in various countries. Henryane de Chaponay[1] and Danielle Mitterrand[2], among others, helped to build the network thanks to their rich life stories and their contacts across the world. The invaluable contribution to the Lyon Dialogues of internationally renowned participants such as Stéphane Hessel[3] and Edgar Morin[4] has led to fruitful debates on the human issue in a growing number of countries every year.

The logo of the Lyon event, which has also become the logo of the Dialogues’ international network, aptly conveys the message : a big tree welcoming in its shade the members of a community seated in a circle, discussing issues of mutual interest : the communion between humans, between humans and Nature; the wisdom of ancestral African communities engaged in a dialogue between equals in their diversity under the ‘palaver tree’, administering community life inspired by an auspicious tree.

Throughout the 2000’s and since 2010 in particular the network has been growing from the Lyon mother cell, connecting events which illustrate ‘practices of the emerging future’. All the events have the same underlying philosophical principles and the same objectives but each one implements them differently, adapting them to the country’s reality and to the target audience. The following examples of some of the issues addressed each year in the various events show both how well attuned and how diverse they are : transition towards a more sustainable world, including new practices such as ensuring food security and sovereignty in a context of climate change; interfaith dialogue, with alternatives to war, violence and fear; new solidarity-based economic practices, including fair trade, social money, conscious consumption, etc; art as a tool for personal and social transformation, alternative medicine and many other concrete ways of living in a more cooperative, sustainable and peaceful way, with oneself, with others and with Nature.

All these events show the diverseness of global civil society action aiming for a better world. We will describe some of the most prominent below.

The founding event in Lyon, France

At the outset in 2002 the Dialogues en humanité in Lyon were held in connection with scientific, economic and educational events, enhancing the debate with the depth of human feelings. Soon however the Dialogues became an event in its own right, growing into the popular gathering that takes place each year on the first weekend of July under the ancient trees of Lyon’s superb Parc de la Tête d’Or. The programme runs for three days from 11 am to the night, featuring a variety of activities including a lunch in the open, sensitivity and awareness workshops, citizens’ agoras and shows in the evening.

Regarding the agoras and the sensitivity and awareness workshops, it is believed that before joining the debates on the challenges facing humankind preparation involving body, mind and emotions facilitates mutual understanding. This requires that the person be ‘disarmed’ – which is exactly what the relaxation provided by the activities does. Here are some examples of the workshops on offer : constructing a mandala with elements collected in the park; qigong, yoga and reflexology to boost health; paper making crafts; experiencing the masculine and the feminine in ourselves; story telling; guided walks in the park; massage between parents and children; Indian music improvisation; wheelchair basketball and 130 other workshops catering for a vast range of interests. The workshops resort to personal experience much more than discussion, although some discussion may occur. For two hours participants enjoy learning new skills, alternative ways of doing and being, of doing collectively, often barefoot on the grass of the park. Only after this ‘relaxation’ do they engage in the debates, which occur in a more tolerant and benevolent atmosphere as a result.

A lot of themes, some topical, some more fundamental, have been discussed since the first Dialogues in Lyon. Many have been broached several times under different lights. The themes debated in 2013 are an illustration of their variety : How to engage in responsible consumer habits? What do women contribute to the corporate world? What do social money and tax havens have in common? How can we shake off ‘voluntary bondage’ to the present world? What would citizen politics based on friendship be like?

The debates are characterized by freedom of speech and proposal, good will, empathic listening, respect (for oneself, others and Nature) and equality of all regarding the human issue, enabling people with opposite views to discuss contentious topics.

The tradition of welcoming people from all walks of life is already well-established, with corporate managers and their teams as well as politicians routinely taking part in the Lyon Dialogues. This process is gaining ground in the other network events.

An ashram without a guru:
Fireflies, Bangalore, India

Traditionally ashrams in India are intentional communities led by gurus where people seek spiritual progress. The objective of Fireflies Ashram is similar but Siddhartha, the coordinator of the Pipal Tree Foundation which runs the Fireflies Intercultural Centre, is a wise man who refuses to be seen as a guru. At Fireflies, people seek intellectual and spiritual progress while engaging in various social-environmental and artistic projects. This environmentally-friendly centre, located some 30 km from Bangalore, features accommodation for visitors and temples as well as meditation, exhibition and debate halls.

The Pipal Tree foundation was created in 1984 by a group of thinkers and professionals working in alternative development who propose a new paradigm of sustainable development in which the personal, the social and the environmental are woven together.  Through its ‘peace committees’ the foundation was instrumental in restoring communal harmony after the major inter-faith strife that rocked the Bangalore area in the early 1990’s. The main activities of the Pipal Tree foundation include :

  • a programme for students from various parts of the world who complete their academic studies at Fireflies;
  • a clinic which works with neighbouring communities in the field of homeopathic medicine;
  • activities linked to the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum;
  • a communication programme to encourage journalists to draw more attention to social and environmental issues.

The foundation is also active in Mysore, where it supports local farmers to encourage them to revert to growing millets. It also runs a school for forest tribe children who have difficulty adjusting to local schools so that they can preserve their traditional values while improving their chances of integrating in Indian society.

The February Dialogs under the leadership of Siddhartha and his team are the Indian version of the Dialogues en humanité. They feature debates on themes related to the foundation’s objectives such as Earth spirituality, inter-religious dialogue, food sovereignty in the face of climate change. The debates are interspersed with interplays. These activities focus on interpersonal relationships, particularly physical - with dance, mime and drama – integrating artistic/bodily intelligence and reflection on the themes at hand.

The highlight of the February Dialogs is the music festival with sacred music from various spiritual traditions being performed under a large ficus religiosa, or pipal tree, after which the foundation was named. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, attained enlightenment under a tree of this species, which is why it is highly revered by Buddhists.  Giant bleachers in the shade of the pipal tree at the Fireflies Intercultural Centre accommodate a 3,000-odd audience during the festival.

Contribution of the Fireflies Dialogues ( Bangalore, India) to a fresh understanding of citizenship in an era of climate change

By Sidhartha (coordinator of the event)

I am now sixty-five years old. In my early twenties I came across a Marxist party that believed only radical political change could bring about social justice to hundreds of millions of Indians who lived below the poverty line. Although I was drawn to some ideas of the party I found it too rigid on the whole. Later I was attracted to the ideas of Paulo Freire who talked about social liberation through small scale community action. This was altogether more human, although Freire did not emphasise women’s issues or environmental concerns.

Neither the Marxists nor Freire spoke much about the significance of citizenship within a democratic political process. For many Marxists this was merely a bourgeois idea that could never really mean much in a class-based society. And this was largely true, since capitalism could even brainwash the working classes into believing that the existing structures were appropriate for them. After all the ideological mechanisms of the system were constantly legitimising the status-quo for the oppressed classes.

The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Even the working classes felt oppressed there. China averted a collapse by transforming itself into a vibrant capitalist economy, using Marxism to limit freedoms of its people. While improving the lives of millions of people China was also able to exert maximum social control. China paid scant attention to ecological issues, and soon joined the league of big polluters led by the USA.

In the past decade or so India saw its economy booming, although growth has come down somewhat in recent years because of worldwide recession. But even now there is about 6% growth. While this might sound good to many we must not forget the fact that more than three hundred million Indians live below the poverty line in sub-human conditions. The democratic process functions in India without emphasising the fundamental social and economic rights of citizens.

Until the beginning of the 21st century few people took the climate crisis seriously. It is only now that it is dawning on many of us that this century will witness tumultuous climate change where billions of climate refugees will emerge. It is also likely that many millions will perish. In India climate change will hit people hard, with very serious food and water shortages, apart from heat-wave living conditions.

So we find ourselves saddled with the old problems of poverty and social justice and the new problems related to climate change. The question then is how to move forward. What fresh political perspectives can be developed that will help us deal with these multiple crises in as humane and just a manner as possible.

It is here that I believe Dialogues en humanité has some tentative answers. With its origins in Lyon, France, the Dialogues quickly spread to several parts of the world. Each of the Dialogues has its own uniqueness, although they are all held together by common values. At the Dialogues in Bangalore, India, we have been working on the challenges that climate change poses and what mitigation and adaptation measures are possible.

Central to the Dialogues at Fireflies Ashram in Bangalore are the role of ethics, values and spiritual insights to bring about convincing social and ecological transformation in society. Here the individual as citizen is critically important. At the moment the citizen is numbed into inertia and impotence by the dominant ideological system. The system needs unthinking and uncritical citizens who embrace the competitive and consumerist values of the system.

At the Dialogues in India we believe that the personal, social and ecological form one integrated whole. Meaningful social and ecological change cannot be brought about without change in the personal values of the citizen. Many of today’s social action perspectives totally ignore the dimension of personal change. This leads to citizens who behave in a schizophrenic manner. They unconsciously believe in the goals and values of the dominant system while at the same time professing to change these goals and values. Only a deep seated conversion of the citizen can lead to meaningful change. The political perspective of the citizen must integrate non-competitive and cooperative values, along with a deep reverence for the earth.

Rabat, Morocco:
a citizens’ university seeking human development

Rabat’s Institute for Higher Administrative Studies, HEM, hosts conferences and debates involving hundreds of people in a country with little tradition of public debate. Every year themes revolving around challenges such as “humanistic entrepreneurship”, “building a sustainable and fair world in the face of climate change” are discussed under the leadership of Ali Serhrouchni. Due to the institute’s 25-year standing and its commitment to significant social debates in Morocco these events attract high profile international figures as well as a local elite eager for democracy.

The Moroccan experience is distinctive within the Dialogues en humanité network in many respects. Firstly because of the country’s political system - a monarchy which has recently implemented a number of democratic reforms as part of the transition from Hassan II's 40-year authoritarian reign to his son Mohammed VI's moderate stance; secondly because the Rabat Dialogues are the only ones that take place in a private university, involving students from the well-heeled elite of the capital and other big cities where HEM is established. The university is highly reputed for its corporate environment training programmes, for its unique outreach ‘citizen university’ which offers free courses and scholarships for deserving state school students, and for the Dialogues en humanité debates.

The background of the coordinator, Ali Serhrouchni, says a lot about the avenues this environment opens : Ali has been active all his life in the democratisation process as a member of the organisations which triggered the transition presently at work in the country. A wheelchair athlete, he is particularly alive to the ‘human issue’, which led him to join the Dialogues network with the backing of the institute's owners.

The Moroccan Dialogues take place in an educational institution and are, as such, different from what is commonly understood as a civil society organisation, with shared leadership etc. This feature too contributes to the network's distinctive richness and Ali Serhrouchni's clear demonstration of HEM’s internal governance testifies to the similarities :

"We deal with human governance, social governance and political governance. Regarding the human and social aspects, we need to provide an environment that will enable the staff at all levels - from the doormen and gardeners to the professors and directors - to work in a congenial atmosphere where solidarity and human warmth prevail. Our political approach is participative. Good governance requires everybody’s participation so that each one of us can grow within the collective process, through empathic listening and reactiveness.”

An ‘Academy under the Trees’,
Berlin, Germany

The Stiftung Genshagen, the foundation that hosts the German Dialogues en humanité event, is co-directed by Christel Hartmann-Fritsch and other innovative leaders. This traditional institution located in a castle in Berlin’s exclusive suburbs and subsidized by the German government aims to inform arts and culture public policies, especially in the European context, including partnerships with France and Poland. Genshagen is a venue for conferences, artistic events, artist in residence programmes and student training during the Summer university. 

Every two years, Genshagen invites artists, scientists, politicians and civil society representatives to have Sunday lunch together under the park’s lush trees where a large table is set up. The participants share food and drink, exchanging views and watching or participating in various performances. The event attracts people from many different professional backgrounds, mostly from Germany, France and Poland but also other European countries.

Moderators conduct the debates and interpreters help with communication. Projects promoting artistic education and mediation are presented leading to discussions on how arts and culture can help alleviate poverty. Contacts are made, creating informal networks which enrich each participant’s impact.

The spirited Christel met Geneviève Ancel in the Banlieues d’Europe [5] project in which they were both involved. Her long-standing community commitment is best illustrated by one of her numerous activities : the creation of the Wrangelstrasse ‘soup festival’ in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. During this annual gathering in a poor neighbourhood, inspired by similar events in Europe, people share traditional soups from their traditions on a 400m-long table. Cultural diversity, sharing and celebrating together boost the neighbourhood’s image while enhancing everybody’s well-being. In her interview, Christel Hartmann-Fritsch says that “the solutions for a new way of life will not come from politics”. The new civil society initiatives are in keeping with the Zeitgeist and they are at work everywhere, as she can observe on her daily strolls around Berlin. Herself a founding member of many of these movements, she meets them at a multicultural cooperative market run by young people which is in line with the slow food and fair trade ethic, or when she walks past the Prinzessinengarten, thriving community gardens on reclaimed land.  It is this very creativity, cooperation and multiculturalism at work in the streets of Berlin that Christel brings to the Academy under the Trees at Stiftung Genshagen.

To evidence the foundation’s commitment to building a better future, different words are etched into the lawn in front of the castle – for instance the word Imagine, as a reference to John Lennon’s pacifist, unifying and cross-cultural song.

A tribute to difference:
the Paris Dialogues

The venue chosen for the Défistival, a festival that celebrates difference, is one of the most prestigious in the world, the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower. The initiative is the brainchild of Ryadh Sallem, a paralympic basketball champion, and Pascal Eouzan, a former acrobatic gymnastics champion. From the encounter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 of the world of athletes with handicaps and non-disabled athletes a friendship was born which led to an annual event initially called Défiparade.  Creating an interface between people with special needs and society at large it aims to combat stereotypes and explore the unsuspected wealth of diverse life stories. Organized jointly by CQFD, Ceux qui font la différence [Those who make a difference] created in 2003 and CAPSAAA, Cap Sport Art Aventure Amitié [Sport, art , adventure, friendship] created in 1995, it is generally held in October. CAPSAAA supports people with physical disabilities and has several branches in France, also providing sports equipment and developing wheelchair basketball in French overseas territories.

The organisations involved in Défistival are coordinated by Ryadh Sallem, a passionate athlete with paraplegia whose condition has been the driving force for his personal development. “One day I decided to be happy,” says Ryadh, who considers that CAPSAAA is a pioneering initiative in that it gives citizens an opportunity to have an actual experience of citizenship rather than being content with words.

This is illustrated in the Lyon Dialogues en humanité where people without disabilities can join a wheelchair basketball game. The idea is for children and adults to take the place of people with physical impairments and learn how to cope while also having a good time.

Défistival comprises four parts : the Uni-verses, with food stalls and tents where various arts, sports and other clubs as well as sponsors of the event provide information and organize activities for the public; the Electrifying debate, in the morning, a think tank dedicated to topical social and environmental issues discussed from a comparative stance;  the Freesons in the afternoon with artists from different backgrounds taking turns on the stage in a genuine medley of styles; the PARAdiversité in the late afternoon, a huge festive and colourful parade through the streets of Paris, and a concert which rounds off the event in the evening.

The Défistival’s slogan, “Come with your differences, leave with your similarities”, is illustrated by the variety of people and styles. The event brings together rich and poor, children and adults of all ages, artists and politicians, businessmen and workers, believers and atheists. As Ryadh says, “We all have preconceived notions about each other but I have noticed that celebrating together ‘dilutes’ fear and prejudice. Défistival breaks new ground in that it uses celebration as an educational tool”.

When asked in what way Défistival innovates in its organisation, Ryadh mentions social networks :

All is done via the internet and a lot of people like us who want to change the world jump to action in an instant. The problem is that we interact mostly with people who are already convinced. Ideally we should also use more traditional channels like pamphlets to reach a wider audience but that is more difficult and more expensive. Our challenge is to enlist the participation of the majority and not to be ‘amongst ourselves’... but social networks are fabulous.”

The Brechó Eco Solidário,
Salvador, Brazil

Experiencing the ‘emerging future’, a world with more justice, more democracy and more solidarity, such is the aim of the environmentally-friendly, solidarity-based barter fair held on a weekend in October in the Parque da Cidade in Salvador. The event features a big barter market where used goods are swapped using social money (the “grão” or grain), a solidarity economy fair, yoga, reiki, tai chi and self-massage workshops, music and dance, recycled art and environmental education activities. In the Dialogues, local and international guests and the public engage in debates on the economic, social, environmental and spiritual issues humanity is facing, discussing innovative civil society experiments to respond to these challenges. As an example, the themes up for debate in October 2013 were : “The challenge of social entrepreneurship” and “Personal and social transformation through art”.

Held yearly since 2006, the Brechó plays a major part in the awareness among Salvador’s inhabitants of the impact of consumerism on climate change. Participating in the Brechó is an incentive to contemplate healthier, less wasteful consumption habits, prioritising produce from solidarity cooperatives. Preparations for the event are made well in advance. The organisation starts in March while goods swaps run by partner organisations begin two months earlier in various points across the city. In 2013 funds were contributed by hundreds of people through the crowdfunding site Catarse, testifying to the event’s increasing financial autonomy.

Universities of Bahia, including Unifacs, UFBA, Universo, Uneb,UFRB, Fama, pioneered the implementation of the Brechó in Salvador, making the event a great mobiliser of youth. New partnerships with public and private outfits, NGOs and civil society initiatives are established every year. They subsequently set up a self-managed 15-member commission responsible for the organisation of the event coordinated by the Associação Rede de Profissionais Solidários pela Cidadania.  The Commission is divided into three sub-commissions joined by the volunteers in charge of the various tents (environmental, cultural, children’s, holistic, etc.). The partners set great store by self-management, and strengthening the practice of collaborative servant leadership year by year is meant to be a learning experience for each and everyone.

Some 300 people, mainly professors and students from partner universities, social economy entrepreneurs, artists and holistic therapists volunteer for the event. Students and other volunteers undergo a 60-hour training programme on the Brechó’s fundamental concepts : responsible consumption, social economy, social money. By the same token, the training includes practical work intended to boost solidarity, autonomy and self-management, the so-called ‘Brechó spirit’, which the volunteers gradually acquire. Many of them stay on as tutors the following year and as coordinators later on in a continuous training and empowerment process which ensures sustainability.

The 2010 Brechó was the first Dialogues en humanité event in Brazil. Since then new Dialogues have sprung up and joined the network. In Foz do Iguaçu, Dialogues have been integrated in the annual evaluation meeting of the Itaipu Cultivando Agua Boa programme conducted by Nelton Friedrich. The programme comprises protection of springs, promotion of Guarani culture, reforestation, development of small scale organic farming, plant therapy, support for rubbish collectors and recycling, etc. In Simões Filho, Fundação Terra Mirim, a shamanic intentional community with 20 years’ standing led by Alba Maria and the foundation’s team, organizes an annual event, EcoArt, which also includes Dialogues. EcoArt showcases some of the work done in Terra Mirim, such as incubators of solidarity-based family agriculture, solidarity-based accommodation, shamanic healing rituals, a vegetarian restaurant, seedlings of Mata Atlântica trees. In Itacaré, the NGO Rosa dos Ventos runs a school and a healing plants garden on Fazenda Pedra do Sabiá. It offers the peaceful setting of its guesthouse and healing centre for the Dialogues, which attract people from the surrounding ecovillages.

The network’s principles

A number of principles inform the way the network functions, including the Principle of self-management, the Principle of abundance, the Principle of diversity laid out in the Dialogues en humanité’s charter and detailed below. The charter written by a small group of people in 2012 attempts to summarise the network’s governance. However, it is not based on discussions as to “how the network should work” but as “a tentative description of what is going on”.

To understand how this charter came about it is necessary to quote Euclides Mance :

Just as an ecosystem forms a network with thousands of exchanges between its constituent parts even though there has never been a general assembly of all living beings to create it or a central authority to organize the network’s flows and cycles, human societies are complex networks, except that we can interfere strategically with those material and symbolic flows, reorganizing our way of life, in so far as we become aware of those fluxes and connections and exercise our power in this transformation.

Principle of self-management

According to the ‘principle of self-management’, those who are part of the network commit to forgoing hierarchies and to building a process of individual accountability and shared power. The core document states the need to “nurture trust and friendship” in order for the decision-making process and the implementation to be a pleasant experience, as among friends, also taking on board interpersonal constraints characteristic of friendship. This process, called ‘politics of friendship’, may be an alternative to the hierarchical organisations which still underpin democracy as we know it today.

It is true that democracy now prevails over brute force in many parts of the world, leading to relatively peaceful argument through the popular vote. Nevertheless, democracy is still racked by competition and enmity towards ‘the other’, an opponent who has to be defeated, even if not physically. Can a different path be envisioned?

Furthermore, democracy, which could be justified by the electoral process, has been distorted by the prevalence of private interests superseding the public interest. Is there no way out of this? Will the civil society, whose destiny is to create an integrated global democracy in order to exercise social control over governments, companies and institutions, be able to establish a policy of trust and servant leadership whereby leaders are the most qualified to serve the community?

Light years away from cronyism, nepotism and fawning, the politics of friendship that inspire the Dialogues en humanité network advocates the noblest values of a relationship experienced by all human beings : being both tolerant and demanding.

True friends are accepting of each other but also seek to uplift each other, pointing out mistakes and ways to better themselves without fear of ‘displeasing’ each other. The model provided by friendship can be an inspiration for a collective process seeking consistency, preventing the betrayal of ideals and shared values which would put an end to trust and friendship.

Principle of abundance

The “principle of abundance” means ‘giving free flow to the wealth each partner brings’. Designing events which welcome the suggestions and contributions of each person who wants to participate in their construction generates abundance. As each and everyone can feel that they belong, they spontaneously offer all their ‘wealth’, whether in the form of contacts, knowhow or other assets. Geneviève Ancel, talking about her career - the first team she worked with and the one she headed as chief of staff of the Environment minister Huguette Bouchardeau – aptly conveys this idea : “I learnt that what matters is neither the money nor the technical means but the human wealth provided by a team working hand in hand in a transversal, cooperative manner while maintaining stringent organisation.”

As regards the financial aspect, the Dialogues en humanité network operates without sponsors, partnering with local events which sometimes provide for the travel expenses of network members from other countries. Bonds across borders are strengthened via free web communication and at the annual conference in Lyon. Financial resources for local events are secured through public tenders, online crowdfunding but above all contributions from the organising parties – institutions and individuals who loan and/or donate the funds required to implement events which are each and everyone’s challenge.

The idea of abundance also implies giving up on ‘perfection’ regarding the events themselves and the process. In hierarchical organisations and for-profit outfits the detailed description of the objectives considerably hampers the potential of human relationships and of the collective process. When targets are set unilaterally rather than jointly the people who implement them tend to be viewed as objects, not subjects, of what is being created. Only unilateral processes can be ‘perfect’, because a single person or a small group has planned one modus operandi.  When each person’s contribution is welcomed as an asset, the processes will obviously be looser and more dynamic, with a different type of organisation which may come across as slightly chaotic to perfectionists. This leads us to reflect on the human richness generated by diversity, which will be discussed below.

Principle of diversity

According to the ‘principle of diversity’  everybody is encouraged to take part, which means that all participants are interdependent. Aiming to put this principle into practice, Dialogues en humanité events seek to involve the greatest possible variety of people : men and women of all skin colours and ages, rich, poor or needy, heterosexual, homosexual and with other sexual orientations; city people and country people; people with disabilities or special needs; people of all creeds as well as atheists. The more diverse we are, the richer and the more we learn together.

Regarding the target audience, the organizational focus is on training the young, who build the future, and listening to the aged, who preserve humanity’s memory. The fact that all the founders of the network’s events are over forty years old and the awareness that it is for the younger generation to define the future – based on the inheritance we will leave – makes young people a priority. On the other hand, the presence of wise elders like those mentioned earlier (Henryane de Chaponay, Danielle Mitterrand, Stéphane Hessel, Edgar Morin) or Ali Ashgar Engineer makes us alive to their invaluable contribution.

The variety of opinions is another aspect of the pursuit of diversity as an asset, with disagreement an opportunity for in-depth debate on the issues at hand. Ryadh Sallem, the founder of the Paris Dialogues, takes this approach very far, inviting us to forsake Manichaeism, a world divided into good and evil, and to accept even that which is normally deemed undesirable:

“[...] pain, fear and violence are part of life. We must learn to transform violent, destructive energies into constructive, creative ones rather than suppressing them. Learning how to assimilate physical and mental pain is important. Some youngsters nowadays do not understand that one cannot live without suffering, they would rather die than confront pain and injustice.”

This approach to diversity helps them to evolve.

Principle of the network

The ‘principle of the network’ evokes various characteristics : the interdependence of all beings within the fabric of life; understanding that all is interconnected, that the transformation of the whole is linked to the evolution of each and everyone; the accepted idea that union is strength. The principle of the network is reminiscent of the butterfly’s imaginal cells joining to bring about the metamorphosis of the caterpillar both autonomously and interdependently. The network too is a web of nodes in which all members are important and have multiple connections.

According to the principle of the web each node of the international network seeks to interact with other local initiatives in order for them to bolster each other, without ever claiming hegemony. It is understood that to build a strong and interconnected global civil society local initiatives need to be firmly grounded in each network country. On the other hand, the coordinating node, nourished by the nodes which make up the network, is another resource hub for all. It does not drain their energy and power but acts as a catalyst for the network’s evolution.

As an international network, one of the organisation’s principles is to offer free home accommodation as well as free translation services in various languages by bilingual/multilingual members during events. Thus the network is partly self-financed. Each member pays for their own conveyance when no funds are available, knowing that their expenses will be reduced through solidarity and that the warm welcome on arrival will make up for the travails of the journey.

An association and an international council

The Dialogues network established its International Council in 2013, linking it to Lyon’s Association Dialogues en humanité, which was created to ensure the sustainability of the objectives, principles and activities of the July event in Lyon. The council acts as an embassy to promote Dialogues wherever possible and to boost the empowerment of the younger generation and local stakeholders. The creation of the council in addition to the local committee was necessary to reflect the network’s international dimension.

It is interesting to observe the propinquity between the principles laid down in the statutes of the only ‘official’ outfit linked to the Dialogues network - which itself remains informal - and the latter’s ideals : encouraging empathic listening, goodwill and freedom of proposal; respecting others and oneself; feeling free to dream, hope and imagine; daring to express outrage without nourishing hatred; welcoming others with an open mind; appreciating the world outside rational thinking; learning with our other intelligences - physical, emotional, artistic; engaging in dialogue and joint creation. In short, enjoying life!

The international council - joined by other network members who so wish, on equal terms as to participation - operates via the internet with a monthly conference on the first Sunday of each month. It aims to strengthen links and cooperation between members as well as expanding its impact and partnerships through synergies with other networks and people who intend to launch new Dialogues en humanité. These discussions have demonstrated the need for us to look at the short, the medium and the long term and to incorporate what happens on the local, the national and the global scale into our thinking and actions.

The council’s governance is similar to that which prevails in other network events : participants in the teleconference come of their own free will, without any kind of pressure, for the sheer joy of taking part. Although a general topic for debate/an action plan is routinely put forward by one of the members, discussions remain very open, regulated by an organic process which depends on the people present, and may shift their focus depending on the circumstances. Good will and empathic listening create a climate conducive to the collective development of ideas. It is therefore common for participants to quote each other to build their thought processes.

This process is not immune to difficulties due to technical glitches and to the fact that most of those involved in the process are as yet unaccustomed to this kind of meeting. The fact that the proceedings are generally conducted in French, which has been the most widely spoken language so far, prevents non-French speakers from taking part for the time being.

Another issue is the fact that the meetings occur between persons who can be on four different continents, each one in their house, their country, with a different season and time zone. In order for the participants to attune themselves to each other, those who are willing can join in a creative visualisation, a kind of meditation in which they are invited to ‘visualise’ something good and beautiful that unites them. This connects them in a specific place, a picture, a little story. Only then can the meeting start. These preliminaries greatly contribute to mutual understanding in challenging technical conditions.

The annual encounter in Lyon, due to its sheer scale and the large number of invitations issued to international guests, is a favourite moment for those who organise network events in other countries or other French cities. The network also seeks to incentivise meetings between organisers outside events, which demand a lot of attention and work. Private visits are on the rise and members of the network sometimes spend two or three days together, often in a bucolic setting. These encounters nurture friendship, which in turn boosts mutual trust beneficial for the development of the network. In this spirit, an annual retreat is organized in a cooperative chalet in the French Alps, with each participant paying for their room and board. There, body and soul are cared for during long collective walks, with a defined number of seminars held between meals, which are cooked and eaten together. In these physical get-togethers the circle is the preferred seating arrangement as it encourages equality, and ‘equality of speech’ is a principle, with the group interposing if by any chance someone should monopolise the floor. It is during one of these retreats that the Charter previously mentioned was drafted.

The existence of a network such as the Dialogues en humanité reflects a process  that has probably existed in countless civil society organisations emerging or developing across the world at this very instant, intent on new ways of being, without hierarchies, in search of consistency between thinking, saying and doing. This process definitely contributes to the mutual empowerment of all the ‘nodes’ of the network, generating contacts between people who believe that a better future is in the making, who feel that they contribute to building it and who infuse the ‘politics of friendship’ with the joy of conviviality. According in particular to Sheldrake’s morphic fields, Jung’s synchronicity and Stanislav Grof’s transpersonal psychology, these experiences also influence the world in the subtle field.

The issues attendant on this process at the international level are mainly technological and linguistic and are always faced creatively and cooperatively. It is impossible at this point in time to imagine a lot of new problems cropping up since the ‘old’ ones, partly described in chapter 2, keep us busy enough. Perhaps the lack of connections with traditional civil society movements should be remedied, given the overwhelming need for such links in the world nowadays.

The experiments carried out by the new civil society networks may be viewed as a transition : they are new outfits initiated by people trained in the old model of civil society organisations or by young people who, though more adventurous, are nevertheless influenced by institutions which mattered to their elders such as political parties, trade unions and others. Networks bolster individual commitment to this transition, building trust, giving rise to new ideas, prompting alliances, with everyone benefiting from each other’s experience. As Edgar Morin has repeatedly said in his writings and interviews, it is not enough to denounce the world as it is and to say that it is urgent to turn things around, we need to put forward and implement new ideas that will sustain our hopes. Or, to quote Paulo Freire, changing the world involves exposing its present inhumanity and putting an end to this through concrete action. We are trying to be one of these concrete actions.

Afterword by Patrick Viveret

The politics of friendship and the establishment of a convivialist movement

The construction of a ‘politics of friendship’ or a convivialist movement has elicited a significant response from a number of environmental, social and citizen organisations. It is a theoretical reference which enables us to put the human issue and the challenge it poses to the forefront of politics, as shown by the Dialogues en humanité project. Indeed, it is the very difficulty involved in ‘living together’ – convivo in Latin - which generates the numerous forms of abuse whereby humanity mutilates itself with its belligerent relationship to nature and other human beings.

In order to provide a systemic response to the various forms of abuse evident in the appropriation of wealth (by financial capitalism), power (by oligarchs and despots) and meaning (by fundamentalists), it is necessary to build what the conference on social and solidarity economy in France has labelled the dynamics of REV[i], combining creative Resistance, visionary Experiments and transforming Vision. These are aimed at fulfilling three requirements.

A requirement for consistency in order to address the challenges of humanity simultaneously. One can view as an opportunity the concurrence of the loosely named ‘crises’, which consist both in a major transformation - much larger than the one analysed by Karl Polanyi in his famous book - and a major extortion due to the massive transfer over the years of the revenue of labour to the revenue of capital with policies in thrall to financial capitalism. For example, climate change demands curbing the mad race for speed, production and consumption as well as putting the financial crisis, whose internal combustion engine is seriously jammed, to good use. Similarly a ‘boost’ can only be achieved if it is consistent with sustainable environmental and human development, unless we dig our own environmental and social grave in an attempt to rescue the financial system.

A requirement to revert to moderation, for as the convivialist manifesto highlights, excess has generated the environmental unsustainability of our economic paradigms (the noxious effects of rampant productivism), the abysmal chasm at the root of the financial crisis between the speculative economy and the real economy as well as the horrendous social disparities both at the global level and in individual societies (cf. the latest statistics published by Oxfam : 85 individuals control as much wealth as half the ‘people of the Earth’, i.e. 3.5 billion human beings).
I would like to add that excess, in this case excess in the relationship to power, also led to the implosion of the Soviet empire twenty-five years ago. This reminder is necessary to avoid a thirties-type back and forth movement whereby the excesses of ‘market fundamentalism’ are countered by the abuses wrought by authoritarian or even totalitarian forms of control.

Lastly, a requirement for justice, for with such major disruptions happening we cannot shelter every human being from poverty, destitution even, unless we forego all the assets of a casino economy which would lead all states, including the richest, to bankruptcy – by-products, for instance, have been estimated at 700,000 billion dollars by the Bank for International Settlements. The concern voiced by Nobel Economic Science Prize winner Paul Krugman the United States may experience a South American type crisis is far from excluded.

These three requirements can be met within the positive outlook of convivialism, of the politics of friendship and ‘buen vivir’ [good living], i.e. politics and an economy aimed at building ‘better being’ to ward off the costs and blows incurred by malaise and abuse. Yearly arms and narcotics expenditure alone accounts for over ten times the budget needed to fulfil the UN’s millennium objectives, while advertising accounts for five times this amount, even though it stems mainly from the distortion of an ontological desire - yearning for happiness, love, serenity -  into an urge for consumption and ownership (cf. Gandhi’s famous statement : “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.”)

This approach is underpinned by principles of democracy and peace, two major aspirations which might be sorely tested in a thirties-type chain of events : financial crisis => economic crisis => fear, panic even, especially in the middle classes tumbling into emotional regression and susceptible to simplistic arguments => warmongering, whether civil or international; e.g. : a nuclear state sinking into chaos poses a major threat to peace.

Therefore we need to consider :

  • proposals for broad civil alliances, especially with international institutions, companies, NGOs, spiritual traditions, etc. willing to participate in these advances;
  • a more demanding convivialist movement hinged on Gandhi’s appeal : “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, which refers to all the experiments connecting the ‘three intelligences’ – body, heart and mind.

It is essential that this movement which tries out its own proposals consider economic models involving ‘better being’, with a different relationship to wealth and money such as new wealth indicators and the internal use of social money and solidarity barter, and political initiatives based on a different relationship to power - citizen power as the power to act cooperatively as opposed to competitive politics fighting to conquer power.

To this effect we need to use the bountiful toolbox provided by ‘high democratic quality’. We need to build alternatives to compulsive competition not only in the economic field – a social and solidarity economy - but also in the political, educational and spiritual fields. A belligerent economy cannot be regulated by political systems in the grip of fierce competition or churches that consider that their creed alone is acceptable. Those defeated in these economic, political or religious wars are defeated in life, they are the “surplus people” whom Hannah Arendt shows to be the main indicator of all totalitarian phenomena in her famous treatise on the banality of evil.

A movement that is already under way ...

Such a movement does not spring up ex nihilo. It already exists in various forms in thriving initiatives spawned by the new life forces described as the emergence of ‘cultural creatives’ in sociological surveys. One only has to read the increasing number of articles published by major media such as Reporters of Hope to realise the impact and vitality of projects offering alternatives to the prevailing model which have arisen in the past few years (cf. Bénédicte Manier’s gripping testimony in Un million de révolutions tranquilles [A Million Quiet Revolutions] (LLL publishers).

... but remains to be built

However, this abundance is doubly limited. It is still a scattered puzzle with each initiative so engrossed in its own projects that it is hardly aware of the broader movement. As a result, these cultural creatives or ‘ jolly cooperators’ - as I like to call them to show that they have done away both with the warlike and puritan approach of authoritarian capitalism and the ‘expiatory militancy’ of erstwhile alternative movements – believe that they are a marginal minority even though they are already among the main up-and-coming forces. Whereas surveys put them at 12 to 25%, they see themselves at 2-3%. We need to move on from a scattered puzzle to a mosaic. Indeed, we do not intend to build a uniform, hierarchical and centralised movement!

The new IT tools come in very handy here. A vast alliance of initiatives united by a charter of values and rules regarding exchange and sharing, with the use of common tools for a growing federation of the projects, would enable them to take a step back and to ‘cooperate in order to wind down’ as we said in the latest Dialogues en humanité. With its wealth of projects, events, websites, literature etc. this federation would offer its members much more than what each of the individual organisations can offer at present and pooling all the resources would make it much more cost-effective in all respects.

Sharing experiences and ‘better-being’ is the foundation stone of this movement which puts joie de vivre at the heart of the political and societal alternatives it promotes, what we playfully call the ‘Nanoub’ attitude In French (a playful contraction of “Nous allons nous faire du bien”[ii]). Joie de vivre and solidarity are the best resources to address the fear and selfish free-for-all which is likely to develop in the troubled times ahead.

One has to keep in mind that the impact of fundamentalist, authoritarian and totalitarian movements in such periods stems from their use of what Wilhelm Reich calls the ‘emotional plague’ to offer individuals deeply unsettled by the crisis a sense to their lives, a place in society, a livelihood and in some cases weapons.

Far from being luxuries which alienate us from social emergencies, joie de vivre, enjoyment/pleasure and the art of living ‘at the right time’ enable us to address these issues by opting out of fear, helplessness and despair which spawn isolation and panic.

The need to share methods to improve our relationship to our bodies, hearts and minds is greater when in a struggle against eviction or organising soups kitchens than in more mundane situations. We must stop thinking that being destitute or excluded obliterates desire or conscience - quite the reverse in fact.

The energy generated by shared joy and pleasure precludes typical compensation phenomena spawned by malaise, such as excessive self-centeredness or the power of control which have traditionally racked alternative movements, leading to despotism or totalitarianism, of which Stalinism is a monstrous symbol.

The awareness of the appropriation of wealth common among movements critical of capitalism is rarely matched by the same awareness of the appropriation of power – the key issue with communist, state socialist and hard-core environmental movements – or the appropriation of meaning, as by fundamentalist religious movements.

The creative energy which has been liberated and has not been led down yet another dead-end is now fully available to tackle the pandemic affecting those addicted to money, power and glory – addicts and dealers who deserve to be cared for but who should by no means head states, companies, international outfits or churches.

In the face of predatory behaviour, appropriation of wealth, increasing authoritarianism, moral/religious conflict, new forms of civil action need to be devised inspired by what Saul Alinsky calls ‘mass political jujitsu’ in his book Rules for Radicals, i.e. non-violent, imaginative and ... entertaining conflict.

Patrick Viveret

[1] Henryane de Chaponay : international activist born in 1924, involved in a number freedom movements across the world, including Morocco’s independence and the struggle against military dictatorships in South America. She was instrumental in creating the World Social Forum. 

[2] Danielle Mitterrand (1924-2011) : wife of former French president François Mitterrand, she supported various movements of oppressed peoples, together with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and subcommander Marcos and created the France Libertés foundation in 1986.

[3] Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013) : French-German diplomat and hero of the French resistance against the Nazi occupation of France; a leading global thinker, his short book Time for Outrage published in 2011 is said to have inspired the Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish Indignados movements.

[4] Edgar Morin (born 1921) : major French philosopher and sociologist - also a member of the French Resistance during WW II – whose books cover a vast range of fields. His remarkable work sheds a new light on how a systemic approach to our social model can help interconnect different fields of knowledge for a better understanding of the processes of change in the world today.

[5] Translator’s note : Suburbs of Europe

[i] Translator’s note  : REV, similar to ‘rêve’, i.e. ‘dream’ in French

[ii] Translator’s note : literally : “Let’s do ourselves good’’